The politics of food-3: Organic illusions

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

One thing the book did was rob me of much of the illusions that I had about organic food production. Somehow, I had developed a romantic idea of organic food as being produced on multi-crop family farms with animals roaming freely. This pastoral idyll can still be found, but rarely.

While most such small farms are actually more productive than the big factory farms of the industrial food system, buying food from a large number of small suppliers is too cumbersome for the big organic food supply and marketing chains. Most organic food production, by virtue of its very success and subsequent growth, has been forced to adopt many of the undesirable features of the industrial food chain, such as its creation of a monoculture system and huge energy-intensive transportation networks. Giant organic chains like Whole Foods prefer to deal with a few suppliers to meet all their needs, rather than a large number of small organic family farms. Martha Rosenberg highlights some of the awful practices of factory farms including Whole Foods.

But that small family farm image is so appealing to consumers who purchase organic food that the industrial organic system fosters what Pollan calls the ‘Supermarket Pastoral’ narrative for its produce, encouraging customers by its labeling to think that the food they are buying comes from such places, so that they would be more willing to accommodate the higher price. He describes how the eggs he bought came from ‘Judy’s Family Farm’.

The Judy’s label had always made me picture a little family farm, or maybe even a commune of back-to-the-land lesbians up in Sonoma. . . . Who could begrudge a farmer named Judy $3.59 for a dozen organic eggs she presumably has to get up at dawn each morning to gather? (p. 171)

The reality of organic farming is different from the pastoral narrative. It turns out that Judy is the name of the wife of the owner of Petaluma Poultry, a giant organic factory farm.

Pollan found that “some (certainly not all) organic milk comes from factory farms, where thousands of Holsteins that never encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined to a fenced “dry lot,” eating (certified organic) grain and tethered to milk machines three times a day. The reason much of this milk is ultrapasteurized (a high heat process that damages its nutritional quality) is so that big companies like Horizon and Aurora can sell it over long distances. I discovered organic beef being raised in “organic feedlots” and organic high-fructose corn syrup.” (p. 139)

What about the “free-range chickens” label, which gives the impression that the chickens spend their time clucking happily in grassy open spaces? Pollan found that these too are often grown in factory farms where in any given facility you might find about twenty thousand chickens in large sheds that, apart from eating certified organic feed, live lives almost identical to any industrial factory farm. What allows them to be called “free range” is merely the existence of a little door in the shed that leads to a small grassy yard. But since that door is open only from the time when the chickens are about six weeks old until they are slaughtered just two weeks later, and since most chickens do not take advantage of the door to take a stroll, the labeling hardly matches the image created. (p. 140)

The reason that the chickens are not allowed or encouraged to go outside is because of fears that they will get an infection that, because they are organic, cannot be treated with antibiotics, and this is part of the problem with trying to grow organic food within the framework of the large scale industrial production model.

Maintaining a single-species animal farm on an industrial scale isn’t easy without pharmaceuticals and pesticides. Indeed, that’s why these chemicals were invented in the first place, to keep shaky monocultures from collapsing. Sometimes the large-scale organic farmer looks like someone trying to practice industrial agriculture with one hand tied behind his back. (p. 221)

So while the industrial organic farms are undoubtedly better than their non-organic counterparts, the best solution to these unavoidable problems of both industrial models is the sustainable mixed farm that supplies food locally. Pollan argues that we should seek to buy our food from farms practicing such sustainable agriculture because it benefits all of us in many ways.

[T]here are good reasons to think a genuinely local agriculture will tend to be a more sustainable agriculture. For one thing, it is much less likely to rely on monoculture, the original sin from which almost every other problem of our food system flows. A farmer dependent on a local market will, perforce, need to grow a wide variety of things rather that specialize in the one or two plants of animals that the national market (organic or otherwise) would ask from him. (p. 258)

Until I read Pollan’s book, I had not fully appreciated the negative aspects of monocultural farming. It arose with the use of chemical fertilizers on crops and new hybrid varieties that enabled farmers to get huge yields out of a single crop.

The extensive production and use of chemical agricultural fertilizers began right after World War II when the US found itself saddled with huge surpluses of ammonium nitrate, a key ingredient of explosives, and the factories to produce it. Shifting its use to crop fertilizer provided new uses for the product and a way to keep the production factories running. “The chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on poison gases developed for the war) is the product of the government’s effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes.” (p. 41)

Next: How we all became walking corn chips

POST SCRIPT: Social Security

Many people have been frightened into thinking that Social Security is going bankrupt soon. This article from the Economic Policy Institute argues that these dire predictions are overblown and that young people have little to fear.


  1. Shruti says

    A service that I am trying out this year:

    It’s a bit more expensive (and unreliable -- you don’t get to pick what you get) than the grocery store, but it’s mostly organic and all local. And the food is definitely more fresh than store produce.

  2. Paul Jarc says

    So while the industrial organic farms are undoubtedly better than their non-industrial counterparts,

    Should that be “non-organic” instead of “non-industrial”?

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