I'm currently working on a YA trilogy one could describe as Dystopia Lite. It takes place in a society that relies heavily on processed food (see what I did there?). Non-processed foodstuffs are illegal and are classified as controlled substances. It's an adventure/quest/conspiracy tale, very tongue-in-cheek, and I'm having a ball writing it.
Researching it has also been very enjoyable. Lord knows there's plenty of material out there. One of the most intriguing research threads has been about what I think of as The Rise of the Agricultural Machine, and why a huge percentage of what we consume, either to eat or to use, is made of corn or a corn product. But I digress.
The term 'organic' as it refers to food emerged in the counterculture era of the 1960s. It had been used earlier to encompass a feeling of more general opposition to the changes technology rained down on society during the Industrial Revolution in the early twentieth century.
Health food guru J. I. Rodale was more directly responsible for using the word organic related to food cultivation. If you're familiar with the magazine Prevention, the surname Rodale may ring a bell with you. He championed the growth and consumption of what we now think of as organic food all the way back in the 1940s. Twenty years later, his teachings caught on with the hippies. Flower children co-opted the term and the philosophy, combining it with what they were trying to achieve living in communes. Today we would call that living off the grid. Theirs was a sort of back-to-nature movement with the additional goal of sticking it to the military-industrial complex.
One of the things I love about writing fiction is that while doing the research, I inevitably turn up stuff from real life that is way crazier than anything I could ever make up. For example: the notion that organic food was considered by some as something to be avoided in the 1960s and 1970s, like we avoid letting our mouths touch the spout on a water fountain. Big government and scientists in the pocket of
Big Ag were very concerned that this new movement would erode their efforts in maximizing the industrialization of agriculture. They had spent a lot of money and scratched a lot of backs in Washington, D. C. to restructure government aid to farmers and reinvigorate foreign trade in commodities (mainly corn). They didn't want any disruptions and were probably mindful of the antiwar protests that had rattled the government bureaucracy and ended the Vietnam War. So they discredited the organic movement at every opportunity:
- In 1974 a kangaroo court of food 'experts' convened a panel on 'The Food Supply and the Organic Food Myth', branding the movement as 'dangerous nonsense'.
- Quoting from Michael J. Pollan's most excellent book The Omnivore's Dilemma:
"Henry J. Heinz, Jr. branded the organic movement 'food faddism', and he wrote that its advocates 'are persuading thousands to adopt foolish and costly eating habits'."
- and from the equally excellent Eat Your Heart Out by Jim Hightower, written contemporaneously