Organic Matter

TCS Daily

June 6, 2006

University of California at Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan argues in the New York Times Sunday Magazine that, by attempting to make organic foods — now derided by many as an elitist luxury — cheap enough for the masses to afford, Wal-Mart may be undermining the very things that make organics desirable in the first place.

The retail giant has announced plans to stock a wide variety of organics in its stores later this year with prices only ten percent higher than for similar non-organic items it now carries. Pollan argues that, “To index the price of organic to the price of conventional is to give up, right from the start, on the idea, once enshrined in the organic movement, that food should be priced not high or low but responsibly.” Those who follow the teachings of Adam Smith and David Ricardo may be unacquainted with this idea. Pollan explains,

“[C]heap industrial food is cheap only because the real costs of producing it are not reflected in the price at the checkout. Rather, those costs are charged to the environment, in the form of soil depletion and pollution (industrial agriculture is now our biggest polluter); to the public purse, in the form of subsidies to conventional commodity farmers; to the public health, in the form of an epidemic of diabetes and obesity that is expected to cost the economy more than $100 billion per year; and to the welfare of the farm- and food-factory workers, not to mention the well-being of the animals we eat.”

This would make even Karl Marx’s head spin; even he didn’t factor in the happiness of livestock into the exploitative nature of capitalism.

Remember, now, at the moment most people simply cannot afford “organic” food. They’re consuming food that’s been sprayed with pesticides and prepared with preservatives to give it a long shelf life. And whatever cost to the environment that comes from these practices is already being borne. So, we’re comparing an ideal — growing foods that yield some health gains to the consumer in addition to various environmental benefits — that does not presently exist at anything but a niche level because of cost against a proposed reality where the health gains are made possible for the masses but without the ancillary environmental gain.

Pollan envisions a world where, “To supply the escalating demand for cheap organic milk, agribusiness companies are setting up 5,000-head dairies, often in the desert. These milking cows never touch a blade of grass, instead spending their days standing around a dry-lot ‘loafing area’ munching organic grain — grain that takes a toll on both the animals’ health (these ruminants evolved to eat grass, after all) and the nutritional value of their milk.” But isn’t that how affordable milk is produced now? Why don’t we compare Wal-Martized organic milk to the status quo? Presumably, that wouldn’t be as scary.

Indeed, it’s not just Wal-Mart that is threatening to institutionalize organics; it’s already happening, even at stores beloved by the granola crowd — like Whole Foods — where, Pollan informs us, “you can buy organic asparagus flown in from Argentina, raspberries from Mexico, grass-fed meat from New Zealand. In an era of energy scarcity, the purchase of such products does little to advance the ideal of sustainability that once upon a time animated the organic movement. These foods may contain no pesticides, but they are drenched in petroleum even so.” No, they’re not. They’re merely transported. But don’t we transport goods globally now in consuming non-organic foods?

Pollen sees the pressures of mass production having other effects on the organic culture, like making the rule that animals have “access to the outdoors” a matter of only technical adherence and squeezing the profits of organic farmers who would be “at Wal-Mart’s mercy when the company decides it no longer wants to pay a price that enables the farmer to make a living.”

Again, though, that’s the status quo. The question is how would mass-produced organic meat compare to mass-produced non-organic meat? And, would the niche organic products now available still be available for those willing and able to invest in ensuring that the animals grown to be killed and eaten have enjoyable lives? If so, what’s the harm?

I understand the utopian ideals that many advocates of organic foods are pushing and think many of them are worthwhile. They are not, unfortunately, economically sustainable. As Joe Carter, communications director for The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity notes, this lifestyle is mostly available to “members of the new information age elite” that David Brooks termed “bourgeois bohemians,” or “Bobos.”

I shop at Whole Foods several times a week and pay substantially more for groceries than I used to at Safeway and other supermarkets. I don’t do it because of a political agenda but because I think the food, especially the meat, tastes better. Fortunately, I live in an area where such options are available to me and where incomes are high enough that I can afford it.

Most people simply can not afford to pay $3 for a dozen eggs, $6 a pound for chicken, or $15-30 a pound for steak on a regular basis. It’s literally more expensive to buy groceries at Whole Foods and prepare your own meals than to go out to dinner at a chain restaurant like Applebee’s or Ruby Tuesdays. I couldn’t have done that on an assistant professor’s salary in south Alabama even if there was such a store available. Certainly, people working for hourly wages in the service economy couldn’t.

The perfect should not be allowed to become the enemy of the good. In an ideal world, local farmers would produce delicious foods grown without any harm to the environment at prices we could all afford while simultaneously making an excellent living. The livestock would all live happy lives, singing their little animal songs, dying a natural death and yet remaining tender and tasty. We would then get together and cook them over our campfires which produce no smoke, sing our little campsongs, and eat our meals in perfect harmony.

That world, unfortunately, does not exist.