Michelle Obama's garden and its discontents.
When Michelle Obama planted an organic garden on the White House lawn—which, she told NBC this week, has already yielded more than 80 pounds of produce—the response was overwhelmingly positive. (The main criticism: She should cook, too.) The Obamas' high-profile trip to New York included dinner at the impossibly local/organic/humane restaurant Blue Hill. (Main criticism: too predictable.) She even appeared on Sesame Street to champion the benefits of healthy eating. (Main criticism: no Snuffleupagus.)
Pushing organic and local foods is hardly official White House policy. So far, Five Guys is as much a part of the administration's diet as arugula. But the first lady's public statements, combined with the selection of a White House chef who favors local and organic foods, has brought more attention to what we eat than anything since Top Chef.
But beneath the nodding and smiling, there has been some grumbling. Not all sectors of the food and agriculture industry specialize in organic or local foods. "There's a lot of pushback we're hearing, a lot of whining out of that community about the first lady doing her garden," says Larry Mitchell of the American Corn Growers Association, which represents both organic and conventional farmers. "They're getting awful squeamish on this thing."
The first complaint came from the Mid America CropLife Association, a group that represents agriculture and pesticide companies, in a letter to Obama in March. "Fresh foods grown conventionally are wholesome and flavorful yet more economical," the group said. "Local and conventional farming is not mutually exclusive." The letter also included a history lesson: "If Americans were still required to farm to support their family's basic food and fiber needs, would the U.S. have been leaders in the advancement of science, communication, education, medicine, transportation and the arts?" The White House did not respond.
Other groups argue that organic and local foods are well and good—as long as the White House doesn't pretend that Americans can subsist on backyard heirloom tomatoes alone. "We have no problem with this concept," said Bob Young, an economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, on The Diane Rehm Show in March. "But understand that you're making lifestyle choices here about how you want your food produced. Fine. But don't denigrate the other approaches to food production."
Mary Kay Thatcher, also of the Farm Bureau, argued that the White House should present a complete picture of farming: "If Michelle Obama was having dinner with me, I'd say the organic garden is a great thing, but use it for education about organic vs. conventional agriculture, the pros and the cons." For example, said Young, organic farming requires tilling the soil, which uses up gas, as opposed to conventional farming, which kills weeds with chemicals.
Then there's the difference between organic food and local food. Michelle Obama is a fan of both. "When you grow something yourself and it's close and it's local, oftentimes it tastes really good," she wrote on the White House blog in March. But locavorism has its dissenters, too.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of Michelle Obama by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.