Monday, July 16, 2012

The Good Earth

When was it that the phrase ‘the personal is political’ started to mean that every personal choice is political? Carol Hanisch meant the opposite of this. She said that there were no personal solutions, only collective action for a collective solution. Yet I can’t remember when was the last time that I heard the phrase used in that way, and not instead to suggest, at best, that one should strive to behave in one’s everyday life in a manner consistent with his or her politics, and, at worst, that politics writ large is the result of the addition or multiplication of individual behaviours, as many as there are people.

There are few acts that are more everyday, more personal than eating, thus few consumer activities that are more everyday and personal than shopping for groceries. And there are even fewer areas, if any, in which the idea of individual action and personal solutions is leveraged more aggressively than in the marketing of a large and growing segment of grocery products. For this post I’ve limited my examples to the Wellington food chain Commonsense Organics, but theirs is hardly a unique approach, and you’ll find much of the same language and imagery in both the health food and regular food section of most supermarkets, as well as in the relevant magazine and television ads, and not just in New Zealand. It is however in the health food store that the idea is most developed, this politics most explicit, and in limit cases the store itself becomes a model society. A utopia founded on ethical consumption.

‘Good for you, good for the earth’ sums up the core idea nicely: you ought to buy foods that are healthy, and that are produced in a way that is good for the environment. Both halves of the statement deserve to be unpacked, but ‘good for the earth’ is the parts that contains the greater promise: that by engaging in this behaviour – that is, by looking after your digestive tract – you’ll save the planet. The gastric is political. And I say political because the phrase ‘good for the earth’ and its accompanying bucolic imagery are only thinkable in a world in which the strategy has succeeded, and enough people and businesses operate in a way that is good for the earth to make the difference. The fact that we know this not to be the case at the present time, and that the prospect of not just improving but preventing a further catastrophic deterioration of the world’s environment are getting slimmer by the hour, is what makes the proposition utopian.

So what kind of utopia is represented at Commonsense Organics? The store in Wakefield Street no longer greets the customer with slogans such as the one above, put up in the occasion of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, or its seasonal alternatives “Don’t fake organics this Christmas” and “Organic eggs for Easter – Battery not included”, nor the store's staple “Good Food Here”. This might reflect a laudable desire to tone down the overt smugness of the enterprise, which is a service to the critic as well: it is so easy to get distracted by the smugness, to make it the thing that shops like this are about, when they are not.

Inside, the store is suitably sombre and unpretentious. On the right side as you come in it features a separate health products section – naturopathy, homeopathy, mineral and vitamin supplements – which I’m not going to get into, and I mean this quite literally as I find I can achieve similar results by throwing my wallet down a manhole. On the opposite wall, and in many respects at the opposite end of the project, is an altogether more sympathetic display consisting of a small selection of seasonal fruit and vegetables: few and not terribly attractive pieces of produce, a world apart form the cathedrals of ultra-bright and perfectly shaped items that greet you regardless of the season – tomatoes. Always with the tomatoes! – in regular supermarkets. And these are reasonably priced, too, by and large. Okay, $4.80 for a head of broccoli is pricey, but the fruit isn’t too bad. I confess also a certain attraction to organic apples, likely borne out of having to shut all the doors and windows when I stayed at my grandmother’s and the farmer next door sprayed his orchard wearing what resembled an astronaut suit, only less wieldy.

In between the opposite ends of the store, between the surprisingly affordable organic apples and the 250 gram jars of surgical-grade manuka honey retailing for an eye-watering $82.50, and excluding the products that cater for specific allergies and thus fall outside of the paradigm of free consumer choice, is a range of everyday grocery products that define lifestyle on the good earth: bread, dairy, meat, biscuits, snacks, alcohol, detergents and so forth. What they have in common is, firstly, that they are ethical products, therefore either organic or fair trade or both; and, secondly, the price premium that this ethical quotient commands. Want a kilogram of Arborio rice? That will be $16. One and a half kilograms of white flour? $10.99. One kilogram of polenta will set you back $11, which personally offends me. I come from Northern Italy, where for centuries polenta was the staple of the people who couldn’t afford anything else, that is to say almost everyone outside of the cities. Hell, polenta is barely a food, really, more of a pastime. Ground corn flour has next to no nutritional content, so after you’ve spent the best part of an hour mixing it with boiling water in a large pot, and are already ten bucks in the hole, you still have to source the proteins somewhere else.

