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What’s for Dinner?

August 27, 2010
by Michael Pollan
Image source: Illustration by Craig LaRotonda / Revelation Studios

In his recently released book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, journalism professor Michael Pollan, the best-selling author of The Botany of Desire, explores the food and marketing chain, link by link, leading to the modern American table. He finds that the ecology of our farms, stores, and kitchens has reper­cus­sions, not only on our wellness and our economy, but also on the health of the entire globe.

Supermarket Pastoral

I enjoy shopping at Whole Foods nearly as much as I enjoy browsing a good bookstore, which, come to think of it, is probably no accident: Shopping at Whole Foods is a literary experience, too. That’s not to take anything away from the food, which is generally of high quality, much of it “certified organic” or “humanely raised” or “free range.” But right there, that’s the point: It’s the evocative prose as much as anything else that makes this food really special, elevating an egg or chicken breast or bag of arugula from the realm of ordinary protein and carbohydrates into a much headier experience, one with complex aesthetic, emotional, and even political dimensions. Take the “range-fed” sirloin steak I recently eyed in the meat case. According to the brochure on the counter, it was formerly part of a steer that spent its days “living in beautiful places” ranging from “plant-diverse, high-mountain meadows to thick aspen groves and miles of sagebrush-filled flats.” Now a steak like that has got to taste better than one from Safeway, where the only accompanying information comes in the form of a number: the price, I mean, which you can bet will be considerably less. But I’m evidently not the only shopper willing to pay for a good story.

With the growth of organics and mounting concerns about the wholesomeness of industrial food, “storied” food is showing up in supermarkets everywhere these days, but it is Whole Foods that consistently offers the most cutting-edge grocery lit. On a recent visit I filled my shopping cart with eggs “from cage-free vegetarian hens,” milk from cows that live “free from unnecessary fear and distress,” wild salmon caught by Native Americans in Yakutat, Alaska (population 833), and heirloom tomatoes from Capay Farm ($4.99 a pound), “one of the early pioneers of the organic movement.” The organic broiler I picked up even had a name: Rosie, who turned out to be a “sustainably farmed free-range chicken” from Petaluma Poultry, a company whose “farming methods strive to create harmonious relationships in nature, sustaining the health of all creatures and the natural world.” Okay, not the most mellifluous or even meaningful sentence, but at least their heart’s in the right place.

In several corners of the store I was actually forced to choose between subtly competing stories. For example, some of the organic milk in the milk case was “ultrapasteurized,” an extra processing step that was presented as a boon to the consumer, since it extends shelf life. But then another, more local dairy boasted about the fact they had said “no” to ultrapasteurization, implying that their product was fresher, less processed, and therefore more organic. This was the dairy that talked about cows living free from distress, something I was beginning to feel a bit of myself by this point.

This particular dairy’s label had a lot to say about the bovine lifestyle: Its Holsteins are provided with “an appropriate environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting area… sufficient space, proper facilities and the company of their own kind.” All this sounded pretty great, until I read the story of another dairy selling raw milk completely unprocessed—whose “cows munch green grass year round.” Which made me wonder whether the first dairy’s idea of an appropriate environment for a cow included, as I had simply presumed, a pasture. All of a sudden the absence from their story of that word seemed weirdly conspicuous. As the literary critics would say, the writer seemed to be eliding the whole notion of cows and grass. Indeed, the longer I shopped in Whole Foods, the more I thought that this is a place where the skills of a literary critic might come in handy—those, and perhaps also a journalist’s.

Wordy labels, point-of-purchase brochures, and certification schemes are supposed to make an obscure and complicated food chain more legible to the consumer. In the industrial food economy, virtually the only information that travels along the food chain linking producer and consumer is price. Just look at the typical newspaper ad for a supermarket. The sole quality on display here is actually a quantity: tomatoes $0.69 a pound; ground chuck $1.09 a pound; eggs $0.99 a dozen—special this week. Is there any other category of product sold on such a reductive basis? The bare-bones information travels in both directions, of course, and farmers who get the message that consumers care only about price will themselves care only about yield. This is how a cheap food economy reinforces itself.

One of the key innovations of organic food was to allow some more information to pass along the food chain between the producer and the consumer—an implicit snatch of narrative along with the number. A certified organic label tells a little story about how a particular food was produced, giving the consumer a way to send a message back to the farmer that she values tomatoes produced without harmful pesticides or prefers to feed her children milk from cows that haven’t been injected with growth hormones. The word “organic” has proved to be one of the most powerful words in the supermarket: Without any help from government, farmers and consumers working together in this way have built a $14 billion industry that is now the fastest-growing sector of the food economy.

