Monday, July 16, 2012

The Good Earth

When was it that the phrase ‘the personal is political’ started to mean that every personal choice is political? Carol Hanisch meant the opposite of this. She said that there were no personal solutions, only collective action for a collective solution. Yet I can’t remember when was the last time that I heard the phrase used in that way, and not instead to suggest, at best, that one should strive to behave in one’s everyday life in a manner consistent with his or her politics, and, at worst, that politics writ large is the result of the addition or multiplication of individual behaviours, as many as there are people.

There are few acts that are more everyday, more personal than eating, thus few consumer activities that are more everyday and personal than shopping for groceries. And there are even fewer areas, if any, in which the idea of individual action and personal solutions is leveraged more aggressively than in the marketing of a large and growing segment of grocery products. For this post I’ve limited my examples to the Wellington food chain Commonsense Organics, but theirs is hardly a unique approach, and you’ll find much of the same language and imagery in both the health food and regular food section of most supermarkets, as well as in the relevant magazine and television ads, and not just in New Zealand. It is however in the health food store that the idea is most developed, this politics most explicit, and in limit cases the store itself becomes a model society. A utopia founded on ethical consumption.

‘Good for you, good for the earth’ sums up the core idea nicely: you ought to buy foods that are healthy, and that are produced in a way that is good for the environment. Both halves of the statement deserve to be unpacked, but ‘good for the earth’ is the parts that contains the greater promise: that by engaging in this behaviour – that is, by looking after your digestive tract – you’ll save the planet. The gastric is political. And I say political because the phrase ‘good for the earth’ and its accompanying bucolic imagery are only thinkable in a world in which the strategy has succeeded, and enough people and businesses operate in a way that is good for the earth to make the difference. The fact that we know this not to be the case at the present time, and that the prospect of not just improving but preventing a further catastrophic deterioration of the world’s environment are getting slimmer by the hour, is what makes the proposition utopian.

So what kind of utopia is represented at Commonsense Organics? The store in Wakefield Street no longer greets the customer with slogans such as the one above, put up in the occasion of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, or its seasonal alternatives “Don’t fake organics this Christmas” and “Organic eggs for Easter – Battery not included”, nor the store's staple “Good Food Here”. This might reflect a laudable desire to tone down the overt smugness of the enterprise, which is a service to the critic as well: it is so easy to get distracted by the smugness, to make it the thing that shops like this are about, when they are not.

Inside, the store is suitably sombre and unpretentious. On the right side as you come in it features a separate health products section – naturopathy, homeopathy, mineral and vitamin supplements – which I’m not going to get into, and I mean this quite literally as I find I can achieve similar results by throwing my wallet down a manhole. On the opposite wall, and in many respects at the opposite end of the project, is an altogether more sympathetic display consisting of a small selection of seasonal fruit and vegetables: few and not terribly attractive pieces of produce, a world apart form the cathedrals of ultra-bright and perfectly shaped items that greet you regardless of the season – tomatoes. Always with the tomatoes! – in regular supermarkets. And these are reasonably priced, too, by and large. Okay, $4.80 for a head of broccoli is pricey, but the fruit isn’t too bad. I confess also a certain attraction to organic apples, likely borne out of having to shut all the doors and windows when I stayed at my grandmother’s and the farmer next door sprayed his orchard wearing what resembled an astronaut suit, only less wieldy.

In between the opposite ends of the store, between the surprisingly affordable organic apples and the 250 gram jars of surgical-grade manuka honey retailing for an eye-watering $82.50, and excluding the products that cater for specific allergies and thus fall outside of the paradigm of free consumer choice, is a range of everyday grocery products that define lifestyle on the good earth: bread, dairy, meat, biscuits, snacks, alcohol, detergents and so forth. What they have in common is, firstly, that they are ethical products, therefore either organic or fair trade or both; and, secondly, the price premium that this ethical quotient commands. Want a kilogram of Arborio rice? That will be $16. One and a half kilograms of white flour? $10.99. One kilogram of polenta will set you back $11, which personally offends me. I come from Northern Italy, where for centuries polenta was the staple of the people who couldn’t afford anything else, that is to say almost everyone outside of the cities. Hell, polenta is barely a food, really, more of a pastime. Ground corn flour has next to no nutritional content, so after you’ve spent the best part of an hour mixing it with boiling water in a large pot, and are already ten bucks in the hole, you still have to source the proteins somewhere else.

At Commonsense Organics you soon come to the realisation that in this peculiar utopia only the rich can afford to eat, which makes all those nurturing brand names – Naturally Good, Pureharvest, Bees' Blessing, Loving Earth and so forth – sound somewhat sinister. In fact the question of why should these products be so expensive goes to the heart of the entire project. Whether organic farming could ever sustain the kind of yields that are needed to feed large populations is a vexed question that we don’t actually need to get into since most of the products in the store are not just ‘oganic’ but also made in boastfully and at times extravagantly expensive ways. White organic flour doesn’t need to be stone ground, but it is. Potato crisps don’t need to be ‘hand cooked’ (whatever that means), but they are. The makers of Thoroughbread organic breads – on which more later – don’t need to grind their brown rice just before baking, but they do. All of these loving and robustly marked-up practices directly undercut the idea of sustainability and belie the notion that the good earth could – or would even want to – provide for anyone but its wealthiest inhabitants.

It’s the brand names as much as the price tags that give the game away. The hand cooked crisps above, which retail for a trifling $59.80 a kilo, are called Proper. Get it? The crisps you eat aren’t real food. Is their salt even solar-harvested from the salt beds of Lake Grasmere on the Marlborough coast? Didn’t think so. Now this product is not even organic. The potatoes are regular potatoes. The sunflower oil is regular sunflower oil. So the only possible rationale for their being sold in this particular store is that they are vastly more expensive than the crisps that the people who can’t afford to shop here usually eat. The price, the brand name, the packaging, the blurb, the location are all guarantors of an experience and of a sense of moral being.

But I saved the best for last. It’s in the powerfully symbolic category of bread that the suppliers of Commonsense Organics lose all inhibitions, and none more so than rival brands Thoroughbread and Purebread. For these people the ethics of eating right is kneaded into the very substance of their product. The marketing blurbs are a finely crafted blend of the sublime and the ridiculous, with sentences like this one:
A high top, soft textured loaf with a mix of added kibbled delights which are pre-soaked to slowly soften for better digestion and safe chewing.
This is bread that chews itself, that digests itself for you, freeing you, perhaps, to save the earth. But the product in question has a particular name, and to this I don’t know how to respond.

I search in vain for a justification and a trace of humanity behind the decision to call a bread Moral Fibre. This is the bread that says that I, who have purchased it, am better than you, who can’t or won’t. It is a quasi-religious signifier. A bread that elevates lifestyle to a mission, a bread that saves souls. And I don’t know how to respond to it. I am tempted to use words that are disproportionate to the evil of an artisan bread sold at a store down the road. But I am deeply worried about the things that are pure. The ancient grains. The steadfast moral purpose. Is this fascist bread, does it contain traces of eugenics? Is this the troubling, ominous endpoint of the discourse over sustainability? Or is rather the simpler, more economical explanation that premium consumers need to be made to feel good about their choices, and that these are just flattering puns?

I wish I could feel disenchanted, the way you are supposed to feel, but I don’t. This earth, which is neither good nor bad, is faced with a steadily growing population, a sizable proportion of which is already starving, and a diminishing capacity to produce food. If there is a safety to be sought, it is not of a moral kind.