Topic: Sustainable Agriculture & Organics
At the risk of sounding more equivocal than any self-respecting blogger is expected to sound, I’m going to turn my attention from the benefits of Wal-Mart’s decision to enter the organic food market to its costs. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the advantage of making organic food accessible to more Americans is outweighed by the damage Wal-Mart may do to the practice and meaning of organic food production. The trade-offs are considerable.
Let’s take another look at “the elitism question” – the idea, trumpeted by the industrial food companies and their defenders – that because organic and other alternative foods cost more, they’re an upper middle class luxury or, worse, affectation. It is true that organic food historically has cost significantly more than conventional food, but now that retailers like Wal-Mart have decided to move aggressively into organics, as reported in Friday’s New York Times, that is about to change.
To someone who’s spent the last few years thinking about the American food chain, a visit to Manhattan’s Union Square in the spring of 2006 feels a little like a visit to Paris in the spring of 1968 must have felt, or perhaps closer to the mark, Peoples Park in Berkeley in the summer of 1969. Not that I was in either of those places at the appointed historical hour, or that the stakes are quite as high.
I might never have found my way to Polyface Farm if Joel Salatin hadn’t refused to FedEx me one of his chickens.
The first time I heard about the Slow Food movement, recently arrived on our shores from its native Italy, I thought the whole idea sounded cute. Here were a bunch of well-heeled foodies getting together to celebrate the fast-disappearing virtues of the slow life: traditional foods traditionally prepared and eaten at leisurely communal meals.
The first time I opened Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation,” I was dining alone at the Palm, trying to enjoy a rib-eye steak cooked medium-rare. If this sounds like a good recipe for cognitive dissonance (if not indigestion), that was sort of the idea. Preposterous as it might seem, to supporters of animal rights, what I was doing was tantamount to reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on a plantation in the Deep South in 1852.
On the second day of spring, Joel Salatin is down on his belly getting the ant’s-eye view of his farm. He invites me to join him, to have a look at the auspicious piles of worm castings, the clover leaves just breaking, and the two inches of fresh growth that one particular blade of grass has put on in the five days since this paddock was last grazed.
Almost overnight, the amount and variety of organic food on offer in my local supermarket has mushroomed. Fresh produce, milk, eggs, cereal, frozen food, even junk food—all of it now has its own organic doppelganger, and more often than not these products wind up in my shopping cart. I like buying organic, for the usual salad of rational and sentimental reasons. At a time when the whole food system feels somewhat precarious, I assume that a product labeled organic is more healthful and safer, more “wholesome,” though if I stop to think about it, I’m not exactly sure what that means. I also like the fact that by buying organic, I’m casting a vote for a more environmentally friendly kind of agriculture: “Better Food for a Better Planet,” in the slogan of Cascadian Farm, one of the older organic brands.
Whenever I go to the supermarket these days, I collect labels. No, I’m not saving up box tops in order to get a decoder ring from Battle Creek. The sort of labels I collect now promise something else, a slightly different decoding. Each of them tells me a little story about where the food I’m buying comes from and how it has been produced.
Planting Today I planted something new in my vegetable garden — something very new, as a matter of fact. It’s a potato called the New Leaf Superior, which has been genetically engineered — by Monsanto, the chemical giant recently turned ”life sciences” giant — to produce its own insecticide. This it can do in every