At Commonsense Organics you soon come to the realisation that in this peculiar utopia only the rich can afford to eat, which makes all those nurturing brand names – Naturally Good, Pureharvest, Bees' Blessing, Loving Earth and so forth – sound somewhat sinister. In fact the question of why should these products be so expensive goes to the heart of the entire project. Whether organic farming could ever sustain the kind of yields that are needed to feed large populations is a vexed question that we don’t actually need to get into since most of the products in the store are not just ‘oganic’ but also made in boastfully and at times extravagantly expensive ways. White organic flour doesn’t need to be stone ground, but it is. Potato crisps don’t need to be ‘hand cooked’ (whatever that means), but they are. The makers of Thoroughbread organic breads – on which more later – don’t need to grind their brown rice just before baking, but they do. All of these loving and robustly marked-up practices directly undercut the idea of sustainability and belie the notion that the good earth could – or would even want to – provide for anyone but its wealthiest inhabitants.

It’s the brand names as much as the price tags that give the game away. The hand cooked crisps above, which retail for a trifling $59.80 a kilo, are called Proper. Get it? The crisps you eat aren’t real food. Is their salt even solar-harvested from the salt beds of Lake Grasmere on the Marlborough coast? Didn’t think so. Now this product is not even organic. The potatoes are regular potatoes. The sunflower oil is regular sunflower oil. So the only possible rationale for their being sold in this particular store is that they are vastly more expensive than the crisps that the people who can’t afford to shop here usually eat. The price, the brand name, the packaging, the blurb, the location are all guarantors of an experience and of a sense of moral being.

But I saved the best for last. It’s in the powerfully symbolic category of bread that the suppliers of Commonsense Organics lose all inhibitions, and none more so than rival brands Thoroughbread and Purebread. For these people the ethics of eating right is kneaded into the very substance of their product. The marketing blurbs are a finely crafted blend of the sublime and the ridiculous, with sentences like this one:
A high top, soft textured loaf with a mix of added kibbled delights which are pre-soaked to slowly soften for better digestion and safe chewing.
This is bread that chews itself, that digests itself for you, freeing you, perhaps, to save the earth. But the product in question has a particular name, and to this I don’t know how to respond.

I search in vain for a justification and a trace of humanity behind the decision to call a bread Moral Fibre. This is the bread that says that I, who have purchased it, am better than you, who can’t or won’t. It is a quasi-religious signifier. A bread that elevates lifestyle to a mission, a bread that saves souls. And I don’t know how to respond to it. I am tempted to use words that are disproportionate to the evil of an artisan bread sold at a store down the road. But I am deeply worried about the things that are pure. The ancient grains. The steadfast moral purpose. Is this fascist bread, does it contain traces of eugenics? Is this the troubling, ominous endpoint of the discourse over sustainability? Or is rather the simpler, more economical explanation that premium consumers need to be made to feel good about their choices, and that these are just flattering puns?

I wish I could feel disenchanted, the way you are supposed to feel, but I don’t. This earth, which is neither good nor bad, is faced with a steadily growing population, a sizable proportion of which is already starving, and a diminishing capacity to produce food. If there is a safety to be sought, it is not of a moral kind.


Jake said...

At the Whole Foods in Pittsburgh (which is a national chain where organic produce is bourgeoise but not quite as sanctimonious as this) someone once wrote "green capitalism is still boring" on the wall in the men's bathroom. Someone else responded in that classically American way, "get a job, hippie!"

I still puzzle over that one.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Is it wrong that I now want to check out CO's bathrooms?

Ben said...

Harvest Wholefoods is the Auckland version.

The difference twxit sustainable and organic is one that I've thought important ever since stage 3 biology (we we're talking about population growth, feeing people GE and Norman Borlaug). Prior to that I just thought the whole organics thing was vaguely smug. Right now, after reading this, it feels a little bit ... sinister.

