I was discussing Michael Pollan’s new book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, with some friends over dinner the other night. It was a conversation filled with frugal themes — we had just been talking about our vegetable gardens.
“I wanted to borrow the book from the library,” said Rhonda, “but there were 76 holds on eighteen copies. Mike and I bought a community copy instead. We shared the cost with some friends, and we’ll all read it in turn.”
My wife got her copy for free. “The last time I donated to public radio, they gave me the audio download as a thank-you gift.”
All four of us know about the book, though none of us has actually read it yet. We’re fascinated by what Pollan has to say about organic foods. The four of us agreed that the idea of organic food appeals to us, and that we’re drawn to it for health reasons, as well as for personal values.
“But it’s so much more expensive,” Kris said. “I bought a bag of grapes last weekend at New Seasons without looking at the price. When I got home I was shocked to see that the bag cost more than ten dollars!”
“When does it become too expensive?” I asked. “When does the cost outweigh the benefits, outweigh our principles?”
“Isn’t it interesting that some people don’t have the option to follow their principles?” said Mike. “If you’re poor, you can’t afford to spend ten dollars on grapes. You can’t afford to buy organic. You need to feed your family, and principles like nutrition and the environment take a back seat. Sometimes principles are a luxury for the wealthy.”
It is difficult for me to grasp all of the implications involved in the complex web of food production: price vs. organic. vs. healthfulness vs. locally-produced vs. sustainable farming vs. economy of scale. I’m fortunate to live in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which is a richly productive region. During the summer I can buy cheap local produce from roadside stands, produce that tastes better than anything I can buy in a store. (And, of course, we grow many of our own favorites.)
The poor need to buy what is cheapest. The wealthy can buy whatever they please. But how do the rest of us balance sound financial choices with our personal principles? Is there a middle ground?
For more on this subject, check out the following articles:
- Grist Magazine: Assessing the trade-offs of organic food
- Sustainable Table: Measuring organic-ness and Choosing sustainable does not always mean choosing organic
- Cooking with Amy: Eating only local?
- Slate: The dark secrets of the organic-food movement
- Disease Proof: Is organic food safer?
(Note: Many of these questions are applicable not just to organic foods, but to other economic transactions as well. Many Christians face choices like this every day. So do vegetarians. I once had a history teacher who refused to eat bananas due to some obscure personal belief.)
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