Why America’s organic food movement belongs to conservatives, liberals, and everyone in between.
by Megan Molteni
You can learn a lot about a person by glancing inside their pantry. Organic canned beans, bulk quinoa and home-canned tomatoes paint one picture; boxes of processed snacks and ready-made dinners tell another. Class, income, economics, politics, personal values—all these are reflected in the shopping choices we make (or have made for us by circumstance). It’s tantalizingly easy to draw a one-to-one analogy between organic, local, artisanal food and the liberal left. Who ever heard of a conservative foodie anyway?
But that wouldn’t be the whole story.
This became most evident to me two weeks ago when SCOTUS ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that closely held, for-profit corporations could be exempt from a law (like the Affordable Care Act) on the basis of religious objections. In this case, it was the law requiring employers to cover certain contraceptives for their female employees that was untenable to the Evangelical Christian family behind Hobby Lobby.
Their high profile case may have grabbed the most headlines, but it’s not the only company that has challenged the Obama administration over the healthcare mandate. Since February 2012, 71 other for-profit companies have filed in court, contesting coverage of contraception for women. Most of these companies are politically unsurprising; a Christian publishing house, a manufacturer of aiming systems for firearms, a Catholic insurance company. Florida, Colorado and the Midwest are all well represented.
But one surprising member of this list recently made some headlines of its own: Eden Foods, a Michigan-based organic food company that started as a co-op of Midwestern organic growers in the 1960s, and has since then resisted buyouts, remained a steady channel for domestic organic growers to make a living, supported GMO labeling, and was one of the first companies in the country to invest in BPA-free packaging, which they rolled out in 1999. This same company was also denying contraceptive coverage to its female employees. Some thought it was an error, a case of mistaken identity. Others just couldn’t believe it. But after the story broke, Michael Potter, CEO of this trusted organic brand of soymilks, canned beans and other grocery products dropped a bomb in an interview with Salon that left no room for speculation about his stance on the issue:
“I don’t care if the federal government is telling me to buy my employees Jack Daniel’s or birth control. What gives them the right to tell me that I have to do that?…I’m not trying to get birth control out of Rite Aid or Wal-Mart, but don’t tell me I gotta pay for it.”
The subsequent waves that rippled through the foodie world were swift and tsunamic. Calls, emails, Facebook posts, tweets and blog articles all hit Eden Foods in an unending barrage of Internet vitriol. There were also some bystander effects. Galvanized by the collective outrage, consumers spread the news to natural foods retailers like Whole Foods and local co-ops. I know this because I work at one of those co-ops, and I have seen the requests to boycott Eden pile up in my inbox and on our Facebook wall. Being a relative newcomer to the co-op world, I was surprised to learn of our long-held policy to refrain from boycotts on the basis of politics. And even more surprised to discover that this was a vestigial policy, left over from a time when co-ops were a battleground for political ideology in the most literal of senses.
During the mid 1970s, the co-op movement in in Minneapolis and St. Paul split into two factions. On one side were the natural food proselytizers, who wanted to provide healthful, socially responsible and environmentally sustainable alternatives to grocery stores. The other side was made up of politically-motivated activists, interested in serving the needs and demands of the working class. These tensions eventually erupted in actual violence, including a car bombing, people getting beat up by rival co-ops and a even a hostile (though short-lived) co-op takeover. These incidents ultimately were the downfall for the politically-minded faction. The hippies won. But the acrid smell of charred automobilia still tingles in the nostrils of the co-op employees who’ve been there since the beginning. The message has been made clear: the co-ops that engage in political battles don’t exist anymore. Let it be a lesson.
This was all news to me. But I was even more surprised when, in a meeting, one of our most long-tenured employees brought up the notion, uncomfortable though it might be for our liberally-minded members, that there are plenty of folks who come at the idea of organic from a totally different place: a place of purity and a desire to take care of the land God gave us. As a co-op operating under the concept of “one share one vote,” she said we needed to respect their values as well. Others nodded in agreement.
And while it was unsurprising to me that organics attract people with a wide range of personal and political values, I had to wonder: where exactly are these conservative consumers? Surely I’ve seen them at my co-op, perhaps even stood beside them in the bulk section. But people are harder to read than pantries, and far more complex. So what does the conservative organic consumer look like?
According to Rod Dreher’s autobiographical book Crunchy Cons, they’re a diverse group. A writer for the premier conservative political magazine in the country, Dreher admits to attending Catholic church on Sundays with his family, homeschooling, and preferring Fox News to CNN, all things that seem to affirm rather than challenge the conservative stereotype. But their family also gets a weekly delivery of organic vegetables from a CSA program through their neighborhood food co-op, and they cook most of their meals at home from scratch. Cutting out processed foods and eating holistically became an expression of love, an occasion for communion with each other and with the earth. Dreher says, “If you had told us when we first married that within two years, we’d be acting like, well, hippies, we’d have thought you were nuts. But we had begun to realize that even though we were conservative Republicans, this stuff made sense, and it didn’t conflict with our moral or religious beliefs; in fact, it flowed naturally from them.”
