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Organic foods from your supermarket may comply with the requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, but are you really buying what you think you’re buying?

Many people “go organic” because they want to buy family-farmed, locally-operated produce. But as Steven Shapin points out in the New Yorker, most organic food sold in grocery stores is anything but. Earthbound Farm, a major organic produce supplier for Whole Foods, has projected revenues for 2006 of more than $450 million, and farms more than 26,000 acres. Doesn’t sound so quaint anymore, does it.


What’s more, one calorie of arugula grown on the West Coast costs 57 calories of fossil fuel to get to the other side of the country. “The growing of arugula is indeed organic, but almost everything else is late-capitalist business as usual,” Shapin writes, going on to say that “‘Organic,’ then, isn’t necessarily ‘local,’ and neither ‘organic’ nor ‘local’ is necessarily ‘sustainable.'”

In an article in Mother Jones magazine, Michael Pollan describes those who go one step further, buying straight from their local farms. It’s an interesting (and for most of us, foreign) concept — and while it requires more immediate effort and money than buying from Whole Foods, farmer Joel Salatin tells Pollan that food purchased from farms is, in the long run, cheaper. “Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illness, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water — of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap,” Salatin says.

There is, in Salatin’s opinion, little difference between selling to Wal-Mart and selling to Whole Foods; selling directly to consumers, however, pulls the community together, brings back “pastoral values” and gives customers the satisfaction of knowing exactly what they’re feeding their families.

Of course, even if we should buy locally farmed food, many of us won’t bother (especially those of us who can hardly find our way to Queens, let alone rural farms). But Pollan argues that if we do, the movement could gain momentum fast. “Already the desire on the part of consumers to put something different in their bodies has created a $14 billion market in organic food in the United States,” he writes, and this marketplace was built with no help from the government.

So a successful local food economy, Pollan says, really depends on the evolution of a new kind of eater — one who enjoys finding, preparing, and preserving food. This sounds wonderful, and I can just picture my future children spreading slices of farm bread with locally-farmed strawberry jam. But the whole scene does seem a little unrealistic. Right? Maybe not: Pollan argues that the promise of global capitalism ultimately depends on faith, too — faith that the destruction of certain things we value today will “achieve a greater happiness and prosperity at some unspecified future date.” Maybe, then, we should consider sacrificing a little convenience today for a more soul-fulfilling — and gastronomically fulfilling — tomorrow?

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