My friend Jay had the latest issue of Time magazine laying on his counter, and the cover article, with a picture of a big red apple, let me know that the local vs. organic debate was actually reaching a mainstream audience.
Here is the dilemma: does the author, John Cloud, buy an organic apple that’s been trucked in from California, or a local apple from upstate NY that isn’t organic.
Solution: He buys both and does a taste comparison. The local apple is marginally better.
But the debate is far from settled. Where once, “organic” was the buzzword of the socially conscious eater, now, it’s “local”.
To tell you the truth, Whole Foods popularity and all that, ‘organic’ still has some hefty stigma attached to it. This month, a local Westchester magazine, InTown, ran a restaurant review on an organic restaurant. Here is how she summed up her feelings about going to an organic restaurant, “Turns out, the food was tasty—bison rib eye tastes just like regular steak; the wine was only a bit more tart than my usual Pinot Noir—and the vibe was pleasantly laid-back. My only question is: Will the rest of Westchester be so open?”
Seems the folks in Westchester are still equating organic with tasteless, scary granola and sprouts.
So, are the people at Time magazine ahead of the curve discussing the radical idea of thinking about local v. organic? The article is a primer to initiate awareness and discussion; it’s not a groundbreaking investigation into food politics.
One of the interesting themes of the article is summed up with this quote, “In short, science can’t tell you what to eat.” I say, thanks god. When taste, pleasure, and culture get ignored, I may as well squirt a tube of nutrition in my mouth. When taste, pleasure, and culture get ignored, that’s when you get into real nutritional trouble because you are ignoring all of your body and mind’s signals that will keep you happy and balanced.
He goes on to further quote Michael Pollan:” "Instead of relying on the accumulated wisdom of a cuisine, or even on the wisdom of our senses, we rely on expert opinion," journalist Michael Pollan wrote in last year’s acclaimed book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. "We place our faith in science to sort out what culture once did." But science should trump culture on matters of nutrition. The problem is that science offers no clear guidelines yet on how beneficial organic food is.”
Nutritional science is a quagmire; currently there is a debate on whether or not vitamin supplements really work. What?? We are talking about decimating a massive industry that does a lot of advertising, so I wonder how far that discussion is going to go. No, I am not looking to science to determine what to make for dinner.
Mr. Cloud then does something amazing, so amazing that he almost breaks his arm patting himself on the back. It’s such a pain to go to a farmer’s market, multiple vendors so you have to stand in line more than once, it’s cold out, they don’t have markets everyday etc. So he finds a solution and joins a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). It’s a riff on the old food co-ops, but here a local farm contracts with individual people to supply them groceries.
Mr. Cloud is confounded by some of the ‘lefty aspects’ of a CSA, “You don’t choose what the farmer grows.” Well, duh. Mr. Cloud lives in an apartment in NYC, and I’m guessing that he’s not all that in tune with when is the best time to plant radishes. And can you imagine, sometimes it hails and then there is no lettuce!
By the end of the article, he is rhapsodizing about the glories of meeting the little boy who gathers his eggs, and he is even embracing seasonality, “It’s a radical way of thinking about cooking because it’s so very old.”
Are we so removed from the farmer, from seasonality, that going to the local market and cooking what’s available is radical?
One key point that Mr. Cloud did not address was the cost of eating local. I would love to shop exclusively at the Greenmarket, but I simply cannot afford to. What about the middle class and below middle class? Are they terminally doomed to pesticide laden foods from Chile?
I’ve never understood why Italy has such thriving local markets, reasonably priced. Surely they face similar issues that U.S. farmers face, so why is their food affordable? Yes there is a lively market culture in Italy. Wednesdays in Umbertide are a social gathering as well as a time to stock up on lettuce and eggs. Is that why? Market forces and tradition keep the prices low? I’ve asked this question many times, and no one has been able to give me a satisfactory answer.
I don’t think that I can be a locavore, dedicated to eating only local foods, as much as I support the movement. I can’t give up coffee, olive oil, salt, good red wine…then again, with global warming, maybe these things will start becoming more available, closer to home.