It's rush hour and I'm on the subway, hanging onto a strap and onto every word of Time's March 12 lead essay. I can hardly believe my eyes when I read "Forget Organic. Eat Local" on the front cover.
But before long I'm overcome with angst and agonizing over the fundamental question: is this the best break the local food movement will ever get, or the worst?
John Cloud's "search for the perfect apple" story begins in a Manhattan grocery store. (Where else to start a feature on the importance of buying local in the Canadian edition of Time?) Cloud has to make a momentous decision. Should he buy a local apple, probably a carrier of pesticide residues, but at least residues sprayed by a farmer from his own 'hood? Or should he buy the organic apple from California, the one that burned fossil fuels and lost flavour on the way?
The epic ends happily, with Cloud meeting up with a genuine down-home family farm that comes pretty close to meeting organic standards, then sells its produce through a scheme called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where customers commit to buy their share of what the farmer picks any week.
Even though the CSA seemed a "bit lefty" for Cloud's tastes, he grew to relish the face-to-face transparency and friendliness, and "decided that you are where you eat."
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, where is the most beautiful apple of them all? Wherever I am! As soon as I got home, I rushed downstairs to find Christopher Lasch's bestseller from the late 1970s, The Culture Of Narcissism, to start figuring out how Time (if not time) played out on the side of local, not organic.
Lasch would doubtless point out that Cloud's essay is written entirely from the standpoint of a shopper, not a citizen or a parent. He says he "cares deeply about how my food tastes" and despairs that "all our peas could be tasteless pods from far away."
He asks whether the organic choice will deliver superior nutrition or protection from disease, and on very limited evidence decides there's no measurable difference. But he never even thinks to ask whether organic inputs might benefit the birds, the bees or children and grandchildren who will inevitably absorb the pesticides that escape into the air and water.
Other species and other generations do not figure in a world that exists only to be bought and sold for the pleasure of the shopper.
Ironically, it's this very narcissism that landed organics in the jam it's in today. Old-style organics was based in the counterculture and relied heavily on shopper commitment to environmental values. Little attention was paid to appearance and presentation of food, and there were virtually no offerings when it came to heat-and-serve processed or packaged food. What is today called "health food" was then often called "natural food."
The new organic buyer, by contrast, will pay more for organic to reduce personal pesticide burdens. This health-motivated customer is usually caught up in the mainstream time famine, however, and demands that organics come in labour-saving formats that require intensive packaging, which undoes any enviro good provided by organic growing methods.
To meet the demands of these tough customers, organics had no choice but to go big and corporate. It was the only way to gain access to the financing and logistics to manage the economies of scale. Likewise, the demands of mainstream (i.e. narcissist) customers and markets favoured California producers, who could supply goods year-round and had access to taxpayer-funded irrigation (a subsidy estimated to be worth $500,000 per farm yearly) that turned California drylands into an artificially organic garden.
Instead of presenting alternative agriculture, as it used to be known, organics veered toward the organizational, labour and animal welfare practices of corporate agriculture, and many firms were actually bought directly by mega-corporations.
Only customers demanding more than personal fulfillment can save organic or local food from this fate. But now, fickle customers see local as "the new organics." There's little doubt that they can wreak the same impact on the emerging movement for bio-regional food as they did over the last 15 years on organics.
Only Time will tell, but if local food has to include strawberries year-round (greenhouse), come in bright packages and be sold ready to cook and eat, we will have Big Local in short order. Wal-Mart is positioning itself for just this possibility. It's already reading the market: check out its Salute To American Farmers program highlighting local growers.
It's not likely people can shop their way out of the trajectory that will turn local/neighbour into mega/corporate and ends by using market dominance to impose low farm-gate prices. This is why many current advocates of local food, especially the slow foodies, talk about reimagining consumers as "co-producers," partners with farmers.
They are trying to push the idea that we should find ways to enjoy what can be grown locally and seasonally instead of just buying whatever the supermarket has bulk-ordered that day.
Lasch's review of the impact of widespread narcissism in mass culture is most intriguing when he locates the source of narcissism not in arrogance and self-love, but in wounds created by a society in which meaning has been drained out of paid work, self-reliant competence has been eliminated from daily routines (food production and preparation, for example), the demise of basic welfare state protections has created a "war of each against all," and there is no sense of purpose other than yourself.
These trends spell an end to politics and public policy, as life's effort "degenerates into a struggle not for social change but for self-realization."
If you buy that, you can buy "you are where you eat," where you and the external world of purchased commodities and relations are one. This "local chic" is not a good place for public policy around local and sustainable food systems to start from.