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May 21, 2006

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Big Organic

Last week’s New Yorker featured an interesting piece by Steven Shapin on the American organic food industry and how it’s come to mirror the rest of Big Ag. I’ve moved Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma to the top of my reading list.

Favorite part of the article? My rediscovery of the word “immured,” which is how Shapin describes a shipment of organic asparagus that had been held up in distribution from Argentina. The word conjures up images of Fortunato shouting for Montresor. Almost as fun as my discovery of the German word for “bra”: büstenhalter.

Posted May 21, 2006 at 6:45 | Comments (4) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted, Society/Culture


With Wal-Mart entering the fray, the quality of "Organics" will lower but the distribution will rise. Paradox? We need a broader awareness of organic agriculture--especially with fuel and fertilizer prices rising rapidly. But we need to wake up and start sourcing our foods within 500 miles from home, not 2000.

This ties in with the dilemma presented to ethanol/bio-diesel production--they rely on fuel, fertilizer and transportation over long distances. So the very thing that is supposed to help ease the fossil fuel crisis is putting a heavier demand on the situation.

Will anyone wake up and start using biodiesel to produce ethanol, or to grow organic corn and soy? Or must farmers cry for more subsidies and hand-outs to make big-Ag work? Time will tell.

The entire matrix of issues surrounding food production & transport is sooo interesting. I still think we could accomplish a lot (well... maybe a medium-lot) through better labeling. Nutrition labels really have changed the way a lot of people choose & consume food. I think environmental-impact labels -- if they were legit & audited -- could do the same. There's gotta be a movement to do that somewhere, yeah?

So, since January I've been trying out Terra Firma Farms, one of many community supported agriculture or subscription farming options available in SF. I'm pretty happy with it. It's not a great deal, but prices are competitive. I don't always get the fruits and vegetables I would most prefer, but the food is always fresh. I have a pretty good idea of how my food is produced and how it gets to me.

In fact, since I happened to drive by the site last month, I now know exactly where my food is coming from. Cool! I know it's 75 miles away. Compare to the average distance traveled by produce in the U.S., commonly quoted at ~1500 miles as derived from a 1980 study. To be fair, Californians are likely to have shorter average travel distances since such a majority of U.S. produce originates in the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys. But don't forget the fruit we get from Florida...

I also know that the travel time of my food is at most one day from the farm to me, which makes a huge difference. Before I tried this, I never would have thought that spinach and salad greens could last 2 weeks in my refrigerator and still be fresh, 3 weeks and still be edible. Considering the < 1 week life of counterparts bought at Safeway really makes me wonder what horrible things are happening to Safeway's greens before they get to the store...

I would say if you have the time and transportation, hitting the farmers' markets is still the best approach. But for me, the convenience of the subscription approach is also a factor.

Good point on labeling Robin; I can imagine a real revolution. Would you pay 25 cents more for salad with a "good for 3 weeks" label versus a "wilting tomorrow" label? It will probably be a long time coming, however; just look at the current state of labeling (full index).

Old New Yorker article that speaks a bit to the growing pains of the organic movement. Also may give you new respect for those creepy bag-a-salads you can get at the supermarket.

On the ethanol debate, isn't it pretty much agreed now that ethanol can be an efficient energy source? There was a time when people thought ethanol production would use more oil than it saved, but that's definitely the minority opinion now. Of course, ethanol still can't solve the entire oil problem. And we shouldn't be subsidizing high fructose corn syrup.

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