1. Supermarket Pastoral. Pollan writes that shopping at Whole Foods is a “literary experience,” since many of the organic products feature long, wordy labels explaining how the food was produced. Pollan explains that the organic movement began as an effort to provide more information about where food comes from. In contrast to industrial food, which deliberately obscures the chain of production, organic food claims to tell the consumer exactly how their food was produced. Pollan calls these narratives “Supermarket Pastoral,” a way of buying food on a large and convenient scale that also claims to connect consumers to the land.
One would think it is a good thing that organic food tries to put consumers more in touch with nature by connecting them to the origins of their food. But Pollan argues that this supposed transparency about the interconnectedness of the food chain—knowing, for instance, the name of the chicken that produced one’s eggs—is in fact more of a literary exercise. Organic food, he suggests, uses marketing techniques like any other large company.
Ironically, the organic food label is itself an “industrial artifact,” a substitute for actual first-hand experience and engagement with those farms. Pollan decided to try to figure out just how much the fiction of Supermarket Pastoral holds up under scrutiny. He found that the story didn’t persuade in practice, since like the industrial food industry, the organic food industry also needs to produce food on a large scale and ship it across long distances. Consequently, it has had to compromise many of its ideals.
Pollan calls these marketing techniques “Supermarket Pastoral” because they gesture to a fiction of farms in communion with nature. In practice, organic food is often the product of industrial systems that, like the fast food industry, prioritize efficiency over the quality of food and the experiences of animals.
2. From People’s Park to Petaluma Poultry. Pollan tells the story of People’s Park in Berkeley, California, a vacant lot seized by a hippie collective in 1969 and cultivated as an organic vegetable garden. Pollan explains the links between the organic movement and the radicalism of the 1960s, which saw growing organic food as a way of effecting social change, rejecting the “plastic food” of the previous generation, and dismantling the food-industrial complex. For the magazine Organic Gardening and Farming, one of the first alternative farming publications, “organic” would mean stronger bonds of collaboration and cooperation between individuals and between people and the natural world.
In Pollan’s history of the organic movement, early proponents saw naturally-grown food as a way of reminding people of their co-dependence and mutual reliance on nature. By growing a communal garden, for instance, 1960s activists aimed to remind people where their food comes from and get people to invest in a common project. In this sense, organic food was designed to remind people of their interconnectedness with others as well as with nature.
One of these early reformers was Gene Kahn, founder of Cascadian Farm near Seattle. Although Kahn was one of the pioneers of the organic food movement in the early 1970s, he sold his farm to General Mills and is now a vice-president. When he was first starting out, Kahn relied on the writings of Sir Albert Howard, an English agronomist who warned against the dangers of artificial fertilizer in the 1940s. Howard voiced strong critiques of the idea that farming can be broken down into its chemical components, and that all plants need to grow are the three major nutrients nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (“NPK”). He argued that chemistry is not the same as biology, and that there is more to humus (the ingredient that makes soil fertile) than a simple collection of chemical components. Howard called for farmers to redesign their farms according to the laws of nature rather than science.
Howard’s writings warned that it was dangerous for humans to try to bend nature to their will. For him, this was an example of hubris, or overconfidence. In the early days of agricultural science, people thought that farming could be manipulated to grow ever larger crop yields, simply by thinking of food production as a scientific process like any other, with chemical components. By contrast, Howard thought that farmers should tread carefully when it comes to human intervention in nature, thinking instead of growing food as a natural process that should be meddled with as little as possible.
Pollan visits Cascadian Farm with Kahn, who explains how he began his “corporate adventure.” In 1990, consumers panicked when they discovered that many apple farms were using a potentially dangerous chemical, Altar, and the demand for organic fruit soared. Kahn borrowed heavily to produce more organic fruit, but demand soon dropped off again. Badly financially overextended, Kahn was forced to sell a large stake in his farm to Welch’s, a food corporation. Kahn began integrating his farm with agribusiness, betting that he could integrate organic products into large-scale food distribution chains. He tells Pollan that for most people, food is “just lunch” and not about “communion,” explaining why he chose to take a more pragmatic and less ideological approach.
