TH Mag: The Shocking Roots of the Organic Food Movement

Elisabeth Meinecke

8/24/2013 8:15:00 AM - Elisabeth Meinecke

Don’t stomach bad arguments for buying organic, a food movement with origins that may surprise you. Jayson Lusk reports for Townhall Magazine.


What do Michelle Obama and Chuck Norris have in common?

There is probably an answer that would make a superb addition to the hilarious list of Chuck Norris jokes. The less humorous, bipartisan response is they both support the organic food movement. Norris recently wrote that we should “eat local and organic, period,” and, of course, Obama planted an organic garden at the White House.

At the risk of finding myself on the receiving end of one of Norris’ roundhouse kicks, I suggest prudence before rushing out to join Walker, Texas Ranger at Whole Foods.

I don’t have a problem with people eating organic food. My family often does so. What troubles me are bad arguments for buying organic. Making wise food decisions entails more than just thinking about what goes into our mouths; we must also ensure that we spend our money wisely. Organic food is much costlier than nonorganic. If we are to forego more of our hard-earned dollars, surely we would want to know what kind of bang we’re getting for our buck.

Beyond dollars and cents, our food choices, particularly among those on the Left, are explicitly interpreted as political actions. Best-selling author Michael Pollan wrote in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” that shopping at Whole Foods entails “political dimensions.” The food historian James McWilliams says the local food movement—a close cousin to the organic cause—“is a political act with ideological implications.” In her book “Spoon Fed,” Kim Severson sums up the philosophy of the famed Berkeley chef and restaurant owner Alice Waters when saying that “the most political act we can commit is to eat delicious food that is produced in a way that is sustainable, that doesn’t exploit workers and is eaten slowly and with reverence.”

If these folks are right, then exactly what political positions are endorsed when the grocery basket is piled high with organics?

Seducing Conservatives

There are some observers, such as “Crunchy Cons” author Rod Dreher, who argue that the organic and local food movements are inherently conservative and should be embraced by those on the Right. He’s not all wrong. Conservatives generally support entrepreneurship, responsibility and small, family business. Moreover, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that conservatives are more heavily influenced by a purity or sanctity motive than liberals, and the seemingly natural, untainted organic food seem to fulfill that urge for many on the Right.

Yet to argue that the organic food movement is fundamentally a conservative cause is a bad reading of history. It’s also based on a number of untenable assumptions about what organic food is and what it represents.

The organic and natural food movements are deceptively appealing to conservatives. They are, in a very real sense, reactionary causes. They are a reaction to the change brought about by technological innovation in food. The development of hybrid seed in the early part of the 20th century was a harbinger for a host of agricultural innovations that ultimately made food significantly more affordable for a hungry nation. Entrepreneurial farmers and agribusinesses grew. As a consequence, there are fewer farmers today than there were a century ago, and the ones that remain are much larger. Today’s food is safer, of more consistent quality and is exceedingly more abundant. Yet, today’s critics also see food as too corporate. Too capitalistic.

The organic food movement, at heart, is a negative movement. It is a movement against modern production agriculture. It is an attack against the core demands of the market and the free choices made by most farmers. ...

The organic food movement isn’t just a reactionary movement against today’s production agriculture. Its roots are almost a century old and can be traced to the German philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who was disturbed by the “unnatural” development of a process for creating synthetic fertilizer. Synthetic fertilizers are manufactured by literally extracting nitrogen from thin air. Nitrogen has always been a key limiting factor preventing greater food abundance, and historically farmers had to rely on slow replenishment supplied by cover crops and legumes and by spreading animal manure. The ability of humans to extract nitrogen from the air changed all that. According to Vaclav Smil, the author of “Enriching the Earth,” that technological development was “of greater fundamental importance to the modern world than the invention of the airplane, nuclear energy, space flight or television.” The increased availability of nitrogen created much more food, many more people, and, in all likelihood, me and you.

Steiner encouraged what he called biodynamic agriculture—a view of the farm as a self-sustaining organism not reliant on inputs produced off the farm. Aside from the fact that economics teaches self-sufficiency is the road to poverty (try consuming only those things you can make), the idea doesn’t seem so terrible, until one realizes that responsibility and individualism are not synonymous with self-sufficiency.

Self-reliance in our own sphere of work certainly has merit, but civilization is based on our fruitful interactions with others in a context of social norms and institutions such as the market. Organic farmers are reliant on consumers to buy their wares, and it is a breakdown of logic for an organic farmer to turn around and say he need not rely on those who sell seed or hay or fertilizer or any number of inputs for which the organic farmer has a comparative disadvantage producing himself.

Steiner was also a mystic and something of a spiritualist. He sought to bridge science and mysticism, and he brought those views to the farm. The resulting pseudoscience advocated plantings based on cycles of the moon and burying cow horns stuffed with quartz and manure to invigorate the soil. Biodynamic agriculture is still widely practiced in Europe, and today’s organic food movement is the direct descendent of Steiner’s cause.

Generations removed from the farm, rebellious 1960s era teenagers were attracted to many of the sentiments motivating biodynamic agriculture. After all, self-sustaining farms didn’t rely on inputs from “the man.” Plus, moon cycles and manure-stuffed horns must have seemed, well, groovy. The American origins of the organic food movement have been traced to People’s Park, a plot of land in Berkeley, Calif., confiscated by the hippies. According to Pollan, “The organic movement, much like environmentalism and feminism, has deep roots in the sixties’ radicalism that briefly flourished on this site [People’s Park]; organic is one of several tributaries of the counterculture that ended up disappearing into the American mainstream, but not before significantly altering its course.”

Many on the Left were attracted to organic food because it was consonant with a progressive worldview that perceives man in his natural state as basically good. In this view, the world’s problems are not a result of sinful, fallen man but of oppression and unjust social systems. Unconstrained by human nature, many progressives believe they can re-engineer social systems and usher in a utopia. The constraints that surround us are, the Left believes, artificial, institutionally determined results of bad policy or bigotry.

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