Yet the organic label itself—like every other such label in the supermarket—is really just an imperfect substitute for direct observation of how a food is produced, a concession to the reality that most people in an industrial society haven’t the time or the inclination to follow their food back to the farm, a farm that today is apt to be, on average, 1,500 miles away. So to bridge that space, we rely on certifiers and label writers and, to a considerable extent, our imagination of what the farms that are producing our food really look like. The organic label may conjure an image of a simpler agriculture, but its very existence is an industrial artifact. The question is, What about the farms themselves? How well do they match the stories told about them?

Taken as a whole, the story on offer in Whole Foods is a pastoral narrative in which farm animals live much as they did in the books we read as children, and our fruits and vegetables grow in well-composted soils on small farms. “Organic” on the label conjures up a rich narrative, even if it is the consumer who fills in most of the details, supplying the hero (American family farmer), the villain (agribusinessman), and the literary genre, which I’ve come to think of as Supermarket Pastoral. By now we may know better than to believe this too-simple story, but not much better, and the grocery store poets do everything they can to encourage us in our willing suspension of disbelief.

Supermarket Pastoral is a most seductive literary form, beguiling enough to survive in the face of a great many discomfiting facts. I suspect that’s because it gratifies some of our deepest, oldest longings, not merely for safe food, but for a connection to the earth and to the handful of domesticated creatures we’ve long depended on. Whole Foods understands all this better than we do. One of the company’s marketing consultants explained to me that the Whole Foods shopper feels that by buying organic he is “engaging in authentic experiences” and imaginatively enacting a “return to a utopian past with the positive aspects of modernity intact.” This sounds a lot like Virgilian pastoral, which also tried to have it both ways. In The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx writes that Virgil’s shepherd Tityrus, no primitive, “enjoys the best of both worlds—the sophisticated order of art and the simple spontaneity of nature.” In keeping with the pastoral tradition, Whole Foods offers what Marx terms “a landscape of reconciliation” between the realms of nature and culture, a place where, as the marketing consultant put it, “people will come together through organic foods to get back to the origin of things”—perhaps by sitting down to enjoy one of the microwavable organic TV dinners (four words I never expected to see conjoined) stacked in the frozen-food case. How’s that for having it both ways?

Of course, the trickiest contradiction Whole Foods attempts to reconcile is the one between the industrialization of the organic food industry, of which it is a part, and the pastoral ideals on which that industry has been built. The organic movement, as it was once called, has come a remarkably long way in the past 30 years, to the point where it now looks considerably less like a movement than a big business. Lining the walls above the sumptuously stocked produce section in my Whole Foods are full-color photographs of local organic farmers accompanied by text blocks setting forth their farming philosophies. Some of these farms—Capay is one example—still sell their produce to Whole Foods, but little of the produce on sale comes from small farms. That’s because Whole Foods in recent years has adopted the grocery industry’s standard regional distribution system, which makes supporting small farms impractical. Tremendous warehouses buy produce for dozens of stores at a time, which forces them to deal exclusively with tremendous farms. So while the posters still depict family farmers and their philosophies, the produce on sale below them comes primarily from the two big corporate organic growers in California, Earthbound Farm and Grimmway Farms (which owns Cal-Organic, one of the most ubiquitous organic brands in the supermarket), that together dominate the market for organic fresh produce in America. (Earthbound alone grows 80 percent of the organic lettuce sold in America.)

As I tossed a plastic box of Earthbound prewashed spring mix salad into my Whole Foods cart, I realized that I was venturing deep into the belly of the industrial beast. But I’m not prepared to accept the premise that industrial organic is necessarily a bad thing, not if the goal is to reform a half-trillion-dollar food system based on chain supermarkets and the consumer’s expectations that food be convenient and cheap.

And yet to the extent that the organic movement was conceived as a critique of industrial values, surely there comes a point when the process of industrialization will cost organic its soul (to use a word still uttered by organic types without irony), when supermarket pastoral becomes more fiction than fact: another lie told by marketers.

The question is, Has that point been reached? Just how well does Supermarket Pastoral hold up under close reading and journalistic scrutiny?

