Michelle Obama's organic garden and its discontents.

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June 4 2009 9:35 PM

Organic Panic

Michelle Obama's garden and its discontents.

(Continued from Page 1)

"It's a charming idea and everything, but it's not practical," says Xavier Equihua, who represents the Chilean Exporters Association as well as the Chilean Avocado Committee. The main problem, he says, is that local food is seasonal. For example, avocadoes grow in California during the summer months. Same with grapes. "What happens if you want some grapes during the month of December?" says Equihua. "What are you going to do? Not eat grapes?"

Furthermore, buying local isn't always the most environmentally sound option. Pound for pound, trucking uses a lot more energy than shipping. Thus Equihua is able to argue that "it takes less energy per avocado to ship something from Chile to New York than from California to New York."

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On the whole, however, most food giants are taking a wait-and-see approach to the White House garden. Statements from companies like Monsanto and groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association reveal a pattern: praise the White House for raising awareness about agriculture, and ignore the rest. "Congratulations on recognizing the importance of agriculture in America!" said the directors of the Mid America CropLife Association in their letter to Michelle. Monsanto had a similar message: "We're very encouraged by the conversations taking place around the importance of agriculture," said a spokesman. And there was this from the GMA: "One of the great things about today's diverse marketplace is that consumers have more options than ever before, including more packaged, fresh and organic selections that help meet their ever-changing lifestyles."

If food producers don't sound too worried, it's because they're not. For all the talk about organic and local farming, the administration's agricultural policy remains conventional. Pro-organic groups raised hell when Obama picked Tom Vilsack, former governor of all-agribusiness-all-the-time Iowa, as secretary of agriculture. (The appointment of his deputy, Kathleen Merrigan, provoked equal and opposite celebration.)Vilsack has sung the benefits of "local food systems" but with little shift in policy. Yes, the administration has allocated $50 million to help encourage organic farming. But "it's still nickels and dimes compared to what corporate agriculture gets," says Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association.

Big Food can also relax for economic reasons: Organic and local food costs more than processed food. Even if the organic sector grows beyond its current 4 percent market share, it's unlikely to overtake the giants anytime soon—especially in a recession. "McDonald's isn't going belly up anytime soon," says Don Lipton of the Farm Bureau.

Then again, if the administration had an organic farming policy, instead of just an organic farm, companies could get nervous. "If they started changing policy, then we'd have another look," said Ray Gilmer of the United Fresh Produce Association. Farmers don't mind dedicating small pieces of their land to organic food—when there's a market for it.

And that's the real subversive appeal of the Obamas' organic garden. If it succeeds in shifting public perceptions about organic food, then the market for it may grow. And as with all market shifts, the most successful companies will embrace the organic movement rather than resist it. "For too long, the ag guys have said, If we raise it you're gonna eat it. You don't have options," says Mitchell. "Well, now we have options."

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.