Is Sustainable Food "Bourgeois"? No, Not If You Know What It Means


Shopping at the CSA. Image credit Lloyd Alter

Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones asks in the Atlantic: "Is it possible for gluttony, purity, and morality to coexist with affordability? Or is this utopian vision a myth?" It's in a post titled The Folly of Bourgeois Sustainable Food, he begins by describing his personal conversion to organic food:

I was brought up drinking the conventional, extra-pulpy stuff from a paper carton, downing quarts of it on a daily basis. Then, while living in New York City after college, I discovered a grocery store offering an extra-premium, organic variety with bucolic visions of rustic farm crates and golden sunshine on the label. I was instantly converted. To be able to buy a product that not only tasted amazing yet was also not tainting the earth with pesticides and preservatives felt like a tremendous leap for both the orange farmers and me.

Then I looked at the price--seven dollars a quart.

He writes "I love drinking real orange juice and not destroying the planet, but my ability to do both is directly related to my supply of disposable income."

But it is a false dichotomy and he is missing the point of sustainability.

He continues:

Without that disposable income, paying a premium for organic food--as well as local, fair trade, and sustainable--becomes exponentially harder to justify. At a certain point, when only the relatively rich can afford to not ingest bovine growth hormone on a regular basis, appreciating food and where it comes from becomes a bourgeois endeavor akin to collecting Fabergé eggs.

First of all, this is not true about bovine growth hormone, the United States is just about the only country that permits it and milk is not that much more expensive in the rest of the world. Furthermore, even in the United States, even Walmart doesn't sell it.

As for the OJ, if you are living in Washington, is your only alternative to the "conventional, extra-pulpy stuff from a paper carton" the seven dollar a quart stuff? Not if you care about sustainability.

Just because a product is organic doesn't make it sustainable. It certainly isn't necessarily local or seasonal. The more appropriate approach is to change what you drink, as I have, to locally produced alternatives such as apple cider. Then he goes on about the price of farmers markets:

Sadly, the high costs of local farmers' markets quickly eliminates them from competition. Shopping at the market on a lazy Saturday morning, perusing rhubarb grown by a friend of a friend, and then making a pie from those ingredients felt like the ultimate goal of all this food snobbery. Who needs small packets of dried blueberries with images of humble farm workers when you can spend your time chatting with farm workers? Everything is delicious and nothing gets poisoned. It's this potential utopia where gluttony, purity, and morality live side by side if only the local organic blueberry farmers could somehow reduce their price point.

But it is not true that farmers markets always cost more; when you buy in season they are often far cheaper. That's why people buy in quantity and do preserves, as they have for hundreds of years. It depends what you buy. It also misses a key point about our industrialized food system, that perhaps our food is artificially cheap, that one commenter nailed:

I think the author is missing a major point here- that industrial food is artificially cheap, not that local, sustainable, etc food is expensive. You're not paying for environmental and health costs associated with industrial farming when you buy industrial food. You're also not paying for the subsidies. Also, maybe food should cost more- people in the US spend very little of their total budget on food compared to other countries, and especially compared to other times in history. You can choose not to spend money on other things.

Sustainable food is not bourgeois. It has nothing to do with seven dollar a quart orange juice. It is about making sensible choices, buying locally and seasonally when one can and about cooking it yourself. That is how you make it possible for "gluttony, purity, and morality to coexist with affordability."

More on Orange Juice:
TreeHugger Scoop on OJ
Squeezed: The Story of Your Morning Orange Juice
Think Bottled Water is Bad, Could Bottled Orange Juice Be Even Worse?
Cage Match: TINA vs LOIS

Follow me on Twitter! @lloydalter and friend me on Facebook

Tags: Farmers Markets