"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

Local and Organic: A Hipster Thing or a Free Market Thing?

I never thought I’d say this, but I think I’m sold on the whole local and organic food thing. I’ll be the first to say I’ve been a bit judgmental of the local and organic food movement in recent years. And let’s be real, it’s wildly entertaining to make fun of: However, I’ve always been a huge fan of farmers’ markets. I love to go on sunny Saturdays, buy a batch of blueberries and some carrots, maybe a goose egg if I’m feeling adventurous, and I’m happily on my way. It’s the free market in all its glory! But I’ve always glared at the “buy local” bumper stickers in the parking lot and rolled my eyes at the college kids pompously selling fair trade coffee. I’d pretentiously think to myself, “These people are so uneducated about economics.” I never expected to become an apostate to my own line of thinking. Iwrote the local and organic movement off as a hipster thing—another trend that the counter-culture supports just to challenge the status quo. I thought it was only for the tree-hugging business-haters who were unaware of the basic economic principle of comparative advantage. I had no interest in exploring their food philosophy. Why? Two reasons. First of all, local and organic food is expensive! If importing potatoes from Idaho to Virginia is cheaper than growing them locally, what’s wrong with that? Supporting this movement meant ignoring the role of specialization and the demand for the cheapest, most efficient goods, right? Plus, inexpensive food is essential in sustaining families below the poverty line and holding our economy together. I also don’t like my produce rotting after a couple days. I love my genetically modified strawberries because they’re huge, delicious, and keep in my refrigerator for well over a week. How would we ever be able to feed the nations of the world without genetically modified foods? The produce would rot before it even arrives in the hands of the hungry. These hipster kids just need to chill out and accept that mass-produced food is cheaper for us and does a better job feeding the millions of hungry people on our planet. My reasoning made sense at the time, but my thinking slowly started to change. I stand by my eye-rolling of the fair trade coffee supporters (that’s a story for another post), but over the past year I have been slowly converted to supporting of the “buy local” and organic movement without compromising my free market philosophy. Here’s how it happened… It all started last summer when I was required to present a policy project for my internship program on the 2012 Farm Bill. I lived, breathed, dreamed farm subsidies that summer (I actually did have a couple dreams about them), which formed the foundation to my food philosophy conversion. For whatever reason, my food fascination and desire to understand American agriculture continued well into the following months. I began watching documentaries and reading about everything from fluctuating commodity prices to food allergies. Out of all the YouTube videos and TED Talks I watched on American agriculture, one particular farmer spoke true wisdom to me: Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farms. I was excited to see that his farm was located in my favorite area of my home state, the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, but I fell even more in love with this philosophical farmer after a little research. In a post by Lewis McCrary on Salatin’s website, Salatin calls himself a “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist lunatic” and thinks Abraham Lincoln was our worst president because he created the United States Department of Agriculture. I think Joel and I would get along quite nicely. In “Food Inc.,” Salatin expresses his disappointment that “we have allowed ourselves to become so disconnected and ignorant about something so that is as intimate as the food that we eat.” He suggests the principal problem in agriculture today is that we are so focused on how we are going to cultivate that no one is asking why things are the way they are. Light bulbs started going off in my head. If all the documentaries I had watched and articles I read planted the local and organic seed in my heart, Salatin watered it. He answered why we should support local and organic foods from a capitalistic and common-sense approach, which led to my three major epiphanies: 1. HIDDEN COSTS: I’m saving money at Safeway … wait, no I’m not! Agricultural subsidy programs actually end up raising the cost of food for the domestic consumer when all is said and done. A Heritage Foundation research report found that consumers actually end up spending more on food in the long-run when taxes and all price distorting effects are considered. Subsidies are taxpayer dollars to begin with, so ironically we are paying to make our food cheaper. In addition, the price of land is also driven up in some areas of the country as corporate farms are encouraged to amalgamate and overproduce. In other words, we are paying for subsidies twice over. But it’s so much more than just taxes and the price of land. In “Food Inc.,”Salatin further explains how subsidies have only created an illusion of cheap food:
“Is cheapness everything that there is? I mean, who wants to buy the cheapest car? We are willing to subsidize the food system to create the mystique of cheap food when actually it is very expensive food when you add up the environmental costs, the societal costs, the health costs.”
