Sunday, June 11, 2006

Irresponsible Perfectionism

Several green blogs, including bootstrap analysis, are complaining about Wal-Mart's decision to sell organic food at prices no more than 10% higher than regular. Echoing many enviros, bootstrap analysis writes:

"More organic foods are being shipped from far-flung places; they may be organic, but the environmental costs of the amount of fossil fuel needed to ship them is just as bad if not worse than those of conventionally-grown foods purchased locally."

True, in the short run, buying local is easier on the environment than consuming food that has travelled thousands of miles, even if it is organic. And, yes, supporting small, local farmers is a good thing, both socially and environmentally. The problem is that a farmer doesn't need to do anything to be local. An organic farmer, on the other hand, needs to change deeply entrenched practices. Organic certification takes several years. Farmers who make these changes deserve our support.

On a related note, raising demand for organic food encourages farmers, most of whom are local to somebody, to go organic. Selling organic food, which does cost more to produce, only to local consumers may not be enough to support a farm. Increasing local demand would be ideal, but shipping produce to more distant locations is frequently necessary. As increased demand causes the number of organic farms to rise, buying locally grown organic food will be easier and the need to support far-away farmers transitioning to low-input agriculture will decrease.

Author Michael Pollan, in commenting on Wal-Mart's decision, asserts that, "To index the price of organic to the price of conventional is to give up, right from the start, on the idea...that food should be priced not high or low but responsibly." But what does it mean for food to be responsibly priced? Surely, part of "responsible pricing" is affordability. Already, poor people in America are at a much greater risk for obesity than the rich or middle-class. Why? Because calorie-dense foods are cheap and fruits and vegetables are not. Raising food, particularly produce, prices will increase the health gap between rich and poor. (In the long run, such things as urban agriculture and living wage legislation can help address this problem.)

No, selling organic food at Wal-Mart prices isn't a perfect or complete solution to the problems of our food system. But at this stage, to demand perfection would be irresponsible.

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