Is Organic Food a Laughable Bourgeois Fad?

Stanford University
Stanford University (Photo credit: alexispz)
Recently, a famous opinion writer of the New York Times, Roger Cohen, attacked organic food twice on the basis of of a Stanford University research concluding that it has no nutritional advantage over products of traditional agriculture using pesticides and chemical additives, including hormones.

In short, organically grown food is not healthier. As Cohen put it,  it's the "romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it", it's "a fable of the pampered parts of the planet - romantic and comforting". Now he's done it again (see here), claiming he's added at least one important fact to his store of knowledge: "Hell hath no fury like an organic eater spurned".

Indeed, Roger Cohen has twice spurned organic food, fuming "organic, schmorganic" and drawing after his first attack an amazing tsunami of angry comments and blog posts. He's being accused of disinformation, of being asinine, of making the media look "out of touch with reality". (see articles below)

Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem
Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So where do we really stand in this maelstrom of accusations? Much of it is clearly nonsense, and I'm afraid that Cohen who's an op-ed columnist I normally read with pleasure put his foot in it. He's focused his whole argument solely on nutritional value when that is not the point for confirmed organic eaters (disclosure: I'm one of them, I worked 25 years for FAO, the UN Ogranisation for Food and Agriculture, I've rubbed shoulders with nutritionists and agricultural experts, and I think I know a thing or two about organic agriculture).

The nutritional value of organic produce is (about) the same. Surprised? A tomato is a tomato, the vitamin C in it is (more or less) the same, full stop. The problem with modern agriculture is elsewhere: all those chemical additives that are added, from pesticides to fertilizers, from antibiotics to hormones. Any organic eater will tell you he/she is willing to spend more to have chemical-free stuff in their plate. Also, it happens to taste better (that's no small advantage in my view - I love to eat well!)

Moreover in FAO where I worked, organic agriculture was viewed as a major piece of experimental agriculture needed to arrive at a modern agriculture capable of feeding the explosively growing world population - because there's a problem with pesticides and other chemicals: after a while, they don't work, productivity goes down. So you need to reduce the use of chemicals and rely whenever possible on organic agricultural techniques. Also OGMs, long thought to be a solution (by incorporating insect-resistent genes in the plant etc), look now like they are hitting a wall: there's increasing evidence that they may have other very worrying side-effects on human health. In France, some serious research was recently done on rats fed with genetically modified maize and it showed beyond any reasonable doubt that OGM corn had devastating effects on their kidneys, that it caused tumors and was in fact cancerogenous. This of course has fueled once more the debate in Europe where OGMs have long been resisted  on the basis of the "cautionary principle" and European Union institutions are now considering banning the import and consumption of OGM plants altogether, a difficult decision considering how much of  modern agriculture economically depends on them.
English: Riesling vine in organic agriculture,...
Riesling vine in organic agriculture, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Stanford study that is causing so much debate in the US  is not new research but a meta-analysis (i.e. it pulled together data from 237 recent studies to permit a balanced overview and evaluation of the question). Actually, on closer examination its findings comfort as much organic eaters as organic haters of the Roger Cohen variety. For a NYT summary of the Stanford study conclusions, see here.

Notice something unusual? Yes, the title of the article: "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce". That, simply put, is very misleading. The study does not actually question the advantages of organic agriculture. It found that organic produce was less likely (and that's to be expected) to retain traces of pesticides; that organic pork and chicken were less likely to be contaminated by antibiotic resistent bacteria; that organic milk contained more Omega 3 acids considered beneficial for the heart. The Stanford scientists also found (in the words of the NYT article) that "38 percent of conventional produce tested in the studies contained detectable residues, compared with 7 percent for the organic produce. (Even produce grown organically can be tainted by pesticides wafting over from a neighboring field or during processing and transport.) They also noted a couple of studies that showed that children who ate organic produce had fewer pesticide traces in their urine."

Actually, as the NYT article points out,  reduction of exposure to pesticides is a major reason to move to organic food, especially for pregnant women and their young children. Last year,  three studies by scientists at Columbia University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan showed that children of pregnant women exposed to higher amounts of pesticides known as organophosphates, had on average, in elementary school, I.Q.’s several points lower than those of their peers.

