Is Local Organic Food Elitist?

By Steven Gorelick


ISEC helped launch the movement for local food because it is such an effective solution-multiplier: local food helps family farmers and other small businesses survive, thereby revitalizing rural economies; it minimizes the need for a wide range of inputs, from pesticides and chemical fertilizers to preservatives and packaging; it increases agricultural biodiversity, adding to long-term food security; and by reducing unnecessary food transport, it lessens our fossil fuel use and the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that go with it. What’s more, a shift from global to local food would benefit self-reliant villagers throughout the South, while making healthy, nutritious food more abundant and more affordable everywhere.

With all this going for it, it can be disconcerting to hear some people argue that “local organic food is elitist.” Disconcerting, but not surprising: for more than a decade, a handful of well-funded corporate front groups has been diligently working to link local organic food with “elitism” – particularly in America – and their work is paying off.

One of these groups is the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), funded by Coca-cola, Monsanto, Cargill, Tyson Foods, and others. CCF’s avowed mission is “to shoot the messengers” delivering unfavorable news about corporate products. According to a CCF spokesman, the group targets “just about every consumer and environmental group, chef, legislator or doctor who raises objections to things like pesticide use, genetic engineering of crops or antibiotic use in beef and poultry” A favored means of “shooting” these critics is to accuse them of elitism. CCF’s website, for instance, features articles with headlines like “Opposition to Biotechnology: Elitism in its Cruelest Form”; another claims that those working to address America’s obesity epidemic have “the elitist conviction that Americans can’t be trusted to take care of themselves”.

CCF is not the only group spreading the ‘elitism’ message. Dennis Avery of the right-wing Hudson Institute (with support from McDonald’s, Monsanto, Dupont and Exxon) calls environmentalists “affluent elites” who believe that “the world’s poor should stay poor.” Elizabeth Whelan of the agribusiness-funded American Council on Science and Health calls the organic food movement “elitist and arrogant”. “The only thing healthy about organic food,” she sniffs, “is the price.”

Although these groups promote the interests of big business, they attempt to give a humanitarian spin to their arguments. Prominent among their claims is the canard that industrial food is needed to feed the world’s starving masses – even though it has been documented time and again that small-scale organic farms are far more productive per acre than their industrial counterparts. In any case, it is usually not a shortage of food that leads to hunger in the global South, but development and trade policies – largely designed to benefit those same big businesses – that pull people away from self-reliant village economies and consign them to poverty in urban slums.

The elitism argument isn’t limited to North-South relations. Another claim is that even in the North, only ‘affluent elites’ can afford local organic food. Yes, industrial food usually sells for less than fresher, healthier food. But distantly-transported industrial food is actually quite costly if one accounts for all the direct and hidden subsidies our governments lavish on it; and it becomes still more expensive if one accounts for its many social and environmental costs. Local organic food – which is unsubsidized, has significant social benefits and far lower environmental costs – is the real bargain.

In the end, the agribusiness-led assault on local organic food does not really depend on strength of argument, but on a subtle psychological ploy. The subtext of the ‘elitism’ claim is that industrial food is central to the identities of average Americans. Criticizing the corporate-run system that produces this food thus becomes the equivalent of attacking the ‘ordinary people’ who eat it.

This is a clever strategem: simply eating Big Macs or microwave pizza makes you part of the solid, patriotic backbone of America, a defender of Mom and frozen apple pie. Choosing alternatives to industrial food, on the other hand, is equated with believing yourself better than everyone else: only an elitist with no respect for decent Americans or their mealtime rituals would challenge this or any other feature of the consumer culture, America’s sacred way of life.

But there is nothing really sacred about this culture. Unlike genuine traditions and cultural adaptations to place, the consumer culture is largely artificial, the creation of huge corporations that require masses of homogenized consumers for their products. It is the product of mammoth entertainment and media empires, billions of dollars in saturation advertising, and cradle-to-grave immersion in the belief that ever more consumption is the surest path to happiness. Corporate-funded think tanks help maintain this manufactured culture, spreading its ideology through propaganda that passes from pundits to the public like a virus.

ISEC and other effective critics of the consumer culture do not attack those whose lives are embedded in it; instead they challenge the economic and political structures that prop it up. Those structures help make industrial food ubiquitous and artificially cheap, while limiting the availability of local organic food and making it artificially expensive.

Here is ISEC’s prescription for challenging the consumer culture’s food system, while making local organic food more accessible to everyone, including the poor:

• First, eliminate the subsidies and tax breaks currently going to industrial food, and shift them to small-scale production for local markets. The reason giant Slurpees are cheaper than local fruit juices, for example, is that industrial corn sweetener is highly subsidized, while local apple juice gets no support all.

• Shift the massive government research & development funding that goes towards industrial production (biotechnology, pesticides, mechanization, etc.) towards research that would help small-scale organic farmers.

• Scale back the huge subsidies currently devoted to long-distance transport – both here and in the global South – which make it easy and artificially cheap for distantly-produced foods to invade the markets of local producers. Devote that funding instead to the infrastructure needs of local food economies, like covered markets, community-based processing facilities, and small-scale renewable energy projects.

• Shift taxation away from labor and onto fossil fuels, thus reducing unemployment and pollution simultaneously. This would significantly raise the price of energy-intensive global food, and reduce the price of labor-intensive local food.

• Re-regulate global corporations. As things stand now, ‘free trade’ treaties and financial de-regulation enable global corporations to invade markets around the world. If communities were allowed to protect themselves from a flood of outside goods, local food economies would have a chance to flourish.

• Change the health and safety regulations that are currently strangling small, local producers and businesses. Though most of these have been enacted because of the abuses of large-scale businesses, they can make it almost impossible for smaller businesses to survive.

Far from elitist, these are steps towards an economy in which even the poor have access to the freshest, healthiest food possible.

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