It has become clear to most observers that organic certification, Fair Trade branding, and other labels, do not guarantee the social justice or ecological sustainability of food production. Yet in the media, this insight remains a constant source of surprise and disappointment. (Or at least a constant source of story pitches.) Today it is an article in the Guardian, a first-person account of a shopper’s distress at the difficulty of shopping ethically in a large chain supermarket.
First of all, let’s avoid all temptations to be righteous and superior: It’s step in the right direction, when suburban professionals want to shop with even a little fairness and sustainability in mind. It’s a good thing when a capitalist mega-orchard uses less chemicals in order to win the premium “organic” title. It’s important that a London-based writer shares her questions about whether it helps more to buy local on the one hand, or to buy imported organic on the other; and so on.
It’s also urgent to spread the word that these labels and certification processes have been largely hijacked by large producers, and not only as a marketing tactic: Like much regulatory and intellectual-property law, the “organic” certification process has been purposely turned into an expensive and burdensome obstacle, which favors large industrial producers; and which small, truly sustainable growers cannot overcome.
What is unspoken but implicit in the discussion is the evidence of how alienated people—including otherwise socially- and ecologically-aware people—are from the origins of what they eat. The discussion of ethical shopping often comes down to the dilemma, frequently stated quite plainly, of a concerned person at the market. They stand there, looking at different labels and promises, and wondering, “How can I really know where my food is coming from?” The answer is so obvious, that it should be striking: The key to knowing where your food comes from is, to know where your food comes from. The way to know what chemicals were sprayed on your vegetables is, to know what chemicals were sprayed on your vegetables, in the same way that you know what chemicals have been sprayed in your kitchen.
Not everyone can grow all their own food, or even live close enough to a large enough variety of appropriate producers to fulfill all their needs. But this is the choice we have made as a culture; other choices are possible. All the little failures of label and certification are only symptoms of something larger. Most urban shoppers can’t easily have a personal relationship with a farmer, of course… but most people don’t even know their shopkeepers, much less the small army of buyers, distributors, other middlemen, regulators, and inspectors, who make up the profit-driven labyrinth between the tomato plants and the produce section. The truth is so simple, in a way, that its hard not to spew yet more tautologies: In a system of buying and selling in which only price and profit matter, only price and profit matter.
A less-centralized system of food production is not only possible; as fuel and transport prices rise, it’s inevitable. Maybe it will be a radical re-ruralization; maybe it will be a gentle shift in urban shopping habits, favoring the local and seasonal. The real change will be when consumers make choices based on human relationships and trust, and not based on brand-recognition and price. There is nothing preventing anyone from looking for a shopkeeper, whom they trust to care about human ethics and the environment. But not enough people are doing so now to make many such business viable. Notice that I am talking about a trusting relationship with a shopkeeper, and not with a chain, or a brand, or a label. I am talking about a person, a specific human being, an equal, a compañero who happens to sell produce.
Democracy and the free market live up to their advertising, in that they are both quite responsive to their publics. If voters and shoppers want to feel like they’re doing something green and socially responsible, while not changing anything about the way they live; be assured that corporations and governments are ready to echo this lazy hypocrisy with empty words and symbolic gestures. If you want to feel like you care, drive your Prius to Whole Foods*. If you actually care, find other people that actually care, and help create a solution.*If you have to drive and shop at a big supermarket, by all means drive a Prius and shop at Whole Foods, and accept my gratitude that you are doing what you can.