The organic food movement faces a conundrum. If organic food is available only to those who can afford to pay a premium for it, then what good can it ultimately do for the planet and its people? The next step, according to Anuradha Mittal, an expert on the politics of food, is to address the issue of economic inequity head-on. Otherwise, organics may be doomed to permanent status as an upscale market niche.
Interviewed in Bioneers Letter (Spring/ Summer 2004), Mittal, director of the Oakland Institute, a human rights think tank, poses her own question. 'Why is it that when we see organic foods in supermarkets, or food that is free of genetically modified organisms, it costs so much more that the choice is very obvious to a low-income individual?' Being unable to afford organic food is bad enough, she says, but 'we're living in a world where the starving are food producers, which is the worst situation.'
Mittal, a former co-director of Oakland's Food First, a group that advocates making food a basic human right, suggests several ways to make healthier foods available to low-income people. First, farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms should all accept food stamps and coupons. A second step would be establishing volunteer programs that would allow low-income people to trade farm work for food. Inner-city neighborhoods should have their own farmers' markets, and even their own farms. Mittal would like to see more urban farms and vegetable gardens established at schools and other places.
'Whether it's youth at risk or prisoners or people in hospitals,' she says, 'just having access to some earth and growing food is very healing.'
Thinking about organic food just as a consumer is not enough, she concludes. 'We have to be concerned with who grows the food, who gets to eat it, and how many miles it travels.'
In other words, buying food in the modern world is a political act. To realize the full potential of the organic movement in building a better world, we have to learn to think of healthy food not as an exclusive luxury but as a basic human right.
Bioneers Letter, published twice yearly by the Collective Heritage Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, features highlights from the Bioneers Annual Confer-ence. This year's conference will be held October 15-17 at the Marin Center in San Rafael, California. 877/BIONEER; www.bioneers.org