Friday, May 12, 2006

New Yorker article on Organic Foods

When my wife started with the organic thing I was puzzled. What kind of food is inorganic? Heck, I had chemistry in school. I thought everything derived from the whole family of hydrocarbons was by definition "organic" but boy was I wrong. Like so many other terms we use, the term organic has undergone a dramatic redefining. I think it has to do with post-modernism, but I'm not sure.

3Quarks points to Steven Shapin's PARADISE SOLD in the current New Yorker which surveys todays state of the organic art (science? faith?), specifically Whole Foods Market, the Home Depot of the organic foods crowd. (Wikipedia link here.) My own career in the food business makes me think this is an important trend, but I am left wondering how much of what we find is form and how much is substance There may be a trend to cooking in some counter-culture kind of way, but from what I observe the number of people who know how to cook is shrinking, not growing. I can report as a restaurant manager that the number of people who know how to read and interpret a recipe is dramatically down from twenty or thirty years ago. (In fact, the number of people who can even read seems down, despite the widespread use of the internet and text messages, but that's another story.)

I can also report that convenience foods have displaced more labor-intensive scratch-cooking products at the retail level, and the technology is very impressive that produces factory-made breads, entrees, pre-breaded vegetables ready for frying and baking, and a dazzling array of eye-popping desserts. But I digress. Back to the counter-culture. It's hard for me to envision the teeming millions whose avid attention to pop TV, iPods, cell phones and fast foods will ever be attracted to learning to use a kitchen knife, watching oven temperatures or gently pressing on a product to test if it has finished cooking, jelling or thawing -- processes that may have taken hours to produce.

Whole Foods is only the most visible face of the newly confident organic industry. In February, Consumer Reports announced that sales of organic products had gone up twenty per cent a year during the past decade, reaching $15 billion in 2004—out of a total U.S. food system worth a trillion dollars—and that nearly two-thirds of American consumers bought organic foods last year, paying, on average, a fifty-per-cent premium over conventional foods. In March, Wal-Mart made the remarkable announcement that it would double its organic-grocery offerings immediately. Wal-Mart is betting that, if it follows its usual practice of squeezing suppliers and cutting prices ruthlessly, the taste for organic foods will continue to spread across the social landscape. “We don’t think you should have to have a lot of money to feed your family organic foods,” its C.E.O. said at the most recent annual general meeting.
Success is not necessarily a sin, of course, and, for many people, buying organic is a way of being environmentally sensitive. Earthbound notes that its farming techniques annually obviate the use of more than a quarter of a million pounds of toxic chemical pesticides and almost 8.5 million pounds of synthetic fertilizers, which saves 1.4 million gallons of the petroleum needed to produce those chemicals. Their tractors even use biodiesel fuel.

Yet the net benefit of all this to the planet is hard to assess. Michael Pollan, who thinks that we ought to take both a wider and a deeper view of the social, economic, and physical chains that deliver food to fork, cites a Cornell scientist’s estimate that growing, processing, and shipping one calorie’s worth of arugula to the East Coast costs fifty-seven calories of fossil fuel. The growing of the arugula is indeed organic, but almost everything else is late-capitalist business as usual. Earthbound’s compost is trucked in; the 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—though Earthbound plants trees to offset some of its carbon footprint. “Organic,” then, isn’t necessarily “local,” and neither “organic” nor “local” is necessarily “sustainable.”

The article goes on to reflect on sustainability questions and the importance of feeding a starving world, but that's what makes the article appeal to the New Yorker crowd. It's like discussing the music of Hildegard von Bingen with someone trying to figure out a better way to use the internet to increase vote totals for his or her favorite American Idol contestant. Something of a disconnect in there someplace.

This is a good read, and I don't want to offend anyone on the orgainic bandwagon. But my instinct is to read it and keep moving. I am blessed to have a wife whose most recent kitchen adventures have led to a grinder from which she produces her own freshly-milled wheat flour which is made into bread loaves or pizza dough before it is two hours old. She read somewhere that nutrients begin to deteriorate even after a few hours of simple processing like grinding, so she hustles to do the cooking all at once from wheat kernels to finished loaf, feeding the yeast with nothing more than locally-harvested raw honey. None of that granulated sugar for her. I haven't figured out how any nutrient so fragile that it might perish at room temperature in a few hours can somehow withstand an hour of cooking in a 375-degree oven, but I'm not arguing. There is something about a hot slice of freshly-baked bread, just out of the oven, spread with real butter, that with a cold glass of milk is probably close to whatever they eat in heaven.

Unrelated postscript...
Ann Althouse also reads the New Yorker and found this gem.
I haven't been tempted to subscribe to a magazine for years, but I'm thinki...
Why should I do that when I have 3Quarks and Althouse to pan for the gold?
That's why my blogroll is so out of control.
Have a good day.

1 comment:

ilona said...

I thought I saw my blog on that blogroll of yours- thank you:)

On the topic of organic food: you are lucky to have so diligent a wife who watches out for your interests. I have added Whole Foods forays to my shopping rounds, and while there is a looseness in the definition of organic, there are benefits. real ones.

If food is grown organically it tends to be better in the quality of nutrients, it will make for better care of the soils (unending additions of chemical fertilizers tend to deplete soils), and even with monoculture there is usually more crop rotation since that will cut down on insect and disease problems. Many times the handling methods developed for stores carrying organic foods is superior and they have better choices of varieties, not just the long-shelf-life tasteless ones.

Overall, if the quality can be kept high in the face of the huge increase of demand it means better nutrition and fresher product. There is always hype as long as there is capitalism. Heck, even without the capitalist factor there is hype, because we are always selling something- of whatever ideology, but in the case of organic foods I think people are getting something of greater benefit.

So I agree with your wife, but am not nearly so diligent about baking my own bread. The natural food stores carry locally baked whole grain breads ( but still not a rival to fresh from the oven- you're just a lucky dog is all I can say)