Every few months, my friend Jack and I go to the farmer’s market to have an argument. The market itself is nice enough, with many stalls and OK food, but the air of the virtue and righteousness is unbearable. That’s what Jack is after. When people think they’re right, he says, they’re asking for a fight.
When we went there recently we came upon a stall with a hand-written sign that said 100% Organic Vegetables. A sallow man managed the stall. His name was Herbert — it said so on a sticker stuck to his jersey.
Jack eyed Herb.
“What does this mean,” he asked, pointing at the sign. “100% organic?”
“Well —” Herb began.
“I mean, all vegetables are organic.”
Herb was taken aback by this sacrilege.
“Most certainly not!” he sputtered. “The pesticides used by industrial farmers —”
Jack waved this away.
“Pesticides, schmesticides,” he said. “You probably use copper or sulphur, which is just as bad. What I’m —”
“It’s not!” Herb snapped.
He came around the table with a large carrot in his hand.
“We use only natural fertiliser,” he added and nodded as though he’d just sealed the argument.
“Well,” Herb said with some surprise, “yes — and compost.”
“What I’m asking,” Jack said after a few moments, eyeing the carrot, “is whether you can show me inorganic vegetables? Vegetables are 100% organic, by definition. You know, carbon-based and so on. You’ve stolen the term organic.”
Herb darkened visibly. Jack had attacked his stall and the principles of organic farming, and called him a thief. He pointed at Jack with the carrot but before he could respond, Jack continued.
“Forget all that,” he said. “I want tomatoes, like these.”
He indicated some very red tomatoes arranged in a basket.
“But,” he stipulated as he raised his voice, “I don’t want genetically modified ones.”
Herb reacted as though Jack had suggested a round of sodomy.
“What!?” he quaked, almost beside himself. He poked at the tomatoes with the carrot. “These are 100% non-GMO and 100% organic!”
Jack picked up a tomato.
“Of course they’re organic, like I said. But they’ve been tampered with. I want unmodified tomatoes.”
“These tomatoes are not genetically modified!” Herb choked.
He put the carrot down on the table to make his point, but then he picked it up again.
“Really?” Jack asked calmly. “No one has messed with this tomato?”
By now a few regulars had gathered and stood around us. Some of them looked ready to lynch Jack. There was an extremely fat man who wore his trousers around what passed for his equator.
“These are not genetically modified,” he wheezed. “I buy them all the time. They’re natural and growing them has a much smaller impact on the environment than genetically modified, mass-produced tomatoes.”
Jack took a moment to look the man over.
“Jesus,” he remarked, “fancy that. Your own impact must be considerable. You’re not just a person, man, you’re a place.”
Herb snapped the carrot in half.
“How dare you —?” someone gasped.
“When we started eating tomatoes,” Jack resumed, looking around, “they were the size of cherry tomatoes, and yellow. We’ve modified them to look like this.”
By now the fat man had recovered.
“Excuse me —” he began.
“That’s quite OK,” Jack replied. “These ears of corn used to be as long as my thumb before we messed with them.”
“Excuse me!” the fat man wheezed.
“And that carrot,” Jack continued, pointing at the stub of the carrot that Herb still clutched in his hand, “used to be gnarly and white.”
Herb, who had meanwhile picked up an ear of corn, looked at the carrot in surprise. A wiry man stepped forward.
“Nobody changed the DNA of these tomatoes,” he said.
“Ah!” Jack said. “DNA, at last, in a place like this!”
“That’s right!” Herb cried, encouraged by the newcomer. “Tell him.”
The fat man was trying to speak but he didn’t get a chance.
“Of course,” Jack agreed. “No one has furtively put some seaweed’s DNA for antifreeze into this tomato.”
“That’s what I mean,” the wiry man said, looking satisfied.
Herb looked slightly less than satisfied with this.
“Er —” he started.
“What he says is true,” Jack said, beaming around. “But we’ve modified it. Just like we’ve engineered a Chihuahua from the DNA of a Mediterranean wolf, so we’ve engineered these tomatoes.”
Herb looked even less satisfied. He snatched the tomato from Jack’s hand.
“It’s not genetically modified,” he insisted.
“I wouldn’t use the word engineered,” the wiry man said.
“I —” the fat man tried.
“But you might as well,” Jack said. “Where do you think that weed got the DNA for antifreeze from?”
“What weed?” a hippy-type muttered to his girlfriend.
“Nature engineered it,” Jack continued. “Nature leaned on the weed until the weed made that DNA. It’s called natural selection. We could lean on a tomato until it made the same antifreeze as well, but we don’t have the time. We want a faster trip.”
“Yeah!” said the hippy.
“It’s not modified —” Herb mumbled.
“You should change your sign,” Jack interrupted. “It should read 100% Modified Vegetables. That’s a sign we can be proud of.”
A short, leathery woman pushed through the crowd and poked Jack in the ribs. He had to lean down to face her.
“You’re an asshole,” she declared.
She had a grating voice, the kind women get when they shout at small dogs.
“And a weed.”
The fat man coughed and Jack began to laugh. He couldn’t help himself.
“You really think so?” he asked her.
“Yeah,” she rasped. “A complete asshole.”
“I know,” Jack laughed. “I’m sorry. But a weed?”
“A tall one,” she said and folded her arms. “Someone’s gonna lean on you.”
“I love this place,” Jack said as we walked away. “We should come here more often.”