It is curious that a study with such supportive conclusions for organic eaters should have been presented in this negative light - but then, we all know that good news are no news...Personally, I would like to add that the Stanford study was deficient in other respects as well:
(1) it did not take into account factors like taste;
(2) lumping together studies can lead to conclusions looking stronger than they actually are (for example, it erroneously left out a study on strawberries showing that organic ones contained more vitamin C than conventional ones);
(3) it concluded that the level of pesticide residue, while higher in conventional fruits and vegetables, was almost always under the allowed safety limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency - the implication being that it did no harm to humans.

That is an implication I would contest. It overlooks the result of eating such food overtime with the consequent accumulation of residues in our organism. Ditto for hormones.  Perhaps the Stanford scientists couldn't find any study addressing this kind of issue: the effects of chemical additives over time.

Have you ever wondered why we suffer from an obesity epidemic that no amount of dieting seems to solve and that it happens by chance to coincide with the rise of modern agriculture and the explosive use of chemicals? Now is that really a chance coincidence? Moreover the epidemic started in the United States and is now spreading to Europe, neatly reflecting the timing in the birth and growth of "big modern agriculture" on both sides of the Atlantic pond...But of course, there's still no definitive study on the effects of growth hormones that we get from the meat we eat, or for that matter, on possible cancerous effects.

Perhaps there are some vested interests slowing down research, but we don't believe in conspiracies now, do we? 

To my friends and followers:
TOMORROW (October 1) THE PRICE DOUBLES! Hurry to get your copy.
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A World Threatened by War Needs a Savvy American President

Oil painting by Claude Nougat (2005- Afghanistan)
Ours is a world threatened by war yet foreign policy is hardly at the heart of the American elections except every once in while (e.g. when the American Ambassador to Libya was killed). That is a pity. Because what the world needs is for the biggest military power on earth to be guided by someone who knows what he's doing. Someone with knowledge and experience, with a historical memory, with a capacity to evaluate a situation quickly and dispassionately. Yes, control over emotions is paramount.

Of the two candidates, which is the better one? Obama we know, we are well aware that he "leads from behind". Some people try to make it sound negative but it really means several very positive things: he doesn't rush into a situation, he first watches what is happening, he listens to different opinions, he evaluates and takes a decision only after having duly reflected on it. He doesn't go at it alone, he likes to work in concert with America's allies, including within the United Nations. This is in line with what the international community expects of its most powerful member. He's a reliable partner and a thoughtful one who puts the people's needs and welfare upfront.

Romney, on the other hand, is a wild card. And he's shown that he understands precious little of either foreign policy or how to go about it. He accumulates gaffes (e.g. when he told Londoners that they'd made mistakes in organizing the Olympics) and he seems stuck back in time, in the Cold War. He views Russia and China as America's arch enemies. He's a staunch supporter of Israel - nothing unusual here, America traditionally supports Israel - but he's taken it one step further, saying that he saw no possibility of ever resolving the conflict with Palestine. Rejecting the two state solution from the outset means destroying any possibility of negotiation and being open to the idea of a never-ending war. Can Israel really afford a 100 years war and survive in the long term?

Aren't we all supposed to try and make our world peaceful?  

Hot spots are multiplying, from Syria and Mali (both embroiled in civil war) to China and Japan contending for rocks in the South China Sea (but they do come with resources), and of course, Israel threatening Iran because of its nuclear pretensions and Iran angrily countering back. This has always been a warring planet - according to the Uppsala Conflict Data program and other United Nations sources, there are at anytime always at least some 20 on going conflicts around the world, and ever since the US started on its "global war on terror" (Iraq and Afghanistan) there is strong expectation that more wars will come over the next four years, notably against Iran . Refugee camps are expanding faster than Internet, and emergency aid has never been so active.  Intolerance is on the rise, Muslims react ever more violently to pamphlets, films and cartoons satirizing their religion and Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, would like to see criticism of Muslims banned worldwide, saying  "the West hasn’t recognized Islamophobia as a crime against humanity – it has encouraged it.” 

With world population growing explosively and youth unemployment on the rise everywhere shutting out any chance at a decent living, it should come as no surprise that we are continually on the brink of war or actually thrown in it.

Which is precisely why we - the whole world -  desperately need an American President who is a compassionate, balanced individual, not a warmonger. 

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To Avoid Marketing Pitfalls on the Net, Tip #1: Watch What you Click!

On my Amazon page yesterday, I couldn't believe it: a naked woman, crouching and looking sexy had replaced my sedate author picture. Judge for yourself:

That's not me, that was never me, help! My site had been hacked, I was sure of it. I ran to Twitter and shared my alarm with a raffle of anxious tweets!

