How We Value Food: Organic, Local, Diverse

In the beginning, organic was radical. Not long ago authors and foodies, environmentalists and farmers, took up the mantle of organic as a key principle in our fight for healthier communities, healthier diets, and a healthier environment. It was a way for small farmers and local businesses to compete with an increasingly super-sized economy made up of industrial agriculture and big box stores. The organic label allowed small farmers to compete and distinguish their products on the store shelves and a combination of factors coincided to make organic not only good for our health, but hip too.

However, if there is one thing capitalism is profoundly good at, it is subsuming counter culture ideas just when they are getting hot, and using them to make a profit. Before long every retailer from the local grocery store to WalMart had organic products on their shelves, and the idea of organic, while still serving as a sort of moral and health compass began to get increasingly watered down. As big box stores began to mass-produce organic versions of all their products, we saw that the industrial economy could be applied to organic food as well.

While I would like to think that the growth of the organic industry has resulted in less pesticides and chemicals in our land and water, I fear instead that little has changed. Instead of organic foods and products replacing non-organic products, the organic options have simply become another consumer choice in a sea of consumer choices. The genetically modified tomatoes grown in a warehouse have not been replaced by the organic ones, now they just sit side by side. In some ways, As every cracker, cereal, juice, and cheese maker realizes that they need both an organic and a traditional product to compete, I worry that our emphasis on organics has ended up in producing more stuff (more products, more packaging, more waste).

I, of course, acknowledge that these sorts of growing pains are part of change. I do believe our culture is undergoing some profound social change in terms of the way we think about communities, economies, and food. I don’t pretend to expect that one day all the store shelves will be cleared off and organic products will replace all other products. There is understandably a time when, as people are exploring and discovering alternatives like organic foods, the old stand-bys will continue to carry weight. My fear is simply that we will settle for organic as an alternative. The choice to buy organic should not be put on the same plane as the choice between mint or wintergreen toothpaste. In the end, we ought to demand that organic replace non-organic, and for that we can’t rely on the magic of the marketplace alone.

As organic got co-opted by corporate America (along with the terms green and sustainable) the people who write and think about these issues began talking about a new way to foster local economies and build community around food, land, and the environment. Most of the organic foods on store shelves today are produced in industrial environments, by people who don’t make a living wage, and are transported thousands of miles to reach your check-out line. In response, many environmental and agricultural advocates are arguing that we should think about how our food (and product) choices contribute to local economies rather than focus simply on the notion of organic.

While the idea of buying local has been around for a very long time, it has taken on some new characteristics particular to food in the wake of the organic movement. Bill McKibben outlines this through a series of profiles in his little book Wandering Home — A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape: Vermont’s Champlain Valley and New York’s Adirondacks. On his website McKibben writes, “Local produce tastes better and it’s better for you. A recent study showed that fresh produce loses nutrients quickly. In a week long (or more) delay from harvest to dinner table, sugars turn to starches, plant cells shrink, and produce loses its vitality. Food grown in your own community was probably picked within the past day or two. It is crisp, sweet and loaded with flavor.” (http://www.billmckibben.com)

As evidenced by the title of his most recent book, Deep Economy, buying local is not just about better tasting, more nutrient-rich food for McKibben. It is also bound up with the idea that the choices we make have the potential to build and enrich our community and support local farmers, producers, and families while also protecting local landscapes and traditions. McKibben and others are suggesting that local may be our next best hope for a movement that can bring together environment, economy, and community. Big business can’t fake local or duplicate it in a warehouse. The best the WalMarts and Targets can do is shift their procurement and purchasing to buy more of their goods from the local economy where their individual stores are located (which some supermarkets have begun to do). In this way, the local economy movement already has one up on the organic movement by replacing not just augmenting current choices.

And yet, I doubt that any one quality or adjective can be the savior of our food system. Looking for one key idea, or one overarching solution, just seems short sighted. Tracing the history of ideas that have recently shaped our food system we might describe it as a movement from fairly narrow definition to an increasingly broad gestalt. Said another way, we have been moving from a particular idea that suggests new answers to the question of how we relate to our food, towards a new conceptual system with the power to forces us to ask new questions about our food choices.