Taramoc said...

Great post. I couldn't agree more, I always thought that the cost of organic food makes it by default unsustainable.

Also, if I may add, I find that the undercurrent narrative that these type of stores promote is much worse than the classic expensive stores.

At least the luxury stores are honest in their "if you cannot afford it, too bad, we won't miss you when you go shopping at the lower stores" sensation that they project.

In the stores you talk about on the other hand, everybody has to buy the stuff, because you have to sacrifice for the planet. It's the "I don't care how you do it, but fork those $10 for a loaf of bread because humanity depends on it" type of vibe that they go out of their way to promote and that infuriates me every time.

AHD said...

Wow, that's bleak -- I wouldn't shop in any store that sells natural therapies and that kind of shit in the same space that it sells bread. They are a contradiction in terms.

Now, as for bread. I want bread with water, (wholemeal) flour, salt and yeast, and I want it to have a hard crust -- and I want it to be unsliced. And I want to pay less than $4.50 for it. Is that so bloody hard? Our choices seem to range from bread that has flecks of gold and is made by NZX CEOs in their lunch breaks, or bread whose primary primary constituent is preservatives and flavour enhancers.

Maybe I should just find a good bakery. There's something in this though -- something suggestive -- that supermarkets have actually changed what is the simplest staple into something that cannot be purchased for love or money, because it doesn't fit their supply lines and it doesn't fit the ideology. It's too simple.

Pass the butter.

George D said...

AHD, if you want bread that fits those specifications, you will have to make it with your own labour. Anything else has labour, the cost of commercial property, and cultural 'value' added in. A place like Commonsense specialises in the latter, but also has to pay a premium to serve its gentrified location.

Chinese and Vietnamese bakeries have the potential to do so, because they undervalue their labour, but they produce bread filtered through cultural values which is sweet rather than savoury.

Clare said...

Oh dear. Is all green-grocery inherently evil? I mean, our supermarket 'fresh foods' are hardly bastions of sustainability (or health, for that matter). I suppose the cheapest way to grow good organic produce is in the garden, better still: with neighbours. This is a 'lost art' for many of us shopping-junkies and I salute all and any schools and parents teaching it in defiance of a system that depends on us being dependent.

Josh said...

Reminds me of this illustrated talk by Zizek:

merc said...

The good thing about growing or making your own is that the water component is absolutely free!
Our esteemed leader said so, it must be true, and anyone who says otherwise is an opportunist.

Matthew Dentith said...

I have eaten those "proper" chips (my mother went through a phase of buying them) and they are no better than what you can buy at the supermarket for a third of the price.

As a vegan who is vegan for environmental reasons I'm particularly worried about places like CO and Harvest, mostly because what they are selling isn't environmentally friendly foodstuffs but a lifestyle choice which most of us (myself included) can't afford, predicated on fancy packaging and flowery (excuse the pun) language. I shop at Harvest (mostly for the vegan pies, which I somewhat desire on Sundays, and the tamari sauce, which is cheap) and it's almost as frightening as the nearby Farro (which is like Nosh, only more middle-class). Most of the goods are sourced from overseas and priced accordingly, and everything is presented as being better just because it's organic.

As a philosopher I have great trouble with what the words "organic" and "natural" are meant to signify. I certainly don't like the notion, sold by places like CO and Harvest, that "organic" means not just "good" but "morally good." The act of eating ethically is not a class-based thing which only the rich can afford.

Ben Wilson said...

The good thing about growing or making your own is that the water component is absolutely free!
Our esteemed leader said so, it must be true, and anyone who says otherwise is an opportunist.

Heh, well it's pretty much true. Also, the sunlight is free. What's not free is the ground under it to catch those things, both of which have become so expensive in this country that agriculture is barely viable if you don't own the land outright already. And that's the more traditional (in NZ) industrial kind. Not surprising the more labor intensive organic kind costs more, nor is does it break with our fuxored economic model that so long as it's a little bit more expensive, it can be cranked to whatever profit margin can be squeezed, because it's already moved out of being the economic choice, to being the choice differentiated by ... whatever branding can generate.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"AHD, if you want bread that fits those specifications, you will have to make it with your own labour."

