Organic food and the Garden of Eden

An organic food craze has swept North America, and New York City has been especially hard hit.

Competing with the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue and Louis Vuitton for pricey Manhattan real-estate are dozens of organic grocers. And it's not just rich students who shop at Whole Foods, Amish Market or Lifethyme organic markets - my (unscientific) observation is that New Yorkers from all walks of life buy organic.

I can understand why organic food is especially popular in NYC. New Yorkers know their lifestyle isn't very conducive to healthy living, but there's not much they can control. If you want to live here, it's hard to avoid the smog-filled air, congested commutes, stressful workplaces or crime-ridden streets. One thing that you can control, however, is what you eat, so you're willing to pay more for food you perceive as healthier. In NYC, this means buying organic.

What does 'organic' mean anyway? I used to think organic meant a return to nature and traditional farming techniques and a repudiation of factory farms, pesticides and artificial growth hormones.

But the organic I see at the grocery store is at odds with this image. Since when does letting nature work its magic lead to perfectly spherical blemish-free juicy oranges? Do free-range hens routinely produce twelve perfectly white identically-sized Omega-3 fortified eggs? Yet this is what consumers demand when they buy organic: Perfection. Organic doesn't include misshapen, malformed or discoloured food. Organic means sanitized, clean and orderly products.

So what is the organic fad about? It's not about a return to nature - It's about a reinvention of nature. We think that if only we worked with nature, we would have perfect food, effortlessly. But we're forgetting that food production is a history of fighting against nature, a battle against insects, fungi, drought, disease and frost. Perfect oranges and perfect eggs didn't just appear - they required generations of industrious labor. Perhaps the organic food craze is really the result of believing that we can return to a past that never existed: A world where growing healthy, bountiful food was easy .

The more news you read (earthquakes, and recessions, and wars, oh my!), the more you can understand why it is so appealing to imagine that there was a time when life wasn't so difficult. It's comforting to believe that the Garden of Eden did exist, and it's only a matter of time before we recreate Utopia. And it's frightening to think otherwise: That despite all our blood, sweat and tears, we may never rise above hell on Earth.


shiva said...

I wanna eat organic maltesers ... Mmmmmmm

annick said...

The freaky thing is that there's actually no one regulating "organic" food at the moment.

Another thing: When I lived in France three years ago, everyone ate organic food. Again, it wasn't just environmentalist hippies, it was everybody. The food wasn't even that much more expensive. But the concern seemed to be more with purity than with environmental protection.

Also, who is this fork4k dude posting silly comments? :P

Eva said...

In the U.S. the FDA does regulate 'organic' foods to some extent; there are minimum national standards for the labels.

Your anecdote about organic eating in France raises an interesting point. I wonder if, like the coffee/cafe culture, the organic-craze was exported to America from Europe.