Organic food, standards and conspicuous consumption

There is a fantastic article up at the Financial Times by Bee Wilson, entitled “What makes a pig organic?”  It’s clearly part of a publicity push for her soon-to-be-published book, “Swindled:  From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee – The Dark History of the Food Cheats” (Foyles, Waterstones, Amazon), which was recently book-of-the-week on the BBC.  It starts with:

This is a tale of two pigs. The first – let’s call him Soren – is reared in Denmark. For the first few months of his life, he lives a cramped existence in a barn. This pink, flabby creature is castrated so that his meat won’t taste too strong. When at last he is allowed outside, his only freedom is a small concrete run. At a young age, he is killed and turned into bacon, using potassium nitrate and sodium nitrite. When you put slices of him in a pan, white watery liquid runs out.

The second – let’s call him Juan – was lucky enough to be born in the Iberian peninsula. He is sleek, black and hairless, a descendant of the original wild boar. Juan spends his life munching acorns among the oak trees. By the standards of animals destined for pork, he is allowed to live a long, calm life. He is only killed when he is 20 months, oldish for a pig, after which time his flesh is cured in sea salt until his fat turns to oleic acid, a fatty acid similar to that in olive oil. Juan is now jamón ibérico de bellota. When you eat slices of him, the salty flesh melts in your mouth.

It should be perfectly obvious which pig has led a better life and makes for better food. But there is one further crucial difference between the two. Because he has had only organic feed and has not suffered the worst indignities of factory farmed pigs – overcrowding and no access to outdoor space – Soren the Danish pig ends his life in a British supermarket labelled “organic”. Whereas Juan, for technical reasons, doesn’t qualify for the organic label.

… which is just a little bit sensationalist, but gets the point across.  A little later we start getting into the truth of the matter:

When you buy an organic egg you are not just buying the means to make an omelette, you are buying a dream. It is the dream of something delicious, which will simultaneously be good for your body and good for the hens and people who produced and packed it. It is the dream of being self-indulgent and virtuous at the same time – which essentially encapsulates the main yearning of our consumerist world. As Lynda Brown says: “Everybody wants an organic egg to come from a chicken that has led an idyllic life. But most people don’t actually want to pay for it.” The result is that when you look behind the dreamy label of much organic food – as with Soren the pig – you find it is not so very different from the industrial, compromised food you were trying to buy your way out of. The yolk is still pallid. The workers are still underpaid. The hens are still crowded – just a bit less than for conventionally farmed eggs.

In other words, buying organic is a form of conspicuous consumption.  How do we know that buying organic is a “dream of being self-indulgent and virtuous at the same time”?  Well, as Bee notes later on:

Take soy milk. In the Tesco longlife milk aisle, you can choose between: first, Tesco Calcium Enriched Soya Drink (at 63p a litre), your basic average soy milk; second, Tesco Organic Unsweetened Soya Drink (at 99p a litre), a premium-looking product with a price tag to match; and third, Tesco Value Unsweetened Soya Drink (60p a litre) with its no-frills packaging. Yet if you look at the small print, you will see that the Value soy milk is organic too. In other words, you are being offered a choice between spending 60p on organic soy milk that doesn’t appear to be organic or 39p more for the organic soy milk that loudly trumpets the fact. By paying that 39p, you are effectively admitting that organic food is simply an idea to you. It is an idea that says wealth and health (whereas “Value” is an idea that says poverty). This is the reductio ad absurdum of “organic” as a brand.

However morally-driven we might all pretend (and like) to be, people like Megan McArdle are a rarity.  For the vast majority of us, buying organic is a way of tickling our egos or showing off to our dinner-party guests.  If we actually end up easing the living conditions of the creatures we eat, that’s a largely unnecessary bonus, because it’s the label that counts.  This is not unique.  In a very real way, buying organic food is much the same as buying “fair trade” food.  We’re buying the highly-visible feel-good factor.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s another titbit of evidence.  Bee Wilson notes:

In the US, [t]he USDA allows many more nonorganic ingredients to be used in “organic” food than are permissible in the UK. Last year, there was outrage when the USDA certified Anheuser-Busch’s Wild Hop Lager, which included hops sprayed with pesticides and grown with chemical fertilisers, as an “organic” beer.

Wild Hop Lager does get lampooned, but not because they failed to make their product truely organic.  People bag it because it’s a bad beer.  Here are it’s reviews on RateBeer.com, BeerAdvocate.com and hop-talk.com.  Notice that none of them are rejecting it because of it’s judicious use of the word “organic.”  They’re rating it on the basis of what makes a good beer.  The closest we get is from the latter, saying:

Why is it awful…? Because once again a megabrewery is trying to make a product that looks like a craft brew, yet they are pouring their money into marketing it and not into making it.

… which is really saying nothing about the desirability of environmental sustainability or the avoidance of man-made chemicals.  If Anheuser-Busch produced a not-at-all organic beer that nevertheless tasted good this reviewer would be all over it.

2 Responses to “Organic food, standards and conspicuous consumption”


  • you seem very opinionated in your views and i respect that but may i ask you, do you think organic food can prolong life .

  • I guess it depends on what you define as “organic”. I don’t mean to be flippant when I say that, just highlight that one person’s definition may be very different to another’s.

    On the whole, no, I don’t think that organic food on its own can prolong life. But most people who make some sort of switch to predominantly or exclusively organic food (however they define it) also change what they eat at the same time, so instead of just ensuring that the steak they eat came from an organically raised cow, they also cut down on the fries to go with the steak and opt instead for more fruit and vegetables.

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