An Organic Chicken in Every Pot

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. For better or worse (and surely it will be both), Wal-Mart will for the first time bring organics into the mainstream, putting food grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in reach of nearly all Americans. (The company aims to keep the price premium over conventional products to 10 percent.) Wal-Mart will single-handedly upend the argument that organic food is elitist.

This is very good news for American consumers and for the American land. Or perhaps I should say, for some of the American land and a great deal of the land in places like China and Mexico, because Wal-Mart will hasten the globalization of organic food. (Today, 10 percent of the organic foods in our markets is imported.) Like any other commodity that multinational companies lay their hands on, organic food will henceforth come from anywhere in the world it can be produced most cheaply, because the land and the labor there is cheaper than it is here. Organic food will go the way of sneakers or consumer electronics — yet another rootless commodity circulating in the global economy.

Oh, wait… I was talking about the good that will come of Wal-Mart’s commitment to organic. Sorry about that. But in global capitalism it’s often hard to separate the good news from the bad. I’ll try again. . . .

Because of its scale, efficiency and ruthlessness, Wal-Mart will force down the price of organics, and that is a good thing for consumers who can’t afford to spend any more for food than they already do. Wal-Mart will also educate Americans – many of whom have yet to learn what organic food is and how it differs from conventionally grown food.

This is an unalloyed good for the world’s environment, since it will result in less pesticide and chemical fertilizer being applied to land somewhere. Whatever you think of the prospect of organic Coca Cola, when it comes – and it will come – thousands of acres of the world’s corn fields (needed to make all that organic high fructose corn syrup) will no longer receive a shower of Atrazine. Okay, I know, you’re probably registering some cognitive dissonance at the conjunction of the words “organic” and “high fructose corn syrup” — but keep your eye for a moment on that Atrazine.

Atrazine is an herbicide commonly applied to cornfields in America (it’s been banned in Europe as a suspected carcinogen), and traces of it show up in our water and food. Does that matter? Well, at concentrations as slight as .10 part per billion, Atrazine in the water has been shown to chemically emasculate frogs, turning healthy males into hermaphrodites. I don’t know about you, but I sort of like the idea of keeping such a molecule out of my teenage son’s diet, even if the nutritionists say they don’t have any proof organic food is any healthier. (The Times’ story about Wal-Mart’s organic initiative, which appeared on the newspaper’s front page, cited unnamed nutritionists who claimed the “health benefits of [many organic foods] are negligible.”) Do you really need to wait for scientific proof (which would mean testing these chemicals directly on human subjects) that keeping such chemicals out of your family’s food is a good idea? The fact that low-income Americans will soon be able to make the same choice I have been making strikes me as positive and important.

The Times’ coverage of Wal-Mart’s plans was notable for its values-free attitude toward organics. In this it reflected the corporate relativism fashionable among the big companies now rushing into the organic marketplace. They have little choice but to sit firmly on the fence when it comes to making any objective claims about the superiority of organics. (Said one Wal-Mart executive, “Organic agriculture is just another method of agriculture – not better, not worse.”) How do you introduce organic Coco Puffs without implying that there’s something wrong with, or less-wonderful about, conventional Cocoa-Puffs? You adopt the postmodern perspective of the marketer, for whom consumer choice is a matter of self-expression that has nothing to do with old-fashioned ideas of “better” and “worse.” When I was writing about the industrialization of organics in The New York Times Magazine five years ago, I spent a lot of time with the executives at General Mills, who had just acquired an organic division. From the chairman on down, no one wanted to answer the straightforward question, “Is organic food better than conventional food?” To a man (and they were nearly all men), they said things like, “If you think organic food is better, then it’s better.” Organic was, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder, purely subjective. Until, that is, I got to the basement laboratory, where the scientist in quality control whose job it was to make sure the levels of toxic pesticide in the breakfast cereal do not exceed federal tolerances, looked at me as if I were dense. The mass spectrometer offered a decidedly pre-post-modern picture of reality. When I asked whether the machine could discern any difference in organic foods, the scientist said, plainly, “Well, they don’t contain pesticide.”

So don’t believe the marketing talk that organic is just another lifestyle choice: it is, for all its limitations, a better agriculture and, if you care about ingesting neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors and carcinogens, an unambiguously better kind of food to eat. That more Americans will now be able to make that choice is something to cheer. As I suggested, however, there are problems with the Wal-Martization of organic food, and I will address those in a subsequent post.