Kahn initially sold his organic farm to General Mills under financial duress, after he found himself with an unsold surplus of fruit. However, he has since come to feel that there are significant benefits to organic farms that collaborate with larger companies. For Kahn, the partnership with General Mills allowed him to sell organic food to many more people—who, in Kahn’s view, simply aren’t going to care that much about where their food comes from. Kahn thus represents a pragmatic compromise between the ideals of the organic food movement and the practical realities of American capitalism.
In the 1990s, major food companies began selling organic products. Kahn’s venture expanded and absorbed several other small farms, reconstituting the company as Small Planet Foods. The Department of Agriculture had previously been hostile to the organic movement, seeing it as a critique of their support of synthetic fertilizers and large-scale production, but by the 1990s they began supporting it and codified a national standard for the designation “organic.”
Just as Kahn compromised with General Mills, the organic food movement at large compromised with the Department of Agriculture. By codifying a set of natural standards for “organic food,” the American government integrated organic farming into the mainstream.
The federal standard caused much controversy between “Big Organic” and “Little Organic.” On the one hand, people like Kahn advocated for looser standards that would allow the use of synthetic ingredients and thus the production of, say, organic TV dinners. Other farmers argued that the organic movement was philosophically rooted in whole foods, and that there should be no such thing as an “organic Twinkie.” In the end, “Big Organic” won out, and the 1990s standards allowed for the use of synthetics. They also allowed factory conditions on “organic” farms that looked more like industrial farming than the original farming collectives of the 1970s. Although organic farm animals must have “access to pasture” and “access to outdoors,” these phrases and standards are so vague that they are nearly impossible to enforce.
The compromises between small organic farms and larger corporations were not always harmonious. At stake was the question of whether, if the organic movement compromised its original ideals, it would even be “organic” at all anymore. People like Kahn argued that the organic movement could be flexible and adapt to the demands of large-scale corporate food production. Others argued that such a system was anathema to the values and principles on which the organic movement had been founded in the first place.
3. Down on the Industrial Organic Farm. According to Kahn, the industrialization of organic farming is a victory. Every farm managed by an organic farmer represents land that won’t be doused with chemicals. When Pollan decided to visit some of these organic farms in California, however, he found farms that looked much like the industrial farms that the movement had originally condemned. For example, Greenways, an organic produce operation owned by a much larger conventional farm, uses a similar factory model but eliminates the use of chemical fertilizers. However, Greenways compromises on organic methods, since it still uses other forms of chemical inputs.
Kahn would argue that all his compromises were for a good cause: decreasing the amount of synthetic fertilizers used on American farms. However, when Pollan visits these “industrial organic” farms, he isn’t so sure. He points out that these farms often use the same industrial farming methods, but just without chemicals—so their farming has similarly negative impacts on the environment. The compromises of the organic movement may have made it in many cases indistinguishable from other industrial farms.
Although smaller organic farms are often more productive by acre, a large company like Whole Foods—which needs a large-scale supply of produce—will only contract with bigger organic farms. Pollan suggests that it seems impossible to reconcile the ideals of organic farming with the needs of an industrial food chain. Although Kahn set out to prove that organic farming could work on a large scale, large-scale organic farming often doesn’t look very organic at all.
For Pollan, the case of Gene Kahn and his farm shows just how difficult it is to meld organic farming principles with the demands of a large food corporation—which will always require shipping large amounts of food across long distances. “Scaling up” the organic food movement requires more compromises than some are able to stomach.
Pollan tells the story of another originally small-scale organic operation, Drew and Myra Goodman’s Earthbound Farm. They began as a roadside farm stand in the 1980s, selling bags of “spring mix” lettuce. They have since grown into a $350 million company that has sold through Costco and Lucky’s. Although Earthbound technically uses organic methods, they grow food on an industrial scale and rely on teams of immigrant workers. Pollan reflects on the gap between people’s idea of lettuce as a simple, earthbound food and the complex production chains that produce a plastic box of mixed lettuce. Pollan concurs with some small organic farmers who have argued that farming on this scale should be given a new word and not called “organic” anymore, since the movement has evolved so far beyond its original ideals.
As Pollan observes, few foods seem simpler and more natural than lettuce. However, what looks like a straightforward farming process in fact involves a complex chain of production to grow the various lettuces that constitute a “spring mix.” Indeed, a plastic box of lettuce is so far from naturally grown and sold—since it requires large amounts of lettuce to be farmed and shipped over long distances—that Pollan questions whether a box of lettuce sold at Whole Foods three thousand miles away from its original site of production can really count as “organic.”
