Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A New Look at Organics

It has taken me a while to work my way down through the old TBR (To Be Read) pile with everything else on my plate lately, but I've finally read through Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew by Samuel Fromartz and have a few thoughts to share with you.

The past few years have seen an enormous increase in the availability of organic foods, both as raw produce and as processed foods. And this availability hasn't all occurred at local farmers' markets... local groceries as well as the big chains such as Whole Foods and the big box stores like Wal-Mart have begun to carry more organic products on a regular basis. (For example, my local grocery, part of a local chain, has long had a large section for organic produce at its larger store on the north edge of town, but even their downtown store now has an entire section of organic produce, ranging from the usual greens and apples to lemons, avocadoes, pineapple, and kiwis.)

Fromartz found his curiosity piqued through his original infatuation with Whole Foods, and he decided to explore the topic, visiting farmers' markets, talking with organic farmers from small farms to the big industrial farms rivaling conventional ones, and investigating the history of organic foods from its original anti-industry intent over a hundred years ago, through the health food and fresh food phases, to the environmental concerns about sustainability today. And in doing so, he highlights the curious juxtaposition of an elitist taste for fresh produce from small local farms alongside the mass-market growth of organic "fast" food.

What has brought these seemingly contradictory forces together? Fromartz describes it as the intersection of pleasure and health: no longer does health food taste dull and grainy, but flavorful, fresh, and fun. Arguments about the detrimental effect of pesticides on food and soil still hold water, but the sight of fresh and colorful fruits and vegetables appeals more strongly to our more hedonistic desires.

So where does the author stand on the question of local vs. organic? According to Fromartz (both in the book and in his piece on Grist), it’s a wash:

...each represents such a small portion (1 to 2 percent) of the food supply. It's like two people in a room of one hundred arguing about who has the most righteous alternative to what the other ninety-eight are doing. Both are right for different reasons and can thrive simultaneously. (p.252)

Perhaps we can look on this as a transitional period, much like what organic farmers experience when converting conventional food production to organic. Supporting local agriculture and organic farms is a wonderful start, but it's going to take more and more people supporting both to get us to the point where small local farms can regularly draw in the income needed to keep them sustainable... and where organic farms can do the same. And to get more people to support local and organic foods, those people need to know more about the benefits of local and organic agriculture as well as be able to afford it.

Fromartz isn't overly optimistic that either local or organic agriculture will take over the market, but he does see growth for both. And for him, that's a start.

If you're still feeling not fully informed about either local or organic agriculture, this is a good book to read, with a little more hard market information than Jane Goodall's Harvest for Hope. But believe that you can go beyond his hopes, especially if you have a local farmers' market (many of which also feature organic produce) to support.

It's up to each one of us to make local, organic food more affordable!


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