Author: Michael Pollan
Source: New York Times
When organic food was introduced about 30 years ago, it was mostly declared to be hippie food with full grain and bricklike bread and cereals. Nowadays, admitting that you consume organic food does not make you an outsider any more. In fact, time has changed so much that the collective attitude regards you as a member of the middle or upper class. But organics still seem to contradict the philosophy of Wal-Mart. This is to be changed by Wal-Mart bringing new products on the market and supplying a full selection of organic foods, certified by the U.S.D.A, to all of its stores for a price which is hardly higher than the price of conventional food. Consumers who have barely any knowledge about organic and are not able to buy them for economical reasons, will be able to afford it soon. This should be the good news for the United States – but is that really the case? Up to now, ten percent of organic food is already imported and this number will increase. A main part of the organic production already takes place in Mexico or China due to the fact that the production there is cheaper. Wal-Mart will force down the price of organics even more. The amount of pesticides and chemical fertilizers will decrease immensely – in whichever country that will be. But what happened to the original idea of organic products? The attitude of Wal-Mart is to produce cheap at any price. According to the organic idea, the price should depend on different facts because producing food on low cost is on the expense of the environment. Soil depletion, pollution and subsidies to conventional farms, damage of the public health in form of diseases of civilisation and on the well-being of farmers and workers in the food industry are only a few of the disadvantages of mass production.
An industrialization of organic food has already started with organic pasture. Dairies with up to 5,000 cows have been set up. These cows never touch grass but spend their lives eating organic grains instead of grazing, which is, of course, not only bad for their health but also for the quality of their milk. The globalization of organic food is on its way – you can buy organic asparagus from Argentina, raspberries from Mexico and milk from New Zealand. Organic “mass production” in many cases means monoculture farms. This development will be forced by Wal-Mart and therefore won’t be helpful to small farms either. Putting pressure on the prices means that the farmers will have to give in or not be able to make business with Wal-Mart at all. The market entry of a dominating company like Wal-Mart in the organic sector will also result in a change of the definition of “organic” due to its influence in politics. It is the responsibility of the government to protect organic standards; unfortunately this does not happen in all cases. One example was shown in a state in the US – a chicken farmer got the permission of a congressman to feed his organic chicken with conventional chicken food if the price of organic feed exceeds a certain level. What sense is there if a chicken fed with conventional food but is sold as organic? No sense but the Orwellian one: because the government says so. This rule, however, was repealed because of the protest of other organic farmers and consumers; but this story shows, how fragile the market is – it is always necessary to take a critical look.