June 14, 2006

Michael Pollan on Wal-Mart 'Organic'

Some excerpts from Michael Pollan's thinking on what it means when Wal Mart offers "organic" food.

I don't know how long this link will last, so I am grabbing some chunks.

The vast expansion of organic farmland it will take to feed Wal-Mart's new appetite is also an unambiguous good for the world's environment, since it will result in substantially less pesticide and chemical fertilizer being applied to the land — somewhere. Whatever you think about the prospect of organic Coca-Cola, when it comes, and come it surely will, tens of thousands of acres of the world's cornfields — enough to make all that organic high-fructose corn syrup — will no longer receive an annual shower of pesticides like Atrazine. O.K., you're probably registering a flicker of cognitive dissonance at the conjunction of the words "organic" and "high-fructose corn syrup," but keep your eye for a moment on that Atrazine.

Atrazine is a powerful herbicide applied to 70 percent of America's cornfields. Traces of the chemical routinely turn up in American streams and wells and even in the rain; the F.D.A. also finds residues of Atrazine in our food.

. . . .

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.

We're also going to see more organic milk — and organic foods of all kinds — coming from places like New Zealand. The globalization of organic food is already well under way: at Whole Foods you can buy organic asparagus flown in from Argentina, raspberries from Mexico, grass-fed meat from New Zealand. In an era of energy scarcity, the purchase of such products does little to advance the ideal of sustainability that once upon a time animated the organic movement. These foods may contain no pesticides, but they are drenched in petroleum even so.

Emphasis added.


Steve Bodio said...

Good God. I'll take "local and pretty clean" any day over that kind of organic.

Ask John Burchard about dairies-- some probably "organic"-- in California's Central Valley, which if it has cows at all should probably ranch them....

gl. said...

oh, good, then you'd understand my recent dilemna at the grocery store:

strawberries are on the top-10 fruit highest in pesticides. so when faced with two packages of strawberries, one organic but shipped from california, and one local but non-organic, which do i chose?

(i got one of each to mitigate my damage, but the question is still relevant.)

Chas S. Clifton said...

"Sustainable" is rapidly becoming the new buzzword as Big Agriculture adopts "organic."

Gretchin, yours is the classic dilemma. Of course, you can rationalize that California is only one state away.

And for some things--coffee comes to mind--there is no local product.

gl. said...

and chocolate! and i don't kow what sven would do without orange juice in the morning.