Friday, June 09, 2006
Primatologist Jane Goodall recently published a manifesto called "Harvest for Hope" in which she laments that "we have been hypnotized into believing that it is perfectly reasonable to walk into a supermarket and find any kind of food, from anywhere, anytime of the year." She would prefer us to "think about meals the way our ancestors did," to "preserve the local harvest by freezing fresh fruits and vegetables and leftovers," to "better endure the lean months of winter and early spring."But if organic food is healthier (Mrs. S insists so) and tastes better to many people (I happen to think so, which is why I went nuts for Trader Joe's arrival in Minneapolis, and in which I'm a little sheeping about wearing my Patriot shirt in a parking lot full of Wellstone! bumperstickers), why wouldn't markets fulfill those needs too? Of course they will. Goodall wants to withhold food from those not interested in signing up for the "organic lifestyle," like the Crunchy Cons. Organic TV dinners? How dare they!
These purists, who apparently think "lean months" build character or something like that, blame Wal-Mart (and Whole Foods and small organic farmers who sold out to big conglomerates) for defining organic down while giving customers a false impression of what organic really means. The happy leaping cow on the label of a gallon of Horizon Organic milk, they say, is no longer representative of the real lives Horizon's cows are leading.
In fact, much of the blame rests with the federal government. When the USDA released revised labeling guidelines for organic foods in 2000, a bare minimum was established. And it turned out that what Uncle Sam wanted farmers to do to earn an organic label (and thus garner a 50% premium, on average, over conventional foods) wasn't all that difficult. Additives like xanthan gum are permissible in processed foods, and many spray-on pesticides with organic precursors are completely kosher. Cows needn't be allowed to wander over photogenic green pastures; dumping organic corn into the feed trough is just as legit. By regulating organics fairly loosely, government stepped into the middle of a contentious moment in the movement's history--and wound up picking winners.
What's worse, Goodall's food bigotry favors withholding organic food from the poor.
"We don't think you should have to have a lot of money to feed your family organic foods," Wal-Mart's CEO has said. To some, this sounds like a threat--especially to the ethical eating elites who will have to find new ways of distinguishing themselves from the hoi polloi--but for most of us it sounds like good news about better food.