But wait a minute. 

That picture is a painting of mine! Sure, look here:

It's that sexy nude that plays a pivotal role in A Hook in the Sky (for fictional purposes, it is meant to be painted by my protagonist). Did some nasty trickster copy it from Picasa album (where I keep my photos online) and paste it over my photo? Someone with a deviant sexual obsession? All sorts of wild theories flashed through my mind as I walked over to the hairdresser and had a haircut.

I couldn't wait to get back to my computer and try and figure out what had happened. I was certain I'd have to do all sorts of difficult things like change my password and warn Amazon...

Well, once I looked at it from the inside (going in editing mode), I realized I was the unwitting culprit of this mess: I had uploaded pictures related to my book in the wrong order, giving first place to the naked woman...So the sexy lady turned up on the author page and I didn't. Mea culpa!

I made the change, if you go now to my page you'll see it's all in order, click here...I do look rather boring, don't I? All the steamy sex is gone, sigh...It would have been more fun if I'd been really hacked or better still, if she'd been the author, right? An Indie author gone stark raving mad, showing off naked, why not? After 50 Shades, anything goes, that would have been a real marketing scoop!

Moral of the story: in the heat of promoting your book and getting your Amazon author page to look perfect, make sure you upload your book-related pictures in the right order! More generally: whatever you click, check it again...

Did anything silly like this ever happen to you?

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Baby Boomer Novels: an Explosive New Genre in Book Publishing

Amazon and other publishers take note: Baby Boomer novels, or BB novels, are about to storm the publishing scene! Actually Hollywood has already caught on and has recently been churning out movies clearly aimed at a senior audience, reaping success, most recently with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel about British retirees cavorting in India, featuring a top-notch cast of veteran actors including Judy Dench and Maggie Smith, both 76. Other noteworthy are RED (ex-Cia agents on the rampage with Bruce Willis and a fantastic Hellen Mirren) and Larry Crowne (a middle-aged Tom Hanks goes back to college after being fired and whizzes around on a vespa with Julie Roberts). The list is long and I'm sure you can add to it your own favorite movie featuring greying heads!

OLD AGE CAN BE FUN, FREE TO DO WHAT YOU WANT...BUT WHAT DO YOU WANT? (Photo credit: roberthuffstutter)
As reported by the media research firm GfK MRI (see Brooks Barnes NYT article, 25/2/2011) the percentage of American moviegoers in the over 50 population has grown explosively since 1995: up 67 percent by 2010! That means some 45 million people went to the movies that year as opposed to 27 million fifteen years ago. A sea-change!

Aging is no longer something one doesn't talk about except in whispers. On the contrary! The advertising and cosmetics industries are already aware that there's a huge market out there, with the wave of retiring boomers.

But let's go through the facts one by one.

Start with demography, yes, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, "it's the demography, stupid!" The bulge in the population pyramid that was created by the post-WWII surge in births is now entering the third stage in life. The data is clear: as of now, the year of grace 2012, the American population 50 years old and over has hit 100 million. It's a tsunami: each year more than 3.5 million boomers turn 55. And if you're 65, expect to live 19 years more! Ditto for Europe and Japan, the latter with the highest proportion of elderly of any nation today. Even China is facing the issue of a fast-aging population, exacerbated by its one child population policy causing the number of young adults to plummet.

Remember how boomers when they came of age some 45 years ago brought vast changes to the economy and cultural life? We got the civil rights movement, feminism, the greens etc. Monica Williams-Murphy, an emergency physician and author of It’s OK to Die, fully expects them to transform end-of-life care and "seek more control over the dying process", even the creation of a "natural death movement" (see KevinMD.com)

And I fully expect boomers to transform the way we read. Consider: 45 years ago they launched and sustained a new genre YA (or Young Adults) novels. Sure, the concept of fiction focused on the problems of youth and aimed at a young audience had been around for a long time (think of Dickens' Great Expectations). In 1951, Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was published and it was a turning point. In the 1960s YA literature as such came into its own and only grew further in the 1970s to become a top selling genre (until recently - now it seems to be slowing down, but that's another story for another post).

