Monday, June 12, 2006

no wal-mart organic for me

From The New York Times Magazine last week: One good reason I'll stick to shopping at our local food co-op.

It seems Wal-Mart is going to start selling organic foods at more affordable prices than people are used to seeing. Sounds good on the surface. However, as author Michael Pollan writes:
"Before you pour yourself a celebratory glass of Wal-Mart organic milk, you might want to ask a few questions about how the company plans to achieve its laudable goals. Assuming that it's possible at all, how exactly would Wal-Mart get the price of organic food down to a level just 10 percent higher than that of its everyday food? To do so would virtually guarantee that Wal-Mart's version of cheap organic food is not sustainable, at least not in any meaningful sense of that word. 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. As the organic movement has long maintained, cheap 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 ...

To say you can sell organic food for 10 percent more than you sell irresponsibly priced food suggests that you don't really get it — that you plan to bring business-as-usual principles of industrial 'efficiency' and 'economies of scale' to a system of food production that was supposed to mimic the logic of natural systems rather than that of the factory.

We have already seen what happens when the logic of the factory is applied to organic food production. The industrialization of organic agriculture, which Wal-Mart's involvement will only deepen, has already given us 'organic feedlots' — two words that I never thought would find their way into the same clause. 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 this is the sort of milk (deficient in beta-carotene and the 'good fats' — like omega 3's and C.L.A. — that come from grazing cows on grass) we're going to see a lot more of in the supermarket as long as Wal-Mart determines to keep organic milk cheap."

And what about meat? So-called "free-range" animals that make it onto Wal-Mart's shelves are not likely to breathe much fresh air — or eat the foods they normally would:
"Whether produced domestically or not, organic meat will increasingly come not from mixed, polyculture farms growing a variety of species (a practice that makes it possible to recycle nutrients between plants and animals) but from ever-bigger Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFO's, which, apart from using organic feed and abjuring antibiotics, are little different from their conventional counterparts. Yes, the federal organic rules say the animals should have 'access to the outdoors,' but in practice this often means providing them with a tiny exercise yard or, in the case of one organic egg producer in New England, a screened-in concrete 'porch' — a view of the outdoors. Herein lies one of the deeper paradoxes of practicing organic agriculture on an industrial scale: big, single-species CAFO's are even more precarious than their conventional cousins, since they can't use antibiotics to keep the thousands of animals living in close confinement indoors from becoming sick. So organic CAFO-hands (to call them farmhands seems overly generous) keep the free ranging to a minimum and then keep their fingers crossed."

Call me a snob — and I don't think I am — but I would rather give up other luxuries around the house and pay more for food than support the industrialization of organic farming.


Ellen said...

Yeah Em! It's so sad to see how America's relationship with food has become so commercialized. Very un-spiritual, compared to how other cultures view their relationship with food, and always have. Thank you for being an example by shopping at your local co-op.

Ray Mikell said...

It would be nice if healthy food were more affordable somehow, however. I know that some in the public health field have for years called for tax incentives for making the purchase of fresh produce more affordable. I haven't seen any other recommendations.

I'm sure governmental support for conventional agriculture is tied in with this all somehow. But gosh knows I hated ag reporting when at the DDT, except when once talking to a USDA water management person from Stonville MS (near Gville, for those not aware) who could talk about anything, and talked a blue streak besides. It was a little intellectual salon in her gov-ment-issued pickup.

Otherwise, during my DDT days and an internship at the Greenwood paper in college was, "I don't know what we'll do without rain," "Still no rain today," "Well, we finally got rain, but it was too much."

I love "Green Acres" now, though. Have the first season on DVD. But I digress.

barbara said...

As a farmer's daughter, I have one word to say: BLECH!!! Well, many others come to mind, but I won't use them because they are not very nice.

The Strib did an article a couple months ago in which they compared prices at Whole Foods, Cub, The Wedge, Byerly's, Lund's, etc. and they found that The Wedge consistenly has some of the lowest prices in the metro area--and that in many cases their organic produce was either close to or as affordable as conventionally grown produce from Cub, etc. (I can't remember if Wal-Mart was included, but I doubt their prices would be drastically different.)

Anyway this time of year, I'm psyched to go to the FARMER"S MARKET every weekend! It's one of my favorite things about summer.

And Wal_mart is evil. You couldn't pay me to shop there.

Oh, and I love "Green Acres" too! Especially Arnold the pig.

Susanne said...

Yes, there's definately been lots of talk about having to beware of "organic" foods. Even Whole Foods, which is a 180-degree from Walmart, had been dinged for importing their organic produce from cheaply-processed farms, where the produce IS organic, but the labor is paid low. Question is, would it be better for Whole Foods to sell non-organic produce that's grown locally, with better treated workers? It's a hard call.