18 January 2008

Dilemmas and quandaries

Having just finished Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma, I'm hyper-aware of the hidden costs of the things I buy and eat. But the book, while it was illuminating in many respects, and well-written, leaves me with just as much of a dilemma as ever when I shop. Perhaps MORE of a dilemma, because it has made me question what I too often before took for granted: organic? great! Plop it in the basket!

Pollan's useful distinction between "industrial organic" (the kind of organic that relies on the traditional industrial market processes and [inter]national supply chains) and local organic (grass-fed cows, multi-species farms, local supply chains) has made me question some of the claims of organic foods. Is that chicken really free-range or does it just live in a giant, smelly, chicken shed with a tiny door where it can spend five minutes on a little patch of green grass?

Throughout the book there are tantalizing hints that the situation is better in Europe: stricter regulation of the term "organic" (here it's "bio"), closer ideological ties among farmers, fresh-food markets, and consumers, and greater pride in traditional foods and cuisines. At several points in the book, Pollan mentions some absurdly poisonous or otherwise detrimental product or method that is allowed in American processed food, and then, to underscore its toxicity, points out that it is outlawed in Europe.

This cheers me up. For a long time after I moved here, I missed places like Trader Joe's and even the variety of organic food and vegetarian products that one can find in any regular supermarket in the US. But on my own at first, and then after reading Pollan's book, I started to realize that I was lucky to find fewer processed corn-based items (do I really need a cereal aisle that stretches as far as the eye can see?) or even industrial-organic processed foods and to find more local produce and artisanal breads, cheeses, etc. Here, the markets happen every day of the week and the local supply chain has never really been interrupted.

That said, I still find it a confusing juggling act to go shopping. I find myself balancing the relative importance of health (eat lots of fresh fruit, even if it's not in season?), organic, and local claims. Is it better to eat the non-organic local tomato? Or the organic tomato that's been shipped farther? Is it better to eat the local tomato that's packaged on a foam tray and wrapped in plastic, or the tomato flown in from Spain that is unpackaged? Oh, and not to mention habits: I like to eat a banana every morning. But the bananas have to fly across an ocean to get here! Is it better if they are free-trade organic bananas? They still have to gobble up a whole lot of fossil fuels to get to my fruit bowl.

Earlier this week, I stopped at a grocery to quickly grab some things for dinner. While I noticed that the lettuce I put in my basket was Belgian, my thought process for the grapes that I picked up was: Ooh! grapes! I haven't had those forever! And these look so good and tasty! We can have fruit for dessert tonight! When I got home, I noticed that the (admittedly delicious and sweet) grapes were from South Africa. Again, aaargh...the fossil fuels.

Another example. I sent away for a free guide to local and organic merchants and markets, which promptly landed in my mailbox. I read that the Monday market just up the street hosts one of the farmers known for his great organic produce. So I went there, and the man was charming, and I felt so great buying from him! The zucchini was beautiful, the potatoes wholesome and friendly.

Then I spotted some kumquats and asked for a couple hundred grams. The guy was surprised that I asked for such an unusual fruit and said so, asking if I was familiar with them. I said I was, and that I liked them very much. I was so wrapped up in the little charming conversation and the effort involved in speaking French, that I didn't stop to consider: kumquats--an Asian citrus fruit--in January? Who knows, maybe they are in season and were grown locally, but I didn't ask. My French limits my endeavors in this respect, sometimes. I barely was able to express the elementary assertion that yes, "I like kumquats."

And the dilemmas extend from food into the realm of other products and purchases. Pollan's principles could probably apply to organic clothes just as well. I look at purchases in terms of the packaging I'll have to end up throwing away.

I bought organic clothes (50-70% off!) for the first time in my life the other day. I'm betting that organic cotton is better for the environment than regular cotton, having avoided that much more chemical fertilizers and waste runoff with crops that are grown organically. But as Pollan's book convincingly shows, the organic industry is still just that--industrial--and as such includes hidden costs of transporting goods far and wide, and isn't necessarily better for the soil (due to aggressive plowing and the dominance of monoculture). But for clothes, what other options are there?

I also wondered why organic clothes are A) always yoga-style tees and comfy pants and sweats and B) in light "earthy" colors? It's not that I don't like these options--au contraire, my favorite clothes ever are comfy swingy yoga pants, and my favorite colors are peaceful blues. BUT, why should the organic clothes option be limited to these kind of clothes? Shouldn't we be able to buy, say, organic dress pants and structured jackets? Organic dresses?

Anyway, you're probably tired of reading by now. My own head hurts. It's frustrating that it's such a struggle to live in this world in a way that does the least harm to the good resources we've been given.

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