I’m too lazy to find any actual poll numbers on this, so I could be wrong, but my strong guess is that most U.S. consumers involved in the recent growth of organic food are choosing organic for health reasons. One might even think of the organic boomlet as a subspecies of the general American health mania — the same one that sent customers herding toward fat-free and low-carb food.
If this is true, we wouldn’t expect consumers to particularly care about how far the food has traveled or what size farm it was grown on. They see “organic” as another health label; if it has any specific content to them at all (as opposed to vaguely healthful connotations), they probably associate it with lack of pesticides, and pesticide-free is pesticide-free, whether from an industrial farm in Chile or Farmer Bob’s family farm down the road.
How can we get U.S. consumers to care about the broader food system? There are two basic ways.
One would be to develop a label or certification program related to food miles traveled. That way consumers who do care about local food could act on their convictions, and those who don’t might at least pause to give it some thought. This option has been discussed quite a bit.
But there’s another: getting American eaters interested in flavor. Meats, fruits, and vegetables can travel thousands of miles and sit for days or weeks in delivery trucks and on warehouse shelves and still be organic, but they can’t do that and still taste good. Real, quality flavor cannot be faked; it comes from farms where animals and plants are produced in a healthy environment, and it’s eaten shortly after being harvested.
If we could get Americans interested in quality food — demanding it — much of the rest would take care of itself.
The problems with this strategy are legion, though. Americans’ dysfunctional relationship with food, well-documented by Michael Pollan and others, is longstanding. For one thing, we think of time spent seeking out and carefully preparing food as time wasted. And we think of money spent on higher quality food as money wasted.
Also, it takes time to cultivate a sophisticated palette. Just as a novice beer drinker will think all stouts taste the same — perhaps dimly sensing differences — someone who loves beer will instantly be able to distinguish a quality stout from a cheap one. Most Americans are raised on a diet of fatty, salty food and have developed a craving for that kind of tawdry instant rush.
You could even put the point more broadly: Puritanism and the protestant work ethic are alive and well in U.S. culture. We simply do not take pleasure seriously. We take very little vacation time and compartmentalize our recreation. We have the same conflicted binge/shame relationship with food that we do with drugs and sex.
We’re not good at leisure, and as Europeans know, well-done leisure is a skill like any other.
Anyway, I have no big answer here. It just strikes me that we’re always discussing the food system in moral and environmental terms, when we could get to much the same destination via the sensory and savory.
In this, as in so many other areas, the green life is not drudgery and difficulty, but delight and gratification. That, I fear, is precisely why America has not taken to it.