Holistic Health and Society: Supermarket Organics

There have been some interesting articles lately about the sustainability of the way we eat and the survival of the term “organic.” Most of them have something to do with the work of Michael Pollan, who wrote a book calledThe Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. The New Yorker recently published an article about Whole Foods, “Paradise Sold,” by Steven Shapin, which referenced Mr. Pollan’s book several times; Mr. Pollan later wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine about Wal-Mart’s decision to sell organic food, called “Mass Natural.”

The food industry has seen how successful Whole Foods has been in marketing healthful, organic food. At a time when conventional supermarkets’ profits increase only by a few percent a year, and that probably only due to clever marketing (Does the amount that people need to eat increase every year?), the organic food industry is growing at a rate of something like 20% per year. This is where Wal-Mart comes in: they are cashing in on the organic food movement’s popularity and promising to sell organic foods at low prices.

The tricky part is that “organic” and “supermarket” started out as two different philosophies. Organic foods, by definition, cannot be genetically engineered, sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, be grown with artificial fertilizer, or in the case of organic meat, fed with antibiotics or hormones. That’s what is required for organic certification. (I like to call it “Pre-WWII food.”) However, the organic movement, as Mr. Pollan points out in his article, also strives to represent sustainable, local, small family farming – a system for producing food that is much more appropriate for farmers’ markets than “super” markets like Wal-Mart and yes, even Whole Foods. It’s not that organic should remain a small niche market, eaten only by hippies and wealthy elitists (how did those two end up together?), but, rather, that it was just never meant to be corporate. The expense of the food has more to do with the fact that the dairy and meat industries (as well as the wheat, corn and soy industries, which are responsible for many of the ingredients in junk food and fast food) receive huge subsidies from the government, while organic growers of fruit and vegetables don’t see a dime (a fact not mentioned in any of these articles). The truest expression of the organic-food ideal is the more conservatively minded Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. In this arrangement, the members of the community pay the farmer up front for a share of his produce as it is harvested throughout the year. The organic farm remains a small, local operation, the food is seasonal, and the customers are given only what’s available – they are less likely to buy too much and waste their food. There is also no need to ship food across the country from California, Washington State, or even across the world – from Chile, Ecuador, etc.

This is the dilemma that Mr. Pollan outlines in his article – it’s great that people who shop at Wal-Mart can get food that has not been sprayed with poisonous chemicals like Atrazine. But to sell that organic food cheaply Wal-Mart must continue to use the economic methods that organic was meant to oppose in the first place. In other words, Wal-Mart isn’t going organic: organic is going Wal-Mart.

In “Paradise Sold,” Mr. Shapin points out similar flaws in Whole Foods’ approach to, well, whole foods. Both of these supermarkets are subverting the healthiness and positive environmental impact of the organic food that they are selling because they are doing it within the supermarket model. Walk into Whole Foods and look around for the organic food. You’ll see the word organic on a lot of their self-congratulatory banners and signs – along with even “local” and “sustainable.” But in the produce section, you’ll see a lot less organic food, less even than what they call “conventional” food. And you probably will not see any local food at all. Almost all the organic food will have been shipped out from California. For this reason, some of it won’t taste very good – if food is not fresh or local, the benefits of it being organic will be diminished with regards to how nutritious and how delicious it is.

Ultimately, though, the most important difference between the supermarket and the CSA isn’t necessarily organic/non-organic or even local/non-local. When Wal-Mart says they are going to go organic, part of what that means is that we’re going to start seeing more organic Oreos, Cocoa Puffs, and other foods that will eventually destroy your health, organic or not. Even at Whole Foods, many of the customers are not buying “whole foods.” They are buying packaged, pre-made, processed foods like cereal, chips, sugary vitamin water, frozen foods, etc., all that stuff that takes up the “middle” of the supermarket (tip from Dr. Andrew Weil, probably the best-known alternative health expert out there: always shop around the edges of the supermarket, try not to venture into the middle). How often do you see a person’s cart filled with vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, animal products, nuts and seeds? That’s the real difference between the farmer’s market and the supermarket – in the former the focus is on the “whole foods” that, whether they are organic or not, are the foundation of a healthy diet. In the latter you will find the majority of the space taken up by processed food. In New York City, Whole Foods doesn’t even sell whole grains and beans in bulk bins. These foods – like organic crops – take more time and care to prepare, but are proportionately many times more rewarding, in terms of the nutrition and sustenance they provide. In this light, they turn out to be the cheapest – or, rather, the most economical – foods of all. The more we shift towards buy food that is not only local and organic but also minimally processed, the closer we come to a food industry that is both sustainable and provides Americans with inexpensive, healthy food.

If you’re interested in getting your food from a CSA, check out www.localharvest.org, which has a database of CSAs, Farmers’ Markets, health food stores and organic restaurants: you can search by zip code and then link to the farm that you find.