Tuesday, May 16, 2006

organic controversies

OK, here's another good article on food controversies, this time about organic food. Steven Shapin writes in the last issue of the New Yorker about organic food and whether it's all it's cracked up to be. I am certainly happy to buy good-quality organic food when I can, but don't usually go out of my way to do so. Here are some particularly interesting excerpts from the article, which I recommend.
In March, Wal-Mart made the remarkable announcement that it would double its organic-grocery offerings immediately. Wal-Mart is betting that, if it follows its usual practice of squeezing suppliers and cutting prices ruthlessly, the taste for organic foods will continue to spread across the social landscape. “We don’t think you should have to have a lot of money to feed your family organic foods,” its C.E.O. said at the most recent annual general meeting. (p. 84)
I think it's hard to argue that only richer people should have access to organic foods. Although Wal-Mart is not exactly a great corporate citizen in many ways, they do give generally low prices to consumers. On the other hand, it's now understood that many producers of products that Wal-Mart sells produce identical-looking but sub-standard items (thinner plastics, diluted soaps) specifically so Wal-Mart can sell them for less. (Anyone have a citation for this? I've read it several times but couldn't find a good source today.) Industrial organic food is still harvested mechanically, wrapped in plastic, and shipped around the world, even if only natural fertilizer and pesticides are used on the fields. It's worth considering what would happen to quality when Wal-Mart puts the squeeze on producers. But it may be worth the trade off if people at the poverty line can buy apples without pesticides.
The growing of the arugula is indeed organic, but almost everything else is late-capitalist business as usual. Earthbound’s compost is trucked in; the salad-green farms are models of West Coast monoculture, laser-levelled fields facilitating awesomely efficient mechanical harvesting; and the whole supply chain from California to Manhattan is only four per cent less gluttonous a consumer of fossil fuel than that of a conventionally grown head of iceberg lettuce—though Earthbound plants trees to offset some of its carbon footprint. “Organic,” then, isn’t necessarily “local,” and neither “organic” nor “local” is necessarily “sustainable.” (p. 86)
Right. I sometimes wonder if chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are the worst aspects of our current system. It might be that certain non-organic practices allow more sustainable, lower-impact farming. Maybe allowing moderate levels of nitrogen fertilizer would allow yields of otherwise organic crops to increase, allowing them to be grown in areas they otherwise couldn't, reducing the distances the crops need to be shipped to market on polluting trucks. Or perhaps using some types of herbicides wisely could reduce tilling and runoff and the depletion of topsoil.
For many fruits and vegetables, freshness, weed control, and the variety grown may be far more important to taste than whether the soil in which they were grown was dosed with ammonium nitrate. Pollan did his own taste test by shopping at Whole Foods for an all-organic meal: everything was pretty good, except for the six-dollar bunch of organic asparagus, which had been grown in Argentina, air-freighted six thousand miles to the States, and immured for a week in the distribution chain. Pollan shouldn’t have been surprised that it tasted like “cardboard.” (p. 86-87)
(This is the Pollan of the new Omnivore's Dillema book I've mentioned before.) Clearly, this is an argument for local and seasonal over strictly organic.
The organic movement that sprang up in America during the postwar years, manured by the enthusiasm of both the hippies and their New Age successors, supplemented Howard’s ideas of soil health with the imperative that the scale should be small and the length of the food chain from farm to consumer short. You were supposed to know who it was that produced your food, and to participate in a network of trust in familiar people and transparent agricultural practices. A former nutritionist at Columbia, who went on to grow produce upstate, recalls, “When we said organic, we meant local. We meant healthful. We meant being true to the ecologies of regions. We meant mutually respectful growers and eaters. We meant social justice and equality.” (p. 87)
All of this is fantastic.... and expensive, compared to the industrial agriculture that allows us to feed 6 billion people with surpluses left over. How can we balance the need to actually feed everyone with the equally important need to have a sustainable and healthy food system?
Given the way the world now is, sustainably grown and locally produced organic food is expensive. Genetically modified, industrially produced monocultural corn is what feeds the victims of an African famine, not the gorgeous organic technicolor Swiss chard from your local farmers’ market. (p. 88)
Yep. I don't know the right balance here, but I do think it's important to be aware of the complexities.

OK, I'll get away from controversies and back to writing about actual cooking very soon!

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