A very interesting article appeared in the New York Times over the weekend, asking “Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?”
As framed in the article, the controversy boils down to the increasing influence of Big Agra in the organic food markets. The premium paid for organic products has led to increased investment by the country’s largest agri-food giants, Coca-Cola, Cargill, Pepsi, Kraft, ConAgra, General Mills, and others, in search of larger profit margins. Their increased involvement, the article contends, has led to a weakening in organic standards.
However true, this article misses the most important point. As an alternative to the globalized system of input-intensive food production, organic agriculture was always limited in its transformative potential. The high cost of organic food relative to conventional food meant that the ability to choose organic foods was a marker of privilege. The single working mother could not afford to pay $5 per pint for organic strawberries. More generally, organic food was generally not available in the food deserts that blight many poor urban neighborhoods. Like many forms of ethical consumerism, the risk here is that we conflate the act of consumption with the political agency that informs it. The alternative food movement should not confine itself only to a buy organics campaign, nor to a buy local campaign. Rather, food justice must be about ensuring that everyone has access to high quality, nutritious food.
Individual consumer choices may serve to make the individual feel better, but by itself, it does little to offer the kind of fundamental transformation necessary to address the global environmental crisis. Similarly, in the context of the global food system, buying and eating local and organic food may make the individual consumer feel better about their decisions, but that choice alone may not result in the kind of fundamental transformation of the global food system that its advocates propose. This is the risk of focusing on the availability of local and organic food.