In the produce section of Whole Foods' flagship New York City store at the Time Warner Center, shoppers browse under a big banner that lists "Reasons To Buy Organic." On the banner, the first heading is "Save Energy." The accompanying text explains how organic farmers, who use natural fertilizers like manure and compost, avoid the energy waste involved in the manufacture of synthetic fertilizers. It's a technical point that probably barely registers with most shoppers but contributes to a vague sense of virtue.The truth is that the alternatives to the conventional food system offer a wonderful selection of options to satisfy your health and environmental principles. Depending on which principle you prioritize, you can select the appropriate option.
Fair enough. But here's another technical point that Whole Foods fails to mention and that highlights what has gone wrong with the organic-food movement in the last couple of decades. Let's say you live in New York City and want to buy a pound of tomatoes in season. Say you can choose between conventionally grown New Jersey tomatoes or organic ones grown in Chile. Of course, the New Jersey tomatoes will be cheaper. They will also almost certainly be fresher, having traveled a fraction of the distance. But which is the more eco-conscious choice? In terms of energy savings, there's no contest: Just think of the fossil fuels expended getting those organic tomatoes from Chile.
If you want an abundance of healthy fresh colorful organic produce in a picture-perfect appetizing display, then go to Whole Foods, Wild Oats, or a similar upscale health food retailer.
If you want to eat organic food from Whole Foods and Wild Oats, but are price sensitive, you can make only a small purchase at that display of fresh produce, and then load up more heavily from the affordable legumes and grains at the bulk foods section.
If you care more about reducing the energy footprint of food you buy, or about supporting local agriculture, you can find food at Whole Foods or Wild Oats specially labeled as coming from local farmers (Maloney is correct that "organic" does not automatically mean "local," although he overstates the degree to which that is a problem).
If you want local produce in season, not bulk foods, and are too price sensitive for Whole Foods and Wild Oats, go to your fine local or regional source of cheap fresh produce (for example, many low-key farmers' markets, or major wholesale produce markets in big cities).
You see where I'm going with this. No matter what your goal, you can find the right place to shop -- and chances are, if you a person of principle, you can do better than the traditional supermarket format.
If you want all of the above, organic, local, low energy use, low price, attractively and professionally displayed, produce (not just legumes and grains), at all times of year, that is fine too. I am sure you can find what you are looking for back on your home planet.