Monday, January 10, 2011

Buying “Organic”

Today is Lauren’s birthday. My gift to her is a regrettable confession to my newly developed enjoyment in grocery shopping. (Happy birthday babe!)

She has conditioned me well in the art of buying food. I come to see it as sort of exercise (walking up and down the colorful and carefully marketed categorical aisles at Kroger while constantly reciting my mantra - “yes dear”) and a spectacle sport (watching Lauren count her shop smart coupons and our final savings rack up at the register). I think her current record on a single grocery trip, from coupons and other online and offline savings, is over a hundred dollars – almost half of our final bill.

Of course shopping for food has always been an essential part of my life. I just never thought to define it in some meaningful way until recently. In my twenties, it had always consisted of buying Ramen noodles and frozen items for the microwave from some chain grocery store. I do recall, at some distant past in my life in China, shopping for food had consisted of walking down the street with my mother, scoping out the different farmers that had came to town on their old bicycles with baskets of produce and meat strapped to either side of their bikes. My mother would squeeze the tomatoes to see if they are ripe or too ripe, snap the peas to see if they are fresh, and poke at the fish to see if they would move. She would then tell one farmer that another farmer down the road is selling the peas at a lower price, but she would buy at the higher price if he would throw in the slab of pork belly for cheap. I guess shopping has always been micro-life defining moments for me, whether it was a daily interval in China haggling with the small farmers that peddled their produce to the city on a bike, or a bi-monthly ritual here in the states haggling via coupons and online promotions with corporations peddling their produce all over the world on fossil fuel.

Recently, Lauren and I have been thinking more and more about the environment and sustainability. When it came to groceries, we got passed the age-old question about paper or plastic by stockpiling our very own reusable bags. That was the easy part, but the prospect of eating healthier and buying food that consumes, directly and indirectly, less chemical (petro) and synthetic energy is a harder problem to solve. When it comes to buying organic meats and petrochemical free vegetables, as I come to discover, it is much less about believing in the “Organic” label and more about what make sense financially and what really is the different between “Organic” and “organic.”

In the book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the author tracked one of the “Organic” chickens he had bought to the actual “free range farm” where the chicken had been raised. To describe the “free range” method, the author said:

“[t]he space that has been provided for that [free range] purpose . . . not unlike [what] the typical American front lawn resembles – [a] kind of ritual space, intended not so much for use of the local residents [but] as a symbolic offering to the larger community.”

It was shocking to me that these “Organic” chickens are the ones that, because fed on entirely “Organic” corn (as opposed to petro-fertilized corn and other animal by-products) and do not get the antibiotic treatments, thus need to reach their market weight in staggering record time – less mature time means less chance of developing health problems and less dependency on antibiotic medication. So like so many of us, these chickens spent majority of their short lives indoor, eating corn, and only occasional vacation to the outside to “free-range” for the pure novelty of the situation. These “Organic” chickens are then packaged and sold by the same industrial process, consuming fossil fuel indirectly, and entering our homes at a higher price.

This presents an interesting problem for my newfound interest in shopping for food. It seems that buying government labeled “Organic” products may not be at all sustainable or healthy. But the alternative is to buy even less healthy and non-sustainable industrial food. My only solution is to invent a time machine and go back to when people actually were farmers, growing a variety of produce locally and raising a range of livestock allowing these interconnected ecological parts to nourish each other organically, and delivering the products locally. I need to shift use back to a time when we had a distinct connection with our food. But then it would be the end of Lauren’s coupons that has become the beacon of the industrial food age. She would have to learn how to bargain with the farmers to continue my conditioning of seeing grocery shopping as an exercise and a spectacle sport. All of that, of course, is only depended on my time machine. So for now, we are stuck with two less appealing alternatives of the industrial food age, Organic and non-Organic food, and the remote sense of satisfaction we get out of these coupons as a mark of small victory against the billion dollar profit that is squeezed out of the industrial food process. Oh, we still have our little backyard, and unlike the ritualistic and typical American backyards, we do grow beans, eggplants, peppers, and other things. Maybe we can think about raising a few chickens . . . ?

Happy birthday Lauren.


  1. While you are focusing on what's in your kitchen don't forget about those nasty chemical cleaners under the sink. My family made the switch to organic cleaning products. If you have any doubt take some time and read the warning labels. I recommend PURE AirMD.

  2. Thanks! we do use organic cleaning products. Lauren even buys recycled toilet paper... they are not Charmin soft, but they are environmentally friendly...

    will check out PURE AirMD