November 20, 2007
They’re mass-produced by agribiz but better than eating poisons
by Ann Cooper, Kate Adamick
“Industrial organics.” The mere mention of the recently coined, aptly turned phrase describing mass-produced organic foods grown on giant industrial farms and sold in superstores such as Wal-Mart, Whole Foods and Safeway, can cause our palms to sweat.
As food systems consultants and school food reform advocates, we regularly take a firm stand on a wide range of controversial food issues. So what is it about industrial organics that kicks our nervous systems into high gear? Is it that we so strongly believe that industrial organics constitute an incongruity so dangerous as to destroy any remaining prospect of developing a truly sustainable agriculture system? Or, is it because we fervently believe industrial organics are the long-awaited savior — almighty capitalism’s answer to eradicating pesticides, hormones and antibiotics from our food supply?
The answer, we hesitate to admit, is neither. In fact, it is precisely because we are firmly entrenched in neither camp that, when confronted head-on with the issue, our bodies respond with auto reflex symptoms typical of the fight-or-flight syndrome. The reasons for our inability to arrive at a definitive conclusion are as complex as the evolution of the food system itself.
In recent decades, the rise of agribusiness — which was supported, if not actually created, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — has given birth to food production and processing systems that promised cheap food and the eradication of hunger in America. Our modern food system, which is revered as the epitome of economic and production efficiency, generates meals in mass quantities with minimal labor, kitchen equipment and production time. As a result, Americans spend a smaller percentage of their per capita income on food than do the citizens of any other industrialized nation in the world.
Highly processed products, now conveniently located in nearly every grocery store in the United States, are readily available to anyone and everyone with enough cash, credit or food stamps to pay for them. Moreover, one would be hard pressed to turn the pages of a magazine or watch an hour of television without colliding with a multibillion-dollar annual marketing effort skillfully designed to convince us that such products are not only desirable but an essential part of a successful and happy life. Thus, most average Americans are, in essence, held captive by an industrialized food system destined — if not designed — to make them sick.
One need only examine the paradox of obesity among the poor to understand the tragic truth that, rather than eradicating hunger with a steady supply of affordable and nutritious food, our current food system has helped create a country in which most of its citizens may be well-fed but few are fed well.
It is precisely this fact that leads so many to enthusiastically endorse industrial organics, which encompass foods ranging from carrots to strawberry to wheat.
When Wal-Mart adds low-priced organic produce to the shelves of its 3,400 stores across middle and rural America, chemical-free food will instantly be within the reach of tens of millions of individuals currently without access to them. And once McDonald’s begins serving organic beef patties, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on sesame seed buns made with organic wheat, conventionally grown versions of those products will become relics destined for the Smithsonian’s collection.
How, then, can anyone argue that the ready accessibility of organic products is not cause for celebration? Isn’t this exactly what those of us who preach the virtues of focusing on food quality, rather than simply on food quantity, have long been awaiting?
Our enthusiasm is tempered by the regrettable reality that industrial organics present a host of other disquieting issues.
Even organic products, when shipped cross-country and overseas, not only render moot the concepts of “seasonal” and “local,” but exhaust our precious fuel supplies and emit steady streams of pollutants into our air and water.
Furthermore, the arrival of such anomalies as organic high fructose corn syrup and organic cookies on our grocery store shelves only mirrors the worst attributes of the conventional food system. And while attempting to convince us that higher demand for organics will create economies of scale that will result in lower production costs, the pressure to produce cheap organics already has agribusiness lobbying the USDA to allow more and more crop-enhancing chemicals within the ever-weakening definition of “certified organic.” And if the promised economies of scale ever reach their predicted potential, still more family farmers will be driven off their land and into the employ of corporate mega-farms, trading their fiercely independent heritage for the hope of a steady paycheck.
Our government has largely turned its back on the health and well-being of both its citizens and the environment by relinquishing oversight of our food supply to corporate giants. Thus, corporate conglomerates will likely view industrial organics as the latest big money-making trend and do whatever it takes to keep consumers’ attention blindly focused on their low prices, rather than on their high costs.
Until Americans are willing to pay a higher price for a food supply that is healthy for both us and our planet, we must — for better or worse — continue to chew on the moral dilemma that is industrial organics.
Ann Cooper is director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District. Her book “Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way America Feeds its Children” (available at Amazon.com) spells out how parents and school employees can help instill healthy habits in children. Kate Adamick is a food systems consultant in New York specializing in school food reform.