Dreher found many others all over America who, while still identifying as conservative, had an even harder time fitting into that box: homeschooling moms in Brooklyn, Orthodox Jews who started a kosher organic farm in the Berkshires, an NRA staffer with a passion for organic gardening, a Texas clan of Evangelical Christian free-range livestock farmers. They all said the same thing: they preferred a life where “small is beautiful,” and sometimes, especially when it came to food, that put them in the same camp as lefties.
The identity crisis for crunchy conservatives, Dreher says, is not so much one of feeling overshadowed by liberals laying claim to healthy, artisanal food. It’s more about reconciling acts seen as countercultural or even political—refraining from mass consumerism, eating organic, turning off the television—with a conservative worldview. It’s one he navigates quite smoothly, arguing that crunchy cons are simply reclaiming the best parts of conservatism (from which today’s GOP has wandered astray): protecting the environment, standing against big business, returning to traditional religion, and teaching that the family is the institution most necessary to preserve.
In Laura Sayre’s 2011 Gastronomica piece, “The Politics of Organic Farming: Populists, Evangelicals and the Agriculture of the Middle,” she interviewed dozens of organic farmers all over the U.S. and found a similar phenomenon; that not only was organic farming not just “hippies in Birkenstocks,” but also it was “hippies in business suits, born-again Christians in Birkenstocks, everything in between and a whole lot more besides.” Or as Dan Specht, an organic corn beef and hog farmer, and one of Sayre’s interviewees put it: “If you think of the political spectrum as a circle, we’re right where two ends meet.”
Philip Conford’s comprehensive book The Origins of the Organic Movement, offers a detailed look at the beginnings of organic agriculture in the UK and the US, and reveals that early proponents were actually rooted in right-wing, conservative politics, reacting to industrialization and the increasing threat to country life. These adopters were almost all religious and sought an organic lifestyle, in part because of its congruence with the positive acceptance of the natural order and its laws. Organics as a lifestyle was a way to more fully live out God’s plan and to take care of his kingdom on earth.
So how then, in this day and age, is it that the organic food movement has been so widely claimed as the sole property of the liberal left? Somewhere in the course of public dialogue, the political diversity of the movement has been silenced.
Part of this, Sayre contends, is that organics as a consumer’s movement has long overshadowed organics as a producer’s movement. In a market-driven society, it’s the people buying, not the people making, who shape the conversation. And so as left-leaning shoppers swooped in on organics because of its benefit to the environment, its sustainably-minded philosophies and its lack of potentially harmful chemicals and GMOs, they didn’t think twice about the politics of the people growing their kale. It was implied that the politics of one would mirror the politics of the other.
Which is perhaps why so many liberals were so shocked at the Eden Foods debacle. The national conversation has made it so implausible that a company could at once support both organic agriculture and conservative politics that the only explanation for it had to be blatant hypocrisy.
And yet we should have the capacity to accept political nuance in our foodie culture. We should take note that the fastest growing segment of the organic farming population belongs to the conservative Amish and Mennonites, who view disengagement from the mainstream political process as a point of religious principle. And we should entertain the idea that the high rates of organic farming in close proximity to left-leaning urban centers may have more to do with access to concentrated market opportunities than with endemic political sentiments among farmers. Just as we should imagine that the person next to us, reaching for that bunch of organic turnips might not have voted for Obama or be in of support universal health care. And that’s okay. Great, in fact. Organic agriculture still only makes up about two percent of the U.S. food supply. The more people who feel the movement belongs to them, the closer we are to realizing its primary goal of optimizing the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil, life, plants, animals and people.
Just because I, a co-op shopping, organic-eating, New York Times-reading, feminist liberal believe that access to birth control is a fundamental right guaranteed us by federal law, that doesn’t mean that I can’t fathom a world where my organic farmer or my fellow co-op shopper doesn’t feel the same way. I don’t ask my accountant how she votes, or my doctor if she believes in a God that thinks abortion is a sin. Why should I ask my farmer the same questions? We can agree that a summer salad is best served up without a side of pesticides and fertilizer residues. The rest is just politics.
Megan Molteni is a Riveter editor and freelance multimedia journalist with a science addiction problem. She spends a lot of time thinking about innovations in ecological conservation, sustainable food systems, and the occasional odd particle physics application.You can check out her work at http://meganmolteni.com/ or follow her fish and frisbee-related tweets @MeganMolteni.
Kelsey Zigmund is an illustrator living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She enjoys doing editorial work, children’s illustration, and pattern and product design. You can follow her @kzigs and view more of her art at kelseyzigmund.com.