Now boomers are bound to launch and sustain novels that cater to their interests and anxieties. What to do after retirement or rather, how to keep working and start a second life? 25% claim they will never stop working (according to a 2011 Associated Press and LifeGoesStrong.com survey). Other questions include how to meaningfully relate to the young? How to cope with a failing marriage? How to maintain good health (and yes, for many, plastic surgery to maintain a youthful look...) How to face illness and death?  

Hence the birth of the BB novel. I've already mentioned in previous posts Deborah Moggach and Louis Begley as  leading exponents in this new genre. I'm sure you can think of others and please add them in your comments below!

No doubt my latest novel, A Hook in the Sky, is quintessentially a BB novel. Would you believe it? When I published it, it hit  #11 on Kindle's best selling list for the category of...aging! Yes I know, this is weird. But I had a categorizing difficulty here: there's no fiction yet that is classified as "coming-of-old-age" - so to try and find a category in Kindle that zeroes in on senior citizens I had to pick "aging", as of now a non-fiction category. But clearly people looking for serious stuff to investigate the last slice of life must have stumbled on my book...Thank you to all of you who bought it, and let me know what you think of it!

Just in case you think BB novels are reserved for the old and grey among us, well, you're in for a surprise. Just as adults read YA novels, young adults read BB novels. I've had the proof of this at a meeting on Goodreads (held 18 September) with author Deborah Moggach: a 15 year-old told her that her book had given her "an insight to the thoughts and feelings of the older generation in Britain, which I really liked, as it is something you don't usually read, or see in a film these days!"

Indeed, "something you don't usually read or see in a film"... but it is bound to happen more and more often, I'm sure of it. 

What is your view? Do you agree that BB novels are a new, fast-rising genre?

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How Amazon Helps You Discover Books

There are three ways in which Amazon supports book discovery: customer reviews, the "like" button similar to the Facebook one and the "tags". Customer reviews have been recently bashed in the blogosphere with several bloggers coming up with evidence of unethical behavior from authors and in some cases a flood of favorable reviews that clearly come from friends or have been paid for. It seems that best-selling author John Locke has admitted to buying 300 reviews...

I won't pronounce myself on all this except to say that we authors really appreciate when a reader leaves a review - it's nice to know there's somebody out there who likes your work enough to make the effort of putting pen on paper! And if there's no time to write a review, hopefully the reader would go back to the book's site on Amazon and click the "like" button!
Available on Amazon at a special launch
price for a limited period for
 friends, blog readers and
Twitter followers !

But as I recently uploaded two books on Amazon (see cover above and in right margin the Amazon "buy" icons: A HOOK IN THE SKY, a BB novel and TWISTED, Four Tales of Love and Hate - yeah! Victory cry!! They're out!!!), I became almost painfully aware of the third important Amazon tool for book discovery: the tags.

Let me explain. I say "painfully" because tags are words most used in searching for books and they are meant to describe your book's contents and that's no easy or obvious task. For example, A Hook in the Sky, is a love story, but it's much, much more! It's about aging and trying to start a second life after retirement, it's about contemporary art and the place of Art in our lives, it's about a marriage falling apart, it's about a young woman in love with a much older man! Same with Twisted, these are very contemporary, psychological, suspenseful short stories.

Amazon allows you to indicate up to 7 tags when you upload your book to KDP, their publishing platform. But it doesn't stop there. Once your book is up, you can add tags again after the description section, i.e. the 7 tags you've used before when uploading plus others at will. So, in practice, you can have about a dozen of words to describe your book.

This is very useful, since a 68,000 words-plus book (like my Hook) easily needs a dozen words to describe it! But let's consider how the tag system works. Because once you the author have put up the tags you want, others (the readers) are free to add tags of their own and click the ones they think best fit your book (not necessarily all of them, some tags get clicked more than others). So over time, the tags associated with your book evolve, the longer your book is up there on Amazon, the more meaningful the tags become. And since they're the result of contributions from readers and turn up automatically in Amazon's computers, presumably tags can't be gamed.

Some authors try to get their friends to click on tags in the (probably mistaken) idea that this can change something and kick your book up in the classification...But what classification? This has nothing to do with ranking; it's meant as a book discovery searching system to try and help readers zero in on desired content (there's a box to search products by tags). It's difficult to see how it can be gamed and I sincerely hope it's not! If you know of any instances where the tags have been somehow subverted, please tell us in the comments!

