Saturday, July 23, 2005

The ethics of organic food

A FEW FRIENDS ASK what I think of an op-ed by Julie Powell in yesterday’s New York Times, “Don't Get Fresh With Me!”.

Not much, really. She makes two points in her column, both of them simplistic; straw men set up as subjects for a newspaper entertainment. One has to do with the economies involved: here her memorable line is “When you wed money to decency, you come perilously close to equating penury with immorality”.

But the organic (or, I would prefer, sustainable) food movement does not wed money to decency. It’s a specious argument that organically or sustainably produced food is more expensive than the product of what has presumptiously come to be called “conventional” agriculture, for at least two reasons.

First, much of the cost of modern chemical- and petroleum-dependent agriculture is simply ignored and deferred — not paid at all (yet), or posted to accounts conveniently kept elsewhere. Second, much of what is invented, produced, sold, and eaten as “food” in today’s society is and has been developed as deliberately expensive alternatives to real food. When by far the majority of the potato crop is bred (or gene-manipulated), raised, harvested, and tooled expressly for potato chips and french-fries, it’s essentially meaningless to compare the cost of organic potatoes in the farmer’s market with giant russets or boilers in the supermarket.

Her other point is more interesting, though less arresting: that cooking is not (and is more than) shopping. But this too is set up with specious reasoning and outlandish generalization:

“For the newer generation, a love for traditional fine cuisine is cast as fussy and snobbish, while spending lots of money is, curiously, considered egalitarian and wise”.

“I object to this equation,” she goes on, and well she might, and so do I — both because it is false, and because it is a rhetorical distraction in her column. Good cuisine will always be a matter of finding the best provender you can and doing the most appropriate thing with it, depending on the cultural context you’re operating in.

It’s an art, like any other: it represents the intersection of material, method, and mores. All else is simply entertainment, and often entertainment whose expense, finally, can no longer be justified.

1 comment:

Ned Paynter said...

The fact that Julia Powell made her journalistic reputation as a risqué Child of our time shouldn’t blind us to the very real issues she raises, however provocatively, in her NY Times op-ed column. The sustainable food movement does not deliberately “wed money to decency”, but it is patently true that economically challenged urbanites, particularly those not living in centers of gastronomic enlightenment, must make do with the cheapest food they can buy from whatever sources are available to them. The fact that these low prices come at an enormous socio-economic cost is something they may choose to consider if they are of a philosophical frame of mind, but it has no relevance to the vital tug-of-war between gullet and wallet.

“Good cuisine will always be a matter of finding the best provender you can and doing the most appropriate thing with it, depending on the cultural context you’re operating in.” True enough; but the cultural context necessarily includes the economic context. In the words of John Berger, “Peasant life is a life committed completely to survival.” In the West our land-based peasantry has virtually disappeared, but a new proletariat has emerged for whom the manufactured environment is the unnatural world from which they must somehow wring a precarious subsistence. As the supermarket bargain bins become the last wilderness in which to forage, they must revert to the ancient pragmatism of peasant inventiveness.