Yes, I don't see how you get bread at that price without making it yourself. And even if you choose/are able to make it yourself, it would be a great deal more expensive if you opted for organic flour.

There is a follow-up question for me in this regard: when food is *this* expensive - and I'm aware not all organic food is marked up in the same way, but just sticking with CO for the moment - is there a point where it ceases to be healthy? Wouldn't a basket of non-organic fresh produce be actually better for you than the kilogram of organic bread you make for the same money?

Ben Wilson said...

I have to say that I've found organic gardening to be pretty easy. It's actually good for lazy gardeners. Got pests? Let it be...pretty soon you get beneficial predators and it balances out. Got weeds? Keeps the moisture in the soil, and the flowers bring beneficials...also hides the crops. Forgot to water? Helps you work out where the natural water flows are. Can't be arsed? It's lying fallow. Round up the weeds with lawnmower, leave to sequester on compost, and the soil just keeps building. Lawn got long? Look at all the bees!

Lew said...

Thank you for this, Gio.

Tests have recently suggested that one of my young daughters (and, based on symptoms, probably the other one too) may have coeliac disease, and this is requiring a rapid refactoring of the family diet. This is humbling, since I have spent most of my adult life mocking the fad diets popularised by the sanctimonious likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, who would not doubt shop at Commonsense Organics if she were here.

The Paltrovian influence -- which I think much of your article describes -- is a double-header. On the one hand, the faddists adopting "gluten-free" and other such qualifiers as symbols of their specialness, or of their moral legitimacy, have brought to market many convenience foods that are manufactured to spec, and labelling regulations that make it relatively easy to tell by reading a label what's going to work and what not. That's convenient. On the other hands, it comes at a high economic cost -- there is considerable crossover between allergen- or gluten-freeness and organicness, artisanal composition, "ancient"-ness and other captive markets. Captive to actual dietary requirements, captive to earnest moral or environmental reasoning, or captive merely to the delusion that one is worth it.

The ordinary imperatives of capitalism mean these cultural-value-added products then displace mundane staples from the market. So I find myself making tortillas from corn masa -- a product so cheap that many of the poorest people in the world eat it daily -- that retails in my local supermarket for $7 per 800g bag -- "festive" the label tells me.

Is the convenience of being able to buy organic gluten-free banana chocolate-chip muffin mix in the same aisle as the ordinary muffin mix I usually wouldn't buy worth this sort of tradeoff? Nah.


AHD said...

Yeah -- I'm really just whinging that somehow a product that is simple and cheap to make (and I don't care whether it's organic or not) is outrageously expensive. It's not that I have to have it hand made. Frankly, I don't care as long as it tastes good -- and budget sliced sandwich bread definitely doesn't. Hence my complaint -- in Holland at least I could buy tasty bread without it costing the earth.

And as for the point you raised Giovanni: I think that eating expensive organics must be bad for your health; nobody's immune system should have to deal with such a massive influx of smugness in one go.

Ben said...

Evidence that to support the idea that eating cheap, organic produce is slim on the ground. Nutritionally speaking, there's essentially no difference.

Which leaves environmental benefits as the sole reason to be partaking (unless you actually buy into the whole morally superior at a price schtick). Problem being then of course, is that organic isn't necessarily good and is not the same as sustainable.

katy said...

Interesting Ben about organic food, and certainly not the message I got when I was pregnant last year and felt like I was being bombarded with messages about how I should be eating organic food to give my foetus the best possible chance. I feel that the health angle is really pushed when I am being marketed at as a parent and I noticed that providing organic food is also a feature of some private childcare centres, which given the cost is particularly awful given that I have heard that other community-based centres have such meagre food budgets that they can't even provide food every day for the children in their care.

Ben Wilson said...

Evidence that to support the idea that eating cheap, organic produce is slim on the ground. Nutritionally speaking, there's essentially no difference.

