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.

White House Garden.
Michelle Obama works in the White House "kitchen garden"

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.

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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.

"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."

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.

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