The idea of organic is focused on a particular quality of a food and is at times hobbled by its specificity. The idea of local begins to expand the umbrella of ideas that shape how we relate to our food by bringing in questions of geography and economy. In the spirit of this expanding inquiry I want to consider another idea and how it can help us think even more broadly about food, land and community. I don’t offer this as a replacement to our earlier ideas, but rather as a framework through which we might reconsider and organize the way we think about our food culture.

There are perhaps few words that are as debated, subjective, and poorly defined as diversity. It is at once a radically simply principle – a noun indicating difference – and a radically contested word – depending on what differences we are discussing. I am interested in what the idea of diversity can do for the way we think about, and value, our food.

Whereas organic is a descriptor of how a food was produced, and local is a descriptor of where the food comes from, diversity describes the food itself and necessarily places it in relation to other qualities. Diversity then is relational and can’t be considered in a vacuum without considering a range of other ideas, qualities, foods, and so on. While all these ideas argue, with different levels of effectiveness, against the techniques of corporate and industrial food production, I think diversity offers a helpful and unique corrective the other two are missing. By investing in diversity we are valuing that which cannot be mass-produced. We put value not on some repeated characteristic, but instead on difference. We value complexity not replication. In a time when companies are being allowed to patent the genetic building blocks of our crops, diversity argues against the specificity, control, and power of agribusiness.

It is common to hear companies who rely on a “chain-store” model brag that whether you get a Starbucks’coffee or a McDonnalds hamburger in Detroit, Moscow, or Tokyo it will taste the same. Our corporate food system has invested fully in Fordism and become expert at duplication. This reality has become even more stark now that the FDA has approved cloned animal meat for human consumption. Now the McDonald’s hamburger you get in Des Moines won’t just taste the burger you got in Milan, it might actually be genetically identical. I would argue that the greatest threat facing our food system in the coming years is the question of genetically modified foods and the unknown impacts they will have on ecology, agriculture, and health.

My ideas here owe a debt to Barbara Kingslover and Michael Pollan, both of whom have written eloquently about diversity in the natural world. In her essay “A Fist in the Eye of God” Barbara Kingsolver wields Charles Darwin as a bulwark to the onslaught of genetically modified foods. “At the root of everything, Darwin said, is that wonder of wonders, genetic diversity,” which, writes Kingsolver, is nature’s insurance policy.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this insurance policy is held within the tiny, smooth, brown glow of the apple seed. In his book, The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan describes the genetic surprises one can find inside an apple. Every seed in every apple “contains the genetic instructions for a completely new and different apple tree, one that, if planted, would bear only the most glancing resemblance to its parents.” The diversity in the apple seed, and in the genetic make-up of all plants ensure that no one factor can wipe out an entire species, as nearly happened to the potato fields in Ireland. About 150 years ago Henry David Thoreau wrote “I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” Thoreau was of course the one who also penned the line: “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” I suggest that we revise Thoreau’s notion for our modern times and argue that in diversity is the preservation of the world.

How else might we look at our food differently if we were to value diversity? I think first of tomatoes, and the incredible array of colors and shapes, textures and tastes of heirloom tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes remind us with each bite that each vegetable is an individual. Even the non-heirloom tomatoes at my CSA come in various sizes and each taste different. Wandering down the rows of tall cherry tomatoes I am amazed that they are all the same species. Some taste dusty, some sweet, others almost taste roasted or vinegary. These tomatoes help remind us of our connection to the earth, to our land, in a way that the uniformly round, uniformly red, uniformly muted taste of grocery store tomatoes never could. In valuing diversity we give up some of our control, and in return we are given a deeper connection to the people and places around us.

We have long been encouraged to eat a diverse diet – this is the fundamental idea behind the FDA’s food pyramid, which seems to adorn every elementary school cafeteria in America. While the common notion of how much of which thing we should eat might change (as is evidenced by the government’s recent revision of the pyramid), the fact remains that we function best on a diet made up of a variety of fuels. In his recent book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan examines how far from this simple notion we have gotten. He describes how the cult of nutritionism has led us to be laser focused on the building blocks of food and lose focus on the food itself. We have begun to build our diets around individual minerals, vitamins, and nutrients, responding and shifting with each new diet trend. These diet trends (South Beach, Atkins, etc…) besides playing into dangerous cultural stereotypes of body image, tend to encourage people to strip things out of their diet: no carbs, no protein, etc.

