I am a big fan of organic food, because I believe in making choices that make a positive difference. Organic food is about being respectful to the environment, being kind to the farmworker, and growing food in accordance with the laws of nature. Conventional agribusiness is usually not.
Another part is practicality: As an orthodox vegetarian, I can tell you just how many meat products are hiding in places you wouldn’t expect. To my eternal annoyance, almost all cookies, cake, candies and soaps in the conventional supermarket contain glycerin, which is derived from pork fat. When I shop organic at places like My Organic Market (MOM’s) or Trader Joe’s, I rarely encounter that particular problem. (Don’t worry carnivores, organic meat is a thing, too.)
More than anything, though, organic food and conservative politics should be natural allies. Yes, I know that The American Commons is not an exclusively right-wing or left-wing magazine, but this point is worth some attention. If we accept the premise that conservatism is about conserving what nature has given us, and living in accordance with her laws, then organic food is conservative by definition.
If we further add that a big part of conservatism is about protecting the traditional family and the small business, even more so. Consider how modern agriculture is so dependent on chemical pesticides that harm the environment. Or how modern agribusinesses own huge tracts of land in rural America, often at the expense of small family farms. Finally, from a conservative Christian perspective, it can be argued that organic food is nothing more than the kind of food as the Judeo-Christian God would prefer us to eat. Adam and Eve had no need for dangerous chemicals to grow their food, even after the fall. In Genesis, God designs nature to supply all of Adam and Eve’s needs by herself. He also explicitly tells them only to eat seed-bearing plants of all kinds for their food.
But organic food has much to offer the liberal as well – and really, we typically imagine organic food shoppers as politically liberal, do we not? Specifically, the strain of liberalism that advocates for the marginalized who would otherwise be hurt by big business, and the strain that advocates for the environment using similar logic. But the strongest avenue on which I can see organic food and American liberalism interacting is in the desire for progressive change. If we accept the premise that liberalism is about doing something that will benefit the greatest number of people for the sake of the common good, while cutting down corrosive privileges horded by large entities, then it’s not much of a wonder organic food is often a political crowd-pleaser.
But arguably, the ideology into which organic food fits most comfortably is that of “Solidarity,” which has roots in varying Christian political movements throughout history, most notably the Polish Solidarność, active amidst the collapse of the Soviet Union. Solidarity is closely associated with “distributism,” an alternative tradition of economic thought that essentially proposes that families prosper when they have enough land or other means of sustenance to adequately supply their needs. A good business, therefore, is one that makes it easy for a breadwinner to support their family.
Distributism is generally characterized by what can be called “capitalism by small business,” or an “economy of ownership” via unions or guilds. In any case, the goal is to think small and local. We can cite the business model of MOM’s from earlier as an example of distributism in action. MOM’s is an organic grocery store chain native to my hometown of Washington D.C. Besides doing business almost exclusively with small family-owned farms, MOM’s subsidizes employee volunteer work on said farms. They also support environmental cleanup programs, the purchasing of electric cars, and try to keep a small-town, community-oriented air unique to each location. Finally, they make it a point to stand by their employees. All employees get full health insurance, paid parental leave up to six weeks, and free mindfulness retreats. Of course, not every organic food specialty store necessarily does this, but I have yet to encounter any that behaves like a traditional capitalist retail establishment.
“But wait a minute, Charles!” I hear someone object. “All of this is great and all, but there’s no way that a distributist food economy can feed 8 billion people, is there? Especially as the population keeps growing?” Oh, but yes, my friend, there is.
In fact, — and I’ll talk about this more in a moment — organic food did help feed and clothe the entire world until recently with no problem. For at least 6,000 years or more, humans subsisted via organic food economies, whereas conventional agriculture is barely 70 years old. Following that logic, I see no reason why organic food cannot help us again.
“It’s important to remember that before about 1950, all the world’s food was organic, and most grocery stores were strictly mom-and-pop local enterprises.”
But perhaps my questioner is worried organic farms cannot produce as much food, or as effectively? And to that I say, it is conventional agriculture that uses land inefficiently, not organics. Besides stealing land that could be used for the small farmer in a more environmentally friendly way, too much farmland is used to grow the wrong things for the wrong purpose. For example, most of our vegetables, corn, and soybeans are grown for animal feed, not human consumption. In the process, conventional agribusiness drains the soil of vital nutrients, and contributing to problems like erosion. Conversely, organic farms are in the business of producing only what they and their customers need, and strictly in sustainable amounts.
