Monday, June 22, 2009
Labeling Organic Food
In her column Food Matters in the San Francisco Chronicle, nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle addresses the charge that organic food is only for the elite.
Q: Aren't organics elitist? People can't buy organic foods if they aren't available at an affordable price.
A: I once heard Eric Schlosser answer a similar question aimed at his book, "Fast Food Nation." He pointed out that social movements have to begin somewhere and that several began with elites but ended up helping the poor and disenfranchised - the civil rights, environmental and women's movements, for example.
I would add the organic movement to this list. It has already forced mainstream food producers to start cutting down on pesticides and to raise farm animals more humanely. As the supply of organic foods increases, and the Wal-Marts of the world sell more of them, organics should become more democratic.
But please don't blame organic producers for the high prices. Until the latest farm bill, which has a small provision for promotion of organic agriculture, organic farmers received not one break from the federal government. In contrast, the producers of corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton continue to get $20 billion or so a year in farm subsidies.
Industrial agriculture also benefits from federally administered marketing programs and from cozy relationships with congressional committees and the USDA. In contrast, the USDA considers fruits and vegetables "specialty crops." This kind of food politics shows up as higher prices in the grocery store.
Dealing with the elitism implied by the higher cost of organics means doing something about income inequities. If we want elected representatives to care more about public health than corporate health, let's work to remove the corruption from election campaign contributions. If Congress were less beholden to corporations, we might be able to create a system that paid farmers and farm workers decently and sold organic foods at prices that everyone could afford.
The organic gardens at the White House and USDA send an important signal that the way we grow food makes a difference. Let's hope they also symbolize a new era in agricultural policies, one that unites the letter and spirit of the organic movement.
Photo of Marion Nestle by Kim Komenich for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Posted by Kathleen Bauer at 12:44 PM