About as well as you would expect anything genuinely pastoral to hold up in the belly of a $14 billion industry, which is to say not very well at all. At least that’s what I discovered when I traced a few of the items in my Whole Foods cart back to the farms where they were grown. I learned, for example, 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 milking 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—more words I never expected to see combined. And I learned about the making of the aforementioned organic TV dinner, a microwavable bowl of “rice, vegetables, and grilled chicken breast with a savory herb sauce.” Country Herb, as the entrée is called, turns out to be a highly industrialized organic product, involving a choreography of 31 ingredients assembled from far-flung farms, laboratories, and processing plants scattered over a half-dozen states and two countries, and containing such mysteries of modern food technology as high-oleic safflower oil, guar and xanthan gum, soy lecithin, carrageenan, and “natural grill flavor.” Several of these ingredients are synthetic additives permitted under federal organic rules. So much for “whole” foods. The manufacturer of Country Herb is Cascadian Farm, a pioneering organic farm turned processor in Washington state that is now a wholly owned subsidiary of General Mills. (The Country Herb chicken entrée has since been discontinued.)

I also visited Rosie the organic chicken at her farm in Petaluma, which turns out to be more animal factory than farm. She lives in a shed with 20,000 other Rosies, who, aside from their certified organic feed, live lives little different from that of any other industrial chicken. Ah, but what about the “free-range” lifestyle promised on the label? True, there’s a little door in the shed leading out to a narrow grassy yard. But the free-range story seems a bit of a stretch when you discover that the door remains firmly shut until the birds are at least five or six weeks old—for fear they’ll catch something outside—and the chickens are slaughtered only two weeks later.

From People’s Park to Petaluma Poultry

If you walk five blocks north from the Whole Foods in Berkeley along Telegraph Avenue and then turn right at Dwight Street, you’ll soon come to a trash-strewn patch of grass and trees dotted with the tattered camps of a few dozen homeless people. Mostly in their fifties and sixties, some still affecting hippie styles of hair and dress, these men and women pass much of their days sleeping and drinking, like so many of the destitute everywhere. Here, though, they also spend time tending scruffy little patches of flowers and vegetables—a few stalks of corn, some broccoli plants gone to seed. People’s Park today is the saddest of places, a blasted monument to ’60s hopes that curdled a long time ago. And yet, while the economic and social distances separating the well-heeled shoppers cruising the aisles at Whole Foods from the unheeled homeless in People’s Park could not be much greater, the two neighborhood institutions are branches of the same unlikely tree.

Indeed, were there any poetic justice in the world, the executives at Whole Foods would have long ago erected a commemorative plaque at People’s Park and a booth to give away organic fruits and vegetables. The organic movement, much like environmentalism and feminism, has deep roots in the ’60s radicalism that briefly flourished on this site; organic is one of several tributaries of the counterculture that ended up disappearing into the American mainstream, but not before significantly altering its course. And if you trace that particular tributary all the way back to its spring, your journey will eventually pass through this park.

People’s Park was born on April 20, 1969, when a group calling itself the Robin Hood Commission seized a vacant lot owned by the University of California and set to work rolling out sod, planting trees, and, perhaps most auspiciously, putting in a vegetable garden. Calling themselves “agrarian reformers,” the radicals announced that they wanted to establish on the site the model of a new cooperative society built from the ground up; that included growing their own “uncontaminated” food. One of the inspirations for the commission’s act of civil disobedience was the example of the Diggers in 17th-century England, who had also seized public land with the aim of growing food to give away to the poor. In People’s Park that food would be organic, a word that at the time brimmed with meanings that went far beyond any particular agricultural method.

In Appetite for Change, his definitive account of how the ’60s counterculture changed the way we eat, historian Warren J. Belasco writes that the events in People’s Park marked the “greening” of the counterculture, the pastoral turn that would lead to the commune movement in the countryside, to food co-ops and “guerilla capitalism,” and, eventually, to the rise of organic agriculture and businesses like Whole Foods. The moment for such a turn to nature was ripe in 1969: DDT was in the news, an oil spill off Santa Barbara had blackened California’s coastline, and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River had caught fire. Overnight, it seemed, “ecology” was on everybody’s lips, and “organic” close behind.

As Belasco points out, the word “organic” had enjoyed a currency among 19th-century English social critics, who contrasted the social fragmentation and atomism wrought by the Industrial Revolution with the ideal of a lost organic society, one where the bonds of affection and cooperation still held. Organic stood for everything industrial was not. But applying the word “organic” to food and farming occurred much more recently: in the 1940s, in the pages of Organic Gardening and Farming. Founded in 1940 by J. I. Rodale, a health-food fanatic from New York City’s Lower East Side, the magazine devoted its pages to the agricultural methods and health benefits of growing food without synthetic chemicals—”organically.”