The reason we accept the apocryphal price and fail to factor in public and individual health costs is because this information requires a bit more digging than simply glancing at the price tag on a fillet of tilapia. Moreover, human nature is short-sighted. We fail to consider long-term costs because we only care to focus on what will affect us right here, right now. 2. HEALTH: The government doesn’t make me fat, they just incentivize it. I know it’s not the healthiest, but it’s so cheap and the organic stuff is so expensive. I walk through the checkout line with a bag of Frito Lays. Wait, did the government just encourage me to make an unhealthy purchase? Even worse, did I just support farm subsidies? Corn is subsidized. Subsidies drive down the cost of corn. Corn is converted to high-fructose corn syrup because it is much cheaper than sugar. High fructose corn syrup goes into nearly everything from Kool-Aid to yogurt. Foods with high-fructose corn syrup are cheap and tasty, so naturally I want to buy them. When I recognized the government was strongly influencing my purchases at the grocery store, I was a little annoyed. The government has inflated consumer demand for mass-produced food and has incentivized unhealthy lifestyles. If the free market reigned, our nation would undoubtedly eat healthier. Worse yet, the USDA heavily regulates health standards that often shut small-scale farms down that ironically provide the healthier food. Polyface Farm was nearly shut down because they slaughter and clean their chickens in the open air as opposed to inside a dark warehouse with chlorine. Rather than the overreaching health regulations the USDA presses on small farmers, Salatin suggests an alternative:
“Imagine what it would be if as a national policy we said we would be only successful if we had fewer people going to the hospital next year than last year. How about that […] for success? The idea then would be to have such nutritionally dense, unadulterated food that people who ate it actually felt better, had more energy, and weren’t sick as much. […] Now, you see, that’s a noble goal!”
3. NATURE: God created cows to eat grass, not corn. The hidden costs and health benefits are reason enough to make me want to beeline it to Whole Foods. But as a Christian, I still want a deeper explanation. I know why I should demand local and organic foods, but why should my core values embrace this movement? I support local and organic food because God’s design is good. God created cows to eat grass, not corn (and certainly not dead cows, as recommended by the USDA, and alleged cause of mad cow disease), but our sinful human nature drives us to believe we can do it better than God can. Meddling with God’s design has created a slew of unintended consequences. We feed cows corn because it’s cheap (thank you, farm subsidies) and it makes them really fat (which is why they probably want to eat grass in the first place). Not only is it unhealthy for the cows, but it is unhealthy for us. A corn-based diet creates an overly acidic environment in a cow’s intestinal track, creating the perfect environment for a lethal and acid-resistant strain of E-coli knows as 0157:H7. This acid-resistant strain of the pathogen is able to survive in the acidic conditions of the human stomachs. It is believed that switching a corn-fed cow to a grass diet for just five days will kill 80 percent of E-coli, but instead, meat packers inject a meat filler soaked in ammonia that kills the E-coli. It doesn’t just infect our meat though; E-coli spreads to other crops like spinach and lettuce by way of runoff from livestock to nearby farms. Grass-fed beef has a number of health benefits: It’s richer in nutrients like calcium, magnesium, beta-carotene and potassium. It’s lower in saturated fat, higher in omega-3 fats, four times higher in vitamin E, and higher in conjugated linoleic acid, which is a nutrient associated with weight management and cancer prevention. Wouldn’t you pay just a little more for beef if you knew what you were really getting? There’s no doubt that grass-fed beef is the healthier option, but I think the failure to demand grass-fed beef over corn-fed beef may say something deeper about the values of our culture. Salatin expresses his disdain for manipulating nature in the livestock business:
“A culture that just views [an animal] as a pile of proto-plasmic inanimate structure to be manipulated by whatever creative design a human can foist on that critter will probably view individuals within its community and other cultures in the community of nations with the same type of disdain and disrespect and controlling type of mentality.”
Is it possible that ignoring what God intended in nature indirectly reflects a human disrespect for God’s good design and a prideful desire for control? Maybe that’s a bold statement, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that feeding cows anything other than what they were designed to eat ends up hurting us in the end. So now that I’ve professed my late conversion to the local and organic food movement, will I trade my Safeway trips for the farmers’ market? I sure hope so, but changing my lifestyle is going to be a challenge. I think it’s important to set realistic goals for myself, to buy local and organic as much as possible, but swearing off subsidized and mass-produced foods all together would be setting myself up for failure. I’m still going to buy brown sugar cinnamon Pop Tarts. I will still drink Dr. Pepper. And I will certainly still go to Chick-fil-A. My philosophic food journey is much like a religious one. I certainly have my doubts. Can local and organic foods really “feed the world?” What role should the government play in health in safety standards? At what point should I compromise health benefits for economic affordability? Should buying local and organic be the standard for countries at any level of development? Is buying local and organic too idealistic? Despite these reservations, I can say I am deeply convicted, and deep convictions lead to real change. Likewise, I challenge all consumers to change three things about the way they make their food decisions:
1. Dig for the information that is not reflected in the price. You will certainly find that the benefits of local and organic foods outweigh the costs. 2. Fight the tendency to only consider the short-term. Make your decisions based on the long term costs and benefits. 3.  Demand honest, real and wholesome food. As the consumer, you have the power. Vote every time you eat.
So is buying local and organic a hipster thing? For now, yes, but it’s also an anti-farm subsidy and pro-health thing. It’s definitely a free market thing.