Ben, your second link's abstract pretty much concludes the opposite to this, saying:

This trend was supported by a mean percent difference in micronutrient content favoring organic vegetables (+ 5.9%, P < 0.001) and legumes (+ 5.7%, P < 0.001). Further research is required to determine the effect of organic agricultural methods on a broader range of nutrients and their potential impact on health.

Also, nutrients and the environment aren't the only thing motivating eating organic - the other is absence of pest and herbicides. Not that I have any studies on the real impact of this on health. I just know that's what organic buffs always go on about.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Or rather the use of natural pesticides and herbicides, as opposed to chemical ones (which are in turn sometimes synthetised from plants). This, from a resarcher at Berkeley (

"When you test synthetic chemicals for their ability to cause cancer, you find that about half of them are carcinogenic.

Until recently, nobody bothered to look at natural chemicals (such as organic pesticides), because it was assumed that they posed little risk. But when the studies were done, the results were somewhat shocking: you find that about half of the natural chemicals studied are carcinogenic as well.

This is a case where everyone (consumers, farmers, researchers) made the same, dangerous mistake. We assumed that "natural" chemicals were automatically better and safer than synthetic materials, and we were wrong. It's important that we be more prudent in our acceptance of "natural" as being innocuous and harmless."

Ben Wilson said...

Yes, true that. There a host of approved treatments allowed whilst still getting away with being called organic. And the economic drivers of commercial farming are very different to personal farming.

harvestbird said...

Moral fibre
in the dirt

A headful of polenta
a stem, slim,
just so!

No protein. No.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Joy. Welcome back.

Ben said...

Ben, yes, quite right. I misread that so much for my super lit-review skills. Even on rereading that though, the differences are still not huge. I've got a few other reviews somewhere in my badly organised zotero folder somewhere that essentially say similar things if you'd like me to drag them out: either no improvement or minor improvement.

I would have lumped the less pesticide/herbicide in with good for the environment. And I while I'm not going to defend all synthetic herbicides/pesticides, I take issue with the idea that "natural" ones are automatically better for the environment. Not that view is being expounded here, it's a message I often get from the organic is best crowd.

djbtak said...

Good reading as always - I think this issue could use some genealogical analysis, I'm thinking back to the alliance of the organic/natural and healthism as Christian restraint, represented in Edward Halsey's late 19th C migration from the US to Aus/NZ and the establishment of Sanitarium under the watch of the 7th Day Adventists. The moral dimensions you identify in CO today are obviously at work through that history as well, so the relationships between this and the contemporary mode of organics as middle-class aspirational "because you're worth $10/loaf" seem to me to be complex, perhaps with some different trajectories at work that fracture the "organics movement" (or branding) in interesting ways. Would something like CO be part of what Raymond Williams would call the "residual", against the emergent slick-corporate organics getting front shelf space in the hypermarkets?

The other thought on reading this piece was that the politics of food production and consumption are radically divorced under industrialism, green consumption attempts to bridge the gap but actually few consumers have the personal archive (like the story of you staying at your grandmother's house) that allow us to effectively reconcile those.

Finally, there is a heavy gender split on the adoption of nutrition and self-development and the debunking of "health myths". Obvious, but I was a little surprised that you didn't talk about it, given what has then followed in the comments?

Giovanni Tiso said...

"Finally, there is a heavy gender split on the adoption of nutrition and self-development and the debunking of "health myths". Obvious, but I was a little surprised that you didn't talk about it, given what has then followed in the comments?"

All I am personally aware of know is that advertising and marketing for grocery products is aimed at women, based on the creditable assumption that it's mostly them who do the shopping. I wouldn't know how to elaborate on that with regard to thsi particular topic nor indeed the the comments to the post however.

Stephen Horsley said...

I've just moved back from the UK, and over there you can buy organic food in your regular supermarket for about a 10-20% premium over non organic food. I'm sure its still produced in massive corporate farm, but at those prices it was a viable alternative.

kinakoJam said...

Great post!
Would be interested to hear which organic fertilisers were identified as carcinogenic. I would have thought the use of traditional fertilisers would be easy to link to cancer rates, in communities that have traditionally used them. Was there any such study?

