Steven Shapin’s review of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma in the May 15 New Yorker — Paradise Sold: What are you buying when you buy organic? — takes aim at the Whole Foods dreamscape and shatters it but good. Don’t get me wrong, I love love love WF. But, as we’re reminded, it’s not a get-out-of-guilt free card. You’re lulled into this sense that everything you buy in WF is not only Not Bad – you might also be forgiven for thinking that an organic apple you buy there somehow cancels out that original sin conventional apple you ate last week.
But Pollan, Shapin writes, notes that “the [organic] salad-green farms are models of West Coast monoculture, laser-levelled fields facilitating awesomely efficient mechanical harvesting; and the whole supply chain from California to Manhattan is only four per cent less gluttonous a consumer of fossil fuel than that of a conventionally grown head of iceberg lettuce.”
WF may have plenary indulgences for sale, but that doesn’t mean you’re getting into heaven. This is a good reminder – as you walk those hallow’d aisles, you still have to make a moral choice between conventional asparagus from 50 miles away and organic raspberries from Peru.
Shapin misses the point, I think though, when he takes Pollan to task for not giving “much space to the most urgent moral problem with the organic ideal: how to feed the world’s population.” If synthetic fertilizers disappeared, he says, two billion people would perish. “Genetically modified, industrially produced monocultural corn is what feeds the victims of an African famine, not the gorgeous technicolor Swiss chard from your local farmers’ market.”
This may be true – I don’t know enough about the science. But what I hope, what I would like to believe, is that local food production on healthy, well-rotated soil is what could keep countries from descending into famine in the first place. Instead of waiting for countries to collapse and then heaving bags of corn at them, should we not rather help with irrigation and clean water, teach farmers about sustainable farming and rotation methods, seed their farms with goats and pumpkins or whatever works best for the region, maybe help them grow a cash crop of tobacco or hemp on the side (dodging the tomatoes on that one). I know I’m falling victim to the agrarian ideal here, but I’d at least like to think that this is a more wholesome goal than an attempt to create nations of refugees, bellies stuffed with corn, much like cattle in a feedlot.