Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Organic Wal-Mart

Would the organic food industry lose its raison d’etre if buying organic became just about eating healthy, rather than social consciousness? James H. Joyner, Jr. raises that question at TCS Daily. Right now there's the perception if we buy organic food that not only are we doing something good for our bodies, by avoiding pesticides and preservatives, but we are helping protect the environment, supporting sustainable/environmentally responsible local farmers, and in some cases encouraging the humane treatment of animals. They all go together in a sort of do-gooder package--IF we can afford it. All this social consciousness comes at a rather steep price, and not many people make the decision that organic is worth the expense. Not many can.

What if the cost for organic wasn't so high, but the grand benefit total wasn't either? What if there were an alternative that made the food healthy, but still kept the cows that provide our beef in less-than-idyllic conditions? What if instead of supporting small, local farms, buying organic meant supporting giant companies that shipped the food over vast distances quickly, using lots of petroleum in the process? What if this organic bastardization came from the anti-Christ of the socially responsible--Wal-Mart? According to Joyner, "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." It will do so by focusing on the pesticide and preservative-free portion of the organic equation, without adding the expense of all the other layers of "the organic movement". This is raising an outcry from some who think that the health benefits of organic food cannot be separated from the socially responsible side of things, regardless of the cost. Joyner quotes University of California at Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan who says, "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."

However, Joyner points out that most people simply can't afford to be motivated by the social consciousness more than the cost:

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.
That sums it up in a nutshell to me. It seems unreasonable that there not be middle ground for those who do not have the luxury of surplus income, or the desire to promote a particular social agenda in their grocery shopping, at the cost of other things they consider more valuable. I for one will be glad to see Wal-Mart offer healthier food alternatives at a reasonable price. I have often lamented the cost of organic foods, and how I can't reasonably make the choice to invest my money so heavily into my grocery basket. It would be nice to see sustainable farming, and happy cows too, but people can't always prioritize according to what would be nice. Joyner takes the pragmatic approach:

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.

We could take the tack that says that the organic approach must be holistic, all or nothing. That would entail a world view that might ultimately come round to this way of thinking: "Its probably a good thing that people without the proper perspective aren't eating organic. We simply can’t have people eating healthy who aren’t going to be socially conscious. Those are the people who should die young and leave the world to people who have the right attitude--and to the happy cows." I doubt any but the most hardened "people are the scourge of the earth" crowd would go there, though. Most would probably see the good in people eating healthier food, even if the solution isn't perfect, and even if it does come from Wal-Mart.

Of course, there are some who will raise a fuss, and thus we have Joyner's article. I hope that they can see the benefit eventually, though. The less expensive organic food becomes, the more people will buy it. The more people buy it, the more profitable it is to produce; so production goes up, which brings the price down. The more popular organic food becomes, the more people will see it as worth a little extra cost, and some who buy it for health might see their way to add just a little more money to see that it is grown responsibly. It could work out fostering both aims in the end.