4. Meet Rosie, the Organic Free-Range Chicken. Pollan visits Petaluma Poultry, an organic farm in California and the home of Rosie, the “free-range” chicken he bought at Whole Foods. Compared to industrially-farmed chickens, Rosie supposedly has a better life: she gets a few more inches of living space, and lives a few days longer because she isn’t given hormones to stimulate artificial growth. She also has “access to pasture”—a fifteen-foot grassy yard outside the shed where she lives. But the organic farm managers don’t want the chickens to go outside, since they are vulnerable to infection (they’re all genetically identical and live in crowded quarters). Although Rosie is nominally allowed to go outside, she won’t take the option to explore the yard. This is because the birds aren’t allowed to go outside until the age of five weeks (at which point they’re settled in their habits) and all the food and water is kept indoors.
Rosie is supposedly a free-range chicken, meaning she should be allowed to go outdoors. But in this case, the natural impulse of a chicken to roam outdoors has been checked by human intervention. Since Rosie has been raised since birth in small, crowded quarters, she won’t take the opportunity to explore the yard when it is offered to her. In a sadly ironic twist, Rosie is no more free-range than any other industrially-raised chicken. Pollan comes to the conclusion that, in the case of Petaluma Poultry, the idea of a “free-range” chicken is a fiction rather than a real principle for these organic farms.
5. My Organic Industrial Meal. Pollan cooks a meal at home for his family: Rosie the organic chicken, along with some fresh organic vegetables sold by Cal-Organic farms—a large-scale operation owned by the corporation Grimway—and a spring salad mix from Earthbound Farms. Pollan points out that all this organic food came from big producers that provide organic fruits and vegetables all year round, even when such produce is out of season. The industrial food chain even allows Pollan to buy organic asparagus from Argentina—a food grown thousands of miles away, packed and chilled, and flown by jet to California. Pollan wonders whether such an elaborate food chain can really be considered “organic.” Worse, the “jet-setting Argentine asparagus” tasted flavorless, despite its $6 price tag.
The original organic movement defined “organic” food as sustainably and locally-produced produce. But while activists imagined a world of small farms that would feed their communities, the modern organic movement grows and ships food over long distances—such as asparagus grown in Argentina and shipped to the United States at significant cost to the environment and the consumer. In Pollan’s opinion, such compromise of the movement’s founding ideals compromises the integrity of the very idea of “organic” food.
Pollan ponders the question of whether organic food is necessarily “better.” He thinks that organic produce does generally taste better, although not in all cases (if, for instance, it’s been frozen and shipped for miles, that will certainly have a negative impact on its flavor). He also believes that the food is probably healthier because it contains no pesticides, artificial growth hormones, or chemical fertilizers. The research on whether organic food is more nutritious is mixed. It does seem that organic food contains more polyphenols, compounds that plants develop to fight off pests and disease. These polyphenols are healthy for humans, and industrial produce has fewer of them because they don’t have to fight as hard for survival. Organic farming is also unequivocally better for the environment, for public health, and for farmers.
Pollan concedes that less human intervention in nature is probably a good thing. Food grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers will almost always be healthier for the environment and for humans to eat. Organic food seems to offer more of the naturally-occurring compounds that help plants fight off disease—compounds that don’t develop in genetically-modified plants, which have been scientifically engineered not to contract diseases. In this case, allowing plants to fight off disease on their own might actually be healthier for humans.
At the same time, an organic factory meal does “leave footprints on the world,” as Pollan puts it. Conditions for animals on organic CAFOs are often only marginally better than that of their industrial counterparts. Although organic farmers don’t use chemical fertilizers, they tend to use more diesels to till their soil. And an organic meal is still “drenched in fossil fuel,” since the industry uses a tremendous amount of energy to freeze and ship their food around the world.
Ultimately, Pollan decides, an organic food industry is something of an oxymoron. Although organic farmers found innovative ways to change the food chain’s reliance on synthetics, in the end they made compromises and succumbed to the logic of capitalism: the need to provide large amounts of food and sell it over vast distances.