It is true that a sudden switch to organic food might result in a food shortage at first, but this has nothing to do with organic farming’s shortcomings and everything to do with how big agriculture has reduced the number of available farmers by buying up all that land. And as for the population argument? It is true that the population of the world is increasing. For that reason, we need to farm as efficiently as possible. And it turns out that organic farming is more efficient that conventional farming. Small-to-medium sized plots of land are more effective at producing food than large plots, especially in dry or nutrition-poor soils. In an ideal scenario, we could give land previously hoarded by big agriculture to newly-trained farmers or organic co-ops, and let them do the rest.
Why does all of this matter? It matters because the ways in which we currently get most of our food, treat our workers, or approach our communities is nothing like this. Our food is mostly grown on chemical-soaked plots of land far away, then trucked several hundred miles to our supermarkets. Often it is picked by people who are rarely, if ever, paid a living wage, never mind health insurance. It is then sold in one of possibly hundreds of chain supermarkets. The grocery workers in those markets are not only treated poorly like the aforementioned pickers, but are also often overworked and underpaid. The supermarkets they work in often look generic and incongruous with a community’s architecture and culture; that is, it looks like someplace, but it’s not reminiscent of one’s home.
This shouldn’t be normal. It’s important to remember that before about 1950, all the world’s food was organic, and most grocery stores were strictly mom-and-pop local enterprises. The coming of the supermarket and the agricultural corporation changed all that. It was not until then that big agricultural companies stepped in and drastically altered the nature of farming in the U.S. As I have said already, big agriculture firms buy enormous plots of land, devouring family plots in the process, followed by large amounts of unnecessary pesticides and chemical fertilizers bad for the environment and worse for the stomach. (No, seriously. The number of food-related illnesses out there has exploded since at least 1971.)
Then of course, there is the rise of the factory farm, with its many environmental crimes: Cattle being forced to stand knee-deep in their own feces; chickens crowded in cages, never being allowed to leave, and often spreading diseases like pneumonia in the process; pigs making large amounts of manure each day with no real safe way to dispose of it, drastically increasing the likelihood of diseases like E. Coli, cryptosporidium, and salmonella spreading among humans. Such is the price tag of mass-produced meat on our plates. The typical response to this is usually along the lines of “Don’t tell me the truth, you’ll spoil my lunch.”
Beyond all of this is the aforementioned companies’ involvement in human rights abuses. Ever since the 1930’s, agricultural firms have been legally exempted from having to pay their migrant workers a minimum wage, overtime pay, paid sick leave, or even give them basic health and safety precautions. Many of them deliberately encourage illegal immigration, knowing that said immigrants will be so desperate for work, and so frightened of being deported, that they will not dare to complain about being exploited.
What is the moral effect of all this? We have not only become detached from the needs of our less-fortunate neighbor, but just as bad, we have come to the conclusion that nature is our enemy instead of our ally. In the process, we have lost an appreciation for what food is supposed to be like, and gotten little out of it but sickness. None of this is actually necessary to feed and clothe ourselves. It wasn’t necessary in the past. It certainly isn’t necessary in the present. It is likely even less necessary in the future. And we surely cannot practice this type of food growth without it being horrendously bad for our national karma.
Before we can feed the homeless, clothe the naked, etc., we have to simply be. We are, in fact, what we eat; the moral choices we make now are what dictate our future treatment. For these reasons, more than any I have described thus far, I think organic food and Solidarity should be best of friends. It is one of the most effective avenues to make pro-environment and pro-worker ideologies into realities. Looking back to the past, we often find good practices to help support the working man and the dispossessed in the present. Organic food economies are vital to accomplishing that.
Charles M. Sutherland lives near Washington D.C with his family. He currently possesses a bachelor’s in History, and another in Anthropology from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, in addition to a Master’s of Library Science from the University of Maryland College Park. He is a librarian by profession. When he is not writing, he enjoys singing, virtual flying, and pro-life activism. He has been a member of the Maryland chapter of the American Solidarity Party since 2016.