Organic Gardening and Farming struggled along in obscurity until 1969, when an ecstatic review in the The Whole Earth Catalog brought it to the attention of hippies trying to figure out how to grow vegetables without patronizing the military-industrial complex. “If I were a dictator determined to control the national press,” the Whole Earth correspondent wrote, “Organic Gardening would be the first publication I’d squash, because it’s the most subversive. I believe that organic gardeners are in the forefront of a serious effort to save the world by changing man’s orientation to it, to move away from the collective, centrist, superindustrial state, toward a simpler, realer one-to-one relationship with the earth itself.”

Within two years Organic Gardening and Farming‘s circulation climbed from 400,000 to 700,000.

As the “Whole Earth” encomium suggests, the counterculture had married the broader and narrower definitions of the word “organic.” The organic garden planted in People’s Park (soon imitated in urban lots across the country) was itself conceived of as a kind of scale model of a more cooperative society, a landscape of reconciliation that proposed to replace industrialism’s attitude of conquest toward nature with a softer, more harmonious approach. A pastoral utopia in miniature, such a garden embraced not only the humans who tended and ate from it but “as many life kingdoms as possible,” in the words of an early account of Berkeley’s “people’s gardens” in an underground paper called Good Times. The vegetables harvested from these plots, which were sometimes called “conspiracies of soil,” would supply, in addition to wholesome calories, an “edible dynamic”—a “new medium through which people can relate to one another and their nourishment.” For example, organic’s rejection of agricultural chemicals was also a rejection of the war machine, since the same corporations—Dow, Monsanto—that manufactured pesticides also made napalm and Agent Orange, the herbicide with which the U.S. military was waging war against nature in Southeast Asia. Eating organic thus married the personal to the political.

Which was why much more was at stake than a method of farming. Acting on the ecological premise that everything’s connected to everything else, the early organic movement sought to establish not just an alternative mode of production (the chemical-free farms) but an alternative system of distribution (the anticapitalist food co-ops), and even an alternative mode of consumption (the “countercuisine”). These were the three struts on which organic’s revolutionary program stood; since ecology taught “you can never do only one thing,” what you ate was inseparable from how it was grown and how it reached your table.

A countercuisine based on whole grains and unprocessed organic ingredients rose up to challenge conventional industrial “white bread food.” (“Plastic food” was an epithet thrown around a lot.) For a host of reasons that seem ridiculous in retrospect, brown foods of all kinds—rice, bread, wheat, eggs, sugar, soy sauce, tamari—were deemed morally superior to white foods. Brown foods were less adulterated by industry, of course, but just as important, eating them allowed you to express your solidarity with the world’s brown peoples. (Only later would the health benefits of these whole foods be recognized, not the first or last time an organic conceit would find scientific backing.) But perhaps best of all, brown foods were also precisely what your parents didn’t eat. How to grow this stuff without chemicals was a challenge, especially to city kids coming to the farm or garden with a head full of pastoral ideals and precisely no horticultural experience. The rural communes served as organic agriculture’s ramshackle research stations, places where neophyte farmers could experiment with making compost and devising alternative methods of pest control. The steepness of their learning curve was on display in the food co-ops, where sorry-looking organic produce was the rule for many years. But the freak farmers stuck with it, following Rodale’s step-by-step advice, and some of them went on to become excellent farmers.

One such notable success was Gene Kahn, the founder of Cascadian Farm, the company responsible for the organic TV dinner. Today, Cascadian Farm is foremost a General Mills brand, but it began as a quasi-communal hippie farm, located on a narrow, gorgeous shelf of land wedged between the Skagit River and the North Cascades, about 75 miles northeast of Seattle. (The idyllic little farmstead depicted on the package turns out to be a real place.) Originally called the New Cascadian Survival and Reclamation Project, the farm was started in 1971 by Kahn with the idea of growing food for the collective of environmentally minded hippies he had hooked up with in nearby Bellingham. At the time, Kahn was a 24-year-old grad school dropout from the South Side of Chicago, who had been inspired by Silent Spring and Diet for a Small Planet to go back to the land—and from there to change the American food system. This particular dream was not so outrageous in 1971, but Kahn’s success in actually realizing it surely is: He went on to become a pioneer of the organic movement and probably has done as much as anyone to move organic food into the mainstream, getting it out of the food co-op and into the supermarket. Today, the eponymous Cascadian Farm is a General Mills showcase—”a PR farm,” as its founder freely acknowledges—and Kahn, erstwhile hippie farmer, is a General Mills vice president.