In reality, we ought to be eating a wide range of foods. In his article “Unhappy Meals” Pollan writes: “The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases.” This rule applies even if we take a broader view of “health.” “Biodiversity in the diet means less monoculture in the fields,” Pollan notes. “What does that have to do with your health? Everything. The vast monocultures that now feed us require tremendous amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep from collapsing. Diversifying those fields will mean fewer chemicals, healthier soils, healthier plants and animals and, in turn, healthier people. It’s all connected, which is another way of saying that your health isn’t bordered by your body and that what’s good for the soil is probably good for you, too.”

To be clear, by promoting the idea of diversity as a frame for how we relate to our food, I am not suggesting that it supplant either local or organic as models. I am instead seeking to develop new ways of understanding those ideas. Indeed we need to consider the locale of our diversity and it is through organic practices that we will help foster more diverse crops. These issues are necessarily intertwined, which makes it difficult talk about any one without the other. However, while diversity in terms of our communities and our ecology has been deeply discussed in various literature, I don’t think the idea of diversity in our food (the thing which most directly connects human communities to their environment) has gotten enough attention. This notion of diversity demands us to look at it in terms of all the aspects of food: place, appearance, species, taste, soil, transportation, and the conditions of the people who produced it.

To value diversity is to give up on the notion and expectation of consistency in the food we eat. That is why this ideas is not just about some condition we place on our purchases but really a much more holistic exploration of our values – or in Michael Pollan term – what we desire. “Part of the pleasure [McDonald’s] fries gave me was how perfectly they conformed to my image and expectation of them,” an idea that McDonalds has successfully planted in the minds of millions of people. This for Pollan suggests another kind of lack of diversity. “like the agricultural practice that goes by that name, this one too – the monoculture of global taste – is about uniformity and control.” The fact that diversity is not valued in our food, or our communities, is connected to a longstanding desire to “elevate the universal over the particular or local, the abstract over the concrete, the ideal over the real, the made over the natural.” Understanding our desire for uniformity in this way, and its connection to power and control, presents problematic parallels between how we think about food and how we think about other people.

It is tempting now, especially with my interest in community and social justice, to extend this metaphor into the realm of community and diversity amongst people. However, I am afraid that digression would double the length of an already long meditation and so instead I will point to the work and writing of Peter Forbes and the Center for Whole Communities. From a little farm in northern Vermont Peter is doing incredible work to foster a movement by interweaving land conservation, community, diversity, justice, food, fairness, and creativity.

In fact, Forbes offers a useful place to conclude. In his book, The Great Remembering, he suggests some key principles that ought to guide land conservation. Diversity is one of those principles. He writes:

We need biological diversity on the planet for the same reasons we need all forms of diversity. Diversity creates empathy, stability, and morality. Simply put, we cannot know unity without first knowing diversity. Land conservation strikes an essential chord of meaning and fairness when it explicitly promotes diversity of all types: biological, cultural, racial, and socioeconomic. To live by a credo of diversity, conservationists must work in diverse geographies, serve diverse peoples, be sympathetic to diverse relationships with the land, seek to work beyond the boundaries of their mission, and be constituted of diverse peoples. Through our work, we are always transferring to the public not just land but empowerment itself. At the heart of land conservation, by definition, is the obligation that all involved look beyond their immediate families to the needs of the larger community. Conservation, therefore, is first and foremost, against self-interest. And if land conservation is about citizenship, then it must equally be about changing existing power structures. Even when we protect a small pond in a remote part of a town, we should be thinking about how this can create profound change in that community. Through this fundamental commitment to diversity, conservation builds awareness, strength, and principle.

The shift in perspective I have been trying to explore here, from organic, to local, to diverse as modes and models for thinking about our food systems mimics the shift in the broader environmental movement towards more broad and encompassing ways of thinking about the land, air and water we seek to protect. This is perhaps most clearly represented by the movement to think of environmental work in terms of entire watersheds rather than individual landscapes. The ecocritic Lawrence Buell describes the idea of watershed conservation as “the most popular defining gestalt in contemporary bioregionalism.” In his definition of watershed as “a luminous aesthetic-ethical-political-ecological image […] a less than empirically airtight category and sometimes in need of cultural translation to boot” we have what I think might be an apt description of diversity as I have tried to explore it here. This has been, at best, a partial exploration of the potential usefulness of diversity as a new way of thinking about, valuing, and advocating for our food, our land and our community. I hope these brief musings serve as a spark for further conversation.

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