Amazon also helps you when you tag by showing you a cloud of tags, with the most popular ones in bold letters and bigger than the others. Currently the most popular tags on Amazon suggest that the following types of books are most sought after:
  1. highest ranking (more recently used): adventure, comedy, fantasy fiction, Kindle freebie, paranormal romance, romance, science fiction, suspense, thriller
  2. second highest : action, children's books, christianity, historical fiction, history, horror, humor, mystery, erotic romance, erotica (here's the 50 Shades effect!), romantic suspense, vampire, inspirational
  3. third highest (and less recently used): Christian fiction, family, love, magic, contemporary romance, historical romance, vampire romance, romantic suspense, young adult
Much further down you get things like contemporary fiction, post-apocalyptic, urban fantasy or World War II.

Obviously such a cloud is subject to daily change and fluctuations, but the very tags chosen by people in their searches are interesting and suggest that changes are afoot in readers' preferences. For example, it is surprising how Young Adult and vampire romance have lost ground or how  erotic romance and erotica are not quite as high as you might expect given the incredible success of 50 Shades of Grey with over 12,000 customer reviews and over 2,000 likes!

Overall, the impression is that people who read fiction are looking to be entertained above all else. I can't blame them, that's my case too! Fiction is for fun - it can make you cry or laugh but it should never be boring! Certainly when I write that's what I strive for. And whenever I find that my first draft bores me, it goes in the trash can and I write something else!
What do you look for in a book?

PS. Here are some pictures of my HOOK IN THE SKY setting that you might enjoy (this is the Umbria where my protagonist, Robert runs to everytime things go wrong for him (which is quite often...):
A HOOK IN THE SKY Robert's Umbria
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Book Cover Survey Results: The Way Forward!

Book covers are the doors to your books, all writers know that and worry about them. The rules for good book cover design are quite simple:
(1) reflect the genre or mood of the book, and for digital books especially,
(2) no clutter
(3) big, legible fonts that can be read even when the cover is the size of a postage stamp on your Kindle.

That's all.

Simple? No, I got myself into quite a funk trying to figure out which cover would be better for my next novel A HOOK IN THE SKY: a hook (in the sky of course) or a female nude (my aged protag's young lover)?

Readers of my blog know I ran a poll last week. My Twitter followers also know that a friend who runs the immensely useful site listing every day "The Best Free Kindle Books"  (the "list that Amazon does not give to the Book Lover") also set up a poll presenting both my covers, plus a useful answer I had forgotten to include in my own poll: "neither" giving you the chance to answer in case you didn't like either covers. Let me take the opportunity here to warmly thank everyone who voted, that was a big help!

Results of the polls? Very interesting! On my blog, 58% of voters went for the nude - but the sample is very small, just 31 votes, so not very reliable. On The Best Free Kindle Books site, the poll was far more consistent: 122 votes, divided like this (on 4 September, when the poll was taken down after 2 days):
  The Hook:  50.9%
  The Nude:  23,2%
  Neither:      25,9%

A quarter of the voters liked neither! Indeed, the nude (that had done so well on my blog) was losing out! Hey, nobody likes naked women? Just kidding!

Clearly, I needed to think up a new cover and I had to take all this into account. I turned to the comments and while I'm not going to go through all of them here - but I do want to thank all of you for making comments, it was truly most helpful! - I'd like to zero in on a particular one that seemed to reflect many others. Author Joseph Badal, whose judgment I respect, told me he liked neither cover but he said: "I liked what you wrote about Robert and the ladders. That's what I would put on the cover."

Robert (that's my protag, a cosmopolitan Frenchman who retires from the UN) certainly has a thing about ladders. Indeed, "A Hook in the Sky" is the name he gave to his art installation, a jumble of ladders reaching up to a hook. He came up with that wild idea in the hope of winning back his wife, a chic Manhattan socialite who runs a successful contemporary art gallery in Chelsea. Because, until the moment he dreamt up his Hook installation, the marriage was on the verge of collapse. It seemed that all he did with his wife was fight over art - when in fact they were fighting over their relationship. His wife loves the idea, she sees it as a symbol of the human search for something higher in life, something you reach for and can never quite grab (the hook is too far above the topmost ladder)...Will this be enough to save their marriage?

Ok, a jumble of ladders and a hook. Here's what I came up with:

Now of course, the title fonts need to be added, A HOOK IN THE SKY in the upper part, my name at the bottom. But do you like the illustration? I'd love to know what you think! Here's a quick poll to give your opinion:

How does the ladders and hook illustration strike you as a book cover?
pollcode.com free polls 

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