Those elitist organic types

Prince Charles, Eric Schlosser, and others enter the fray

May 18, 2011

“Elitism,” Paula Crossfield noted in a recent Civil Eats blog post, “has been one of the hardest critiques for the good food movement to shake.”

Blogger and organic-food advocate Sam Fromartz lamented this conundrum back in 2009. More recently, in a Washington Post op-ed, muckraking journalist Eric Schlosser pointed out the problem lurking behind the elitism label:

This name-calling is a form of misdirection, an attempt to evade a serious debate about U.S. agricultural policies. And it gets the elitism charge precisely backward. America’s current system of food production — overly centralized and industrialized, overly controlled by a handful of companies, overly reliant on monocultures, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, chemical additives, genetically modified organisms, factory farms, government subsidies and fossil fuels — is profoundly undemocratic. It is one more sign of how the few now rule the many. And it’s inflicting tremendous harm on American farmers, workers and consumers.

Earlier this month, Prince Charles made headlines for the passionate and cogent speech he gave at the Future of Food conference, arguing in favor of organic agriculture as a way to a sustainable future. “So what is a ‘sustainable food production’ system?” asked the prince. “We should be very clear about it, or else we will end up with the same system that we have now, but dipped in ‘green wash.’”

Food-policy gadfly James McWilliams, in a recent Atlantic interview, agreed that “industrial agriculture must be reformed in many ways” in order to achieve sustainability, but touted the “ways in which technology, and biotechnology, can lead to remarkably efficient methods of producing food.” (McWilliams, a vegan, thinks the wave of the future for meat lovers could be in-vitro meat production.) “Of course,” McWilliams added, “the problem here is that this goes against so many traditional beliefs about what agriculture should be.”

That, as Tom Laskawy recently reported on Grist, was just the problem with two competing programs on the public-radio show “Marketplace,” one of which applauded traditional and organic farming methods as the key to future sustainability while the other held up synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as the only way to feed the planet.

The debate goes on.

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