Like most of the early organic farmers, Kahn had no idea what he was doing at first, and he suffered his share of crop failures. In 1971 organic agriculture was in its infancy—a few hundred scattered amateurs learning by trial and error how to grow food without chemicals, an ad hoc grassroots R&D effort for which there was no institutional support. (In fact, the USDA was actively hostile to organic agriculture until recently, viewing it—quite rightly—as a critique of the industrialized agriculture the USDA was promoting.) What the pioneer organic farmers had instead of the USDA’s agricultural extension service was Organic Gardening and Farming (to which Kahn subscribed) and the model of various premodern agricultural systems, as described in books such as Farmers of Forty Centuries by F. H. King and Sir Albert Howard’s The Soil and Health and An Agricultural Testament. This last book may fairly be called the movement’s bible.

On an overcast morning a few winters ago, Gene Kahn drove me out to see the original farm, following the twists of the Skagit River east in a new forest-green Lexus with vanity plates that say ORGANIC. Kahn is a strikingly boyish-looking man in his late fifties, and after you factor in a shave and 20 pounds, it’s not hard to pick out his face from the beards-beads-and-tractors photos on display in his office. Walking me through the history of his company as we drove out to the farm, Kahn spoke candidly and without defensiveness about the compromises made along his path from organic farmer to agribusinessman, and about “how everything eventually morphs into the way the world is.”

By the late ’70s, Kahn had become a pretty good organic farmer and an even better businessman. He had discovered the economic virtues of adding value to his produce by processing it (freezing blueberries and strawberries, making jam), and once Cascadian Farm started processing food, Kahn discovered he could make more money buying produce from other farmers than by growing it himself—the same discovery conventional agribusiness companies had made a long time before.

“The whole notion of a ‘cooperative community’ we started with gradually began to mimic the system,” Kahn told me. “We were shipping food around the country, using diesel fuel—we were industrial organic farmers. I was, bit by bit, becoming more of this world, and there was a lot of pressure on the business to become more privatized.”

That pressure became irresistible in 1990, when in the aftermath of the “Alar scare,” Kahn nearly lost everything—and control of Cascadian Farm wound up in corporate hands. In the history of the organic movement, the Alar episode is a watershed, marking the birth pangs of the modern organic industry. Throughout its history, the sharpest growth of organic has closely followed spikes in public concern over the industrial food supply. Some critics condemn organic for profiting time and again from “food scares,” and while there is certainly some truth to this charge, whether it represents a more serious indictment of organic or industrial food is open to question. Organic farmers reply that episodes focusing public attention on pesticides, food poisoning, genetically modified crops, and mad cow disease serve as “teachable moments” about the industrial food system and its alternatives. Alar was one of the first.

After a somewhat overheated 60 Minutes exposé on apple growers’ use of Alar, a growth-regulating chemical widely used in conventional orchards that the Environmental Protection Agency had declared a carcinogen, Middle America suddenly discovered organic. “Panic for Organic” was the cover line on one newsweekly and, overnight, demand from the supermarket chains soared. The ragtag industry was not quite ready for prime time, however. Like a lot of organic producers, Kahn borrowed heavily to finance an ambitious expansion, contracted with farmers to grow an awful lot of organic produce, and then watched in horror as the bubble of demand subsided along with the headlines about Alar. Badly overextended, Kahn was forced to sell a majority stake in his company—to Welch’s—and the onetime hippie farmer set out on what he calls his “corporate adventure.”

“We were part of the food industry now,” he told me. “But I wanted to leverage that position to redefine the way we grow food—not what people want to eat or how we distribute it. That sure as hell isn’t going to change.” Becoming part of the food industry meant jettisoning two of the three original legs on which the organic movement had stood: the countercuisine—what people want to eat—and the food co-ops and other alternative modes of distribution. Kahn’s bet was that agribusiness could accommodate itself most easily to the first leg—the new way to grow food—by treating organic essentially as a niche product that could be distributed and marketed through the existing channels. The original organic ideal held that you could not divorce these three elements, since (as ecology taught) everything was connected. But Kahn, for one (and he was by no means the only one), was a realist, a businessman with a payroll to meet. And he wasn’t looking back.

“You have a choice of getting sad about all that or moving on. We tried hard to build a cooperative community and a local food system, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t successful. This is just lunch for most people. Just lunch. We can call it sacred, we can talk about communion, but it’s just lunch.”

From the May June 2006 What’s Happened to the Animals of Yosemite issue of California.

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