Find it quite interesting that several commenters define sustainability as 'viability to feed the world despite dwindling resources'. My understanding of sustainability was always that it entailed the ongoing viability of the land/water in which produce or livestock/fish are farmed.
Marion Nestle claimed in the NY Times today that "Since the early 1980s, careful productivity studies conclude that organic yields are only slightly lower than conventional yields(...)The yield difference is too small to have much of an effect on world food supplies."

I buy some regular supermarket produce according to's list of veges and fruit that show low levels of pesticides:

That is of course a list based on US agriculture. It's exhausting to be a consumer these days - you have to be a veritable Michael Pollan and really question the provenance of everything you buy. You have to consider not just how the product is farmed and prepared, but all aspects of the supply chain - was the farmer traded with fairly, are the supermarket or factory workers compensated fairly and treated humanely.
I'd add that 'values' and 'belief systems' are often part of your food purchase at regular supermarkets too - when we unwittingly endorse the values of retailers or manfacturers.

kinakoJam said...

comment pt 2:

You'd never get away with brand names like Thoroughbred and Moral Fibre here in Germany - for obvious historical reasons (!)

Maybe it's only natural that people drawn to organic foods are often responsive to implied moral or utopian ideologies in marketing. Buddhism and vegetarianism have often gone hand in hand, in the western hemisphere too. The modern organic food movement has its roots in the vegetarian communes of the 70s where they tilled the land themselves and experimented with spiritual cults (especially here in Germany, where the supermarkets these days don't fly the hippie flag so brazenly anymore - but visit the organic store in Motueka and I am pretty sure you'll still find it stocking incense and vegan marshmallow mix).
That's why there're all those essential oils at the entrance of commonsense. It might be snake oil, but it's beloved by organic food's historical core constituency.

It's definitely true that to attempt to buy virtue via overpriced bourgeois products is tasteless.

Little wonder that organic food is so morbidly expensive in New Zealand, when half of those specialty goods are imported from the other side of the planet! The only biodegradable nappies to be found in wellington are from Commonsense, and of course it is a German brand of nappies. they cost twice what they do back in Germany, even given exchange rate.

As for the local brands - they seem to be either driven by export prices (over 80 dollars for manuka honey - ouch! I'm starting a manuka farm), or they simply end up costing the earth because NZ just doesn't have the market/supply chain that there is in the States or Germany, which would help keep the costs down. Or, as you suggest, they ramp up the prices on purpose, to make a fast buck.

I have a feeling that many of these local brands, like Little Bird Organics, are spending an outsize portion of their production costs on the branding and packaging. trying hard to brush off the vegetarian commune legacy and create a slick and modern product that'll look good on the shelves of Nosh and Moore Wilsons.

We should be clear that priciness isn't limited to organic food though. Foodie culture has run amok in NZ and Australia.

The problem isn't just 14 dollar packets of imported gnocchi at Nosh or Moore Wilsons or local retired businessmen-turned- olive or grape-farming hobbyists plying overpriced 'artisan' products and 'craft' beers. . New World is also exorbitantly expensive compared to regular supermarkets back in Germany. Food in general is just so expensive in NZ.

Same goes for clothing. I checked the prices of a NZ brand on their european and NZ websites - and the NZ sale price was around the same value as the normal non-sale european price. Which means they are hawking clothes for twice the price in NZ. What is going on?

Going back to food, taste is of course still a factor in purchasing some organic items. I found the most delicious oranges I've ever eaten at commonsense. For the commenter who is a bread lover, the best bread at Commonsense, and perhaps in the whole of NZ, is the pumpernickel made by a company called Breadman based in Christchurch.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thnk you KinakoJam. I didn't get into the issue of organic yields because it is fairly intensely debated, and in the context of the post possibly a sidetrack. I take Marion Nestle's point in the link you provided (and I enjoyed her book Food Politics a lot), but another contributor to that debate provided different figures, as well as a different assessment of the safety of organic foods.

Totally with you on the cost of food in New Zealand, it was really quite a shock coming from Italy - particularly fruit and vegetables.