Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Is Whole Foods Wholesome?

Field Maloney at Slate has a weak argument about the Whole Foods chain, in a column titled, "Is Whole Foods Wholesome?" (link from Division of Labor). The exaggerated subtitle is, "The dark secrets of the organic-food movement."
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.

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.
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.

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.


Jocelyn:McAuliflower said...

Maloney is correct that "organic" does not automatically mean "local," although he overstates the degree to which that is a problem

I feel like I've been floggin the same horse- but this is a popular race this week...

“The food we put into our mouths today travels an average of thirteen hundred miles from where it is produced, changing hands at least six times along the way.” Coming Home to Eat, Garry Paul Nabham.

This simple quote gives light to the crux of fossil fuel consumption still being tied up in the problem when non-local organic produce is purchased, and sustained.

To preach "Buy Organic" is an oversimplification of a thick problem- one that the Slate article does a good job of bringing to light (it's certainly stirred up a number of online discussions: eGullet, Treehugger, SlashFood...).

My city council just made a very unpopular vote to allow a Whole Foods to develop in our downtown. In fact we’ve just now dubbed WF as "the Texas chain-store massacre". This development will put a WF in direct competition with our locally owned grocery stores and our downtown farmers market. (The item that greased our councilors' palms- a promised parking garage that is needed on that part of town.)

When more than one-third of all truck traffic is carrying food, I think looking at how WF impacts local economies is a very valid point of discussion. Personally, if I have to choose local vs imported organic, I’m choosing local.

Anonymous said...

And the left always accuses the right of being absolutist....

I find it interesting that there's been such a growing movement to "take down" Whole Foods. I think what it shows is that what the left likes least of all is success.

Even the fossil fuel issue is only another piece. What about the efficiencies in land use. It takes a hell of a lot more resources to grow a tomato in Wyoming than it does in California. However, while you can raise a cow on less acreage in California than you can in Wyoming, the land in Wyoming has fewer alternative uses.

Why do fossil fuels get privileged before all other costs? Has global warming become the eco-left's raison d'etre, like abortion for the Christian right or feminist left?

It's also worth noting that the market to a large degree does take these costs into account. (Not as much as it would if we had a truly free market where tariffs, subsidies, and externalities usually allowed to be discounted by government regulation didn't alter the accounting.)

Anonymous said...

At all of the Whole Foods I shop at the state or country of origin of the produce is listed, so you can, to the extent possible, attempt to buy organic and local. Not perfect but better than most other supermarkets.

usfoodpolicy said...

Mcauliflower also has a great post on this topic on her smart and entertaining Brownie Points weblog. Still, I agree more with extramsg and anonymous on this one. What I like about local farmers markets, small independent health food stores, and major upscale whole foods retail chains alike is that they all compete in a marketplace of food and ideas, not food alone. If Whole Foods makes an error of judgement, such as over-emphasizing organic (low-pesticide) produce and under-emphasizing local (low-energy-use) produce, the chain's customers will soon set them straight. No need for regulation from city council.