Thursday, March 8, 2007

Why organic is not cool any more; Local is the new organic - kitchen 150

Just when I am about to get cheap organic produce from Walmart and Costco, the game is changed on me. Organic is not good any more. Local is the new Organic!

All of a sudden, transporting organic fish from china and organic apple from New Zealand to far way places like US does not sound politically correct any more. For that matter organic salads from Salinas valley (Northern California) is not consumed in New York without feeling guilty of burning middle eastern oil.

Most of the time it is hard to say what is fashion and what is real. What is sustainable and what is not. What is healthy and what is carcinogenic. Do you trust a cow or a chemist? Do you protect your wallet or earth? What is more important, being able to grind Tellicherry pepper, shipped from half way across the globe, into your platter or use chili from farmers market? Answer is complicated and it changes from time to time and depends on whom you talk.

With food, it has always been very confusing. Some 60 years back, my parents from a small village in Kerala, India, ate whatever they got. Some times it was mangoes from the neighbors trees. Some times it was the rice and vegetables from the family farm. They made yogurt at home. They chased chicken and milked cows. They fished from the nearby creeks. They pulled crabs from the dirt holes next to the running water. They ate pretty much what they could get local and grown organic. But they did not know it had a name. For them it was FOOD.

Well, then they were born at the times of Bengal famine that killed 5 million people in British India. While economists disagree on the causes of the famine, the new government in free India decided to take on the mission of being self sufficient in food. The green revolution in India took roots and India started its mission on industrial scale agriculture with massive dams and canals for irrigation, genetically modified high yield rice and wheat and fertilisers and pesticides. The farming practises changed everywhere including our family rice farms. They used IR-8, high yield genetically modified rice variety. They used Urea and other fertilisers. They used pesticides that included some form of DDT. India started building food warehouses all across India with size larger than Walmart super centers. They transported food across the length and breadth of the country in coal burning rail engines. Famines became a dreadful thing of the past. India started exporting food grains and processed food. Government created a new agency to oversee Agricultural and Processed Food Export Development (APEDA). India became self sufficient in food and assured her children that their photographs will not end up winning the best photograph awards for showing rib cages of poor children in third world countries.

By the time I was a child, we started eating apples and grapes from far away himalayan states.
The food aid from US was beginning to taper. Still saw the stars and stripes for the first time. Vegetables came across the western ghats in the underbelly of the interstate bus routes that crossed mountain divides. We even ate dates shipped from Saudi Arabia.

Then I started reading books. Magazines. I read about vegans. I read how much energy is spent on a chicken before it gives back fraction of it as egg and meat. I was convinced that if we spend a fraction of that energy in producing vegetables, we can feed the entire starving people in the world. So I became a vegetarian. It was tough being a vegetarian in a home where fish is eaten for at least two meals a day. But I survived without chicken, egg and fish. I read about green movement in the western world and swore to god that I will never buy a car that pollutes the air we breath. It was easy for me to decide because I never had any prospect of having the money to buy one. Plus no one I knew owned a car except for the local doctor.

Then I moved to the big city Delhi. I saw people driving imported cars. Scoda Octavia, Opel Astra, Honda City and Even Mercedes. People in Delhi liked to eat at TGIF, McDonald and KFC. They were very impressed with the french fries from McDonald. They thought it was a wonder food. I could not afford McMeal back then! My friends asked me to throw a party at KFC after getting my first job. Fried chicken and biscuits. Meal for 5 cost me more than my month hostel bill. But to be honest, I felt very proud to be able to dine at KFC. It was cool to eat imported food at an imported food joint. Being a vegan did not sound cool in a country where even the predominantly vegetarian Hindus sneaked out and ate chicken nuggets . Being vegan was for the Santa Monica and Mountain View purists who searched for higher purpose in life than just eating good food.

My room mate used to buy pringles and used to give me a few discs. The cucumber from the farmers market did not look very sexy in front of the frozen packaged food the rich started buying in bulk. Traditional lentils curry and wheat roti could not be found in the IT campus cafeteria where hot pizzas were served for free to employees. Dal Roti were served just outside of the sprawling campus in a tin shed dhaba where rikshaw pullers and students ate. There was so much urge to consume everything that was offered in glittering shopping malls and food joints.

Then US dream came calling on me. It was time to come to the US. I told my friends that I will eat KFC when I land in the US. Little did I know about CPK. Shocked to learn that McDonald is a 'cheap' food chain in the US that offerred cheap and fattening fries and burgers. I saw people lined up at In-N-Out drive through. Farmers market was the coolest place to be. I saw people buying tomatoes and vegetables that had far from perfect shapes. The game is changed one me one more time.

Whole foods expanded like corn popping inside the burner. Organic is in and conventional is out. Scare of growth hormones triggering early puberty in kids. Scare of pesticides causing irrecoverable damages to childrens nervous systems. Finally people thought that they found an answer to what causes cancer. It appeared that the the conventional food we bought from Ralphs and Vons caused it all. But the price is steep to buy organic. More over USDA still did not not recognize any health benefits of eating organic. But what do they know about the health effects of chemicals.

For millions of scared parents, the good news came when Walmart announced that they are going to sell Organic produce at fraction of the Whole Foods price. Costco already started carrying organic milk and other produce at reduced price. Organic is beginning to loose its exclusivity. Organic is not romantic any more especially for visionaries like Google food service manager John Dickman who created 'Cafe 150' for googlers where they only cooked that were produced within 150 miles of mountain view. According to him, "Organic was cool at Google in 2004" and now it is local. They cant serve shrimp and scallops since they are not farmed within 150 miles. But that's a small price to pay for being cool.

As a kid growing up in a small village in India, I used to dive at the bottom of the river to collect clams. I never told this story to my US friends lest being ridiculed as Yahoo from third world country. Now I feel cool. I can tell that I ate at 'Cafe 1' that is my mom's kitchen within 1 mile where she cooked the bounty of clams that I collected from river bed. She cooked tapioca roots that I pulled on my way back from school. She grated the coconut that just fell from the tree. She did not know she was a locavore. She was just cooking.

Unlike my mom, Wolfgand Puck knew what he was doing when he served organic and humanely raised French Osetra Caviar for this year Oscar "after party". Next year it will be Oscar 150. That will not include the container of shrimp from China parked at Long Beach!

Local is the new organic TIME Magazine Article

Read my previous post on Organic food. Tips for buyers of conventional produce

Read my previous post on Tellicherry Pepper


Jose said...

That is an excellent article. Very interesting read!!
Well, I guess the human mind is always exploring. Sometimes the exploration takes you to new worlds; other times you may loop back to where you started from.

Sree said...

Thanks. You are right...without the exploring minds...the world would not be where it is today. It was funny in a strange way to see the loop taking us backwards to where we started. What affects me the most is that if independant India listened to Gandhi, when he advocated denunciation of industrial development the world would have been much greener, organic and gramin (local). But then Al Gore wont be buying carbon credits in India when his Tennesse mansion consumes 20 times the electricity used by the average American home. Thats for another bolg :)