Monday, January 21, 2008

Has "organic" jumped the shark?...

Despite fervent support and frenzied efforts, the basic concept of what "organic" means has fallen prey to food politics. Like a candidate vying for national popularity it has striven to be all things to all eaters, and has been misportrayed by proponents and critics alike.
There is, therefore, huge potential for disappointment. When you buy an organic egg you are not just buying the means to make an omelette, you are buying a dream. It is the dream of something delicious, which will simultaneously be good for your body and good for the hens and people who produced and packed it. It is the dream of being self-indulgent and virtuous at the same time – which essentially encapsulates the main yearning of our consumerist world. As Lynda Brown says: “Everybody wants an organic egg to come from a chicken that has led an idyllic life. But most people don’t actually want to pay for it.” The result is that when you look behind the dreamy label of much organic food – as with Soren the pig – you find it is not so very different from the industrial, compromised food you were trying to buy your way out of. The yolk is still pallid. The workers are still underpaid. The hens are still crowded – just a bit less than for conventionally farmed eggs. [More of a very thoughtful essay]
I still think the core of the problem with organic is non-differentiability - at the consumer level there is no test to prove any of the alleged attributes of "organic" production. Absence of residues, chemical composition, color, size, etc. - all these characteristics can be duplicated by non-organic, industrial farms. And humane production methods or harvesting techniques (slaughter) can only be witnessed to - not verified in a lab.

This simple fact leads me to suspect the "organic" label has lost cachet in the marketplace. This could be the reason for rush to "local" food. Although only slightly more verifiable, it does have one stunning aspect that I think contributes to its attraction for upscale consumers: it's hard to get and/or expensive.

I support the right of growers to market into whatever consumer niches they think will be profitable. But I still wait for any proof that whatever the consumer fancies in food production cannot be supplied cheaper and more reliably by industrial farms.

The slow rejection of rBGH use should hearten food worriers that consumers still are in the driver seat. And the rapid advance of analytical technology may yet identify characteristics in agrarian production that industrial farms cannot duplicate. Or we may invest in a certification process that will be expensive and intrusive to guarantee non-measurable qualities. (Like the Chinese are doing with kosher inspection)

But I think this isn't where the real battle to change our food will be fought. Instead it will be changing our social/family values to elevate the status of preparing food to earning sales bonuses. When eating better at home is finally recognized as source of immense joy and health protection, and our lives and values are rearranged to respect both food and its consumption, the food industry will scramble to supply the very ingredients so difficult to source today.

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