The Way We Live Now: Produce Politics

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.

“Organic” is the oldest and by now most familiar of these labels, and it’s about to become even more commonplace, now that the federal government has finally issued its long-awaited, much-debated national organic standards. Sometime next year, a new green-and-white U.S.D.A. “organic” seal will begin to show up on everything from carrots to TV dinners and breakfast cereal, indicating that their ingredients were grown and processed without synthetic chemicals. But organic is just the earliest bud in what is beginning to look like a flowering of supermarket narrative. Lately I’ve seen labels informing me that the fish in the seafood cooler was caught in a sea-turtle-friendly net; that the coffee in the caffeine aisle has been “shade grown”; that the tea on sale next to it is not only organic but “fairly traded”; that the beef in the meat case was humanely raised; and that the apples in the produce section were locally grown by a farmer who treats his workers respectfully.

At first I wasn’t certain whether this banquet of storied food was just a marketing gimmick or the first stirrings of a new politics of food. Superficially at least, the proliferation of eco-labels is of a piece with the trend toward “liberation marketing,” in which almost everything is sold as an expression of the consumer’s sense of social justice, environmental consciousness or moral virtue. But while it is true that casting the purchase of an iMac or a pair of Nikes as an act of political courage is a gesture worse than empty (particularly when the sneakers in question were made in a sweatshop), the stories now on sale in the supermarket strike me as belonging to a very different genre. These are stories about what used to be called “the means of production,” and in a food system as troubled and opaque as ours, they can be radical indeed.

Ever since we began buying our food in supermarkets, the food chain that ostensibly links the American eater to the American land has grown steadily longer, more intricate and less legible; by now it is all but invisible to most of us. This is evidently the way agribusiness wants it, judging by the vigor with which they fight any effort to tell consumers more about how their food is made. It’s not hard to see why: the stories about our food system that do get out don’t do much for the appetite. There’s the one about how genetically engineered StarLink corn deemed unfit for human consumption somehow found its way into tacos and breakfast cereal. Then there’s the mad-cow story, which brought us the disquieting news that beef cattle in this country routinely dine not only on hormones and antibiotics but also on bits of other beef cattle (not to mention pellets made from their own manure).

Stories have a way of begetting more stories, and it is scary ones like these that have spawned the more pastoral tales told by the new food labels. The industry objects to eco-labels on the grounds that they constitute an “implicit criticism” of conventional food. They also point out that the spectacular growth of the organic industry during the last decade has been driven by “food scares.” Exactly!

Food that comes with a story—whether it’s organic, fairly traded, humanely grown, sustainably caught or whatever—represents a not-so-implicit challenge to every other product in the supermarket that dares not narrate its path from farm to table. To get some idea of the potential power of that challenge to an industry that has fought to nullify the word “organic” and now campaigns against proposals to label food made with genetically modified ingredients, consider a technology now in some supermarkets in Denmark. Packages of meat and poultry carry a bar code that, when scanned by a machine in the store, calls up pictures of the farm where the animal was raised, as well as information about its diet, living conditions, the date of its slaughter and so on. Imagine how quickly this sort of transparency would force a revolution in our food chain.

Indeed, the simple act of suggesting that such stories about our food are our business verges on sedition in an era of deregulation and free trade. It is one of the pillars of free trade that a country may not discriminate against any product based on the way it was made. “Dolphin safe” gives conniptions to the World Trade Organization, just as “Ulysses” once did to the courts. The W.T.O. doesn’t like stories.

That a growing number of consumers apparently do is alarming or encouraging, depending on what you’ve got to sell or tell. One of the many triumphs of free-market thinking over the past few years has been to redefine “the public interest” as simply whatever the public is interested in buying. Under this convenient formulation, the consumer—that one-dimensional economic actor beloved of world traders and food marketers—trumps the citizen, and the corporation can pretty much do what it wants so long as it enjoys the consent of the shopper. What the architects of this so-called market populism could never have foreseen, however, is that the sharp distinction between the roles of consumer and citizen might blur, and that the citizen—that somewhat recherche character—would actually show up in a supermarket one day. Well, here he comes now. Look for him in the produce aisle.