Friday, July 22, 2005

Powell on the perils of organicism

Julie Powell has published an interesting article in today's New York Times on the perils of the organic food movement. According to Powell, while proponents of organic produce, hormone-free dairy, and cage-free poultry have succeeded in highlighting many of America's problems with poor diet and obesity, they run the risk of conflating gastronomic choices with moral worth. To radical organicists, the mother who buys her children hormone-treated milk because it's half the price of the stuff at Whole Foods is bordering on child abuse. This extremist attitude "gets [Powell's] hackels up."

Powell is no doubt correct about the obnoxiously condescending attitude of some organicists, but she too easily brushes over a huge problem in America today. People do eat too many things that are bad for them, and changing people's diets should be a major concern for folks who think and write about food. While we can certainly get carried away by our own gastronomic superiority, we should be encouraging quality foods as one method for altering dietary practices. As demand for quality, organic food increases, supply will expand, and eventually prices will start falling. We have already begun to see this. Our Dominick's stocks a considerable selection of organic produce, most of which is cheaper than that available at Whole Foods, and a few of the local produce markets have large organic sections. Often, the price difference between organic produce and "standard" produce is negligible. Thus, choosing quality products loses its economic disadvantages.

The wine world provides an intriguing example of this phenomenon. Many of the people who buy expensive organic foods are the same ones who have driven the expansion of worldwide production of high-quality wines. As we all know, more wineries are producing both more and better wines than ever. And although wealthy buyers have bid up the prices of certain pedigreed and cult wines beyond the reach of most Americans, this general interest in wine has dramatically increased the quality of standard table wines. We are importing great wines from previously unexplored regions, and enormous wine conglomerates like Gallo and Kendall-Jackson are responding by increasing the quality of their basic bottlings.

The lesson for the organic food market would suggest that although wealthy, snobby types will always seek out the rarest items and bid their prices up to unreachable levels, a general public interest in quality foods will eventually create a better and cheaper supply of these goods to more people. It's certainly not unimaginable that soon, large food purveyors and distributors will begin producing good food at reasonable prices. The message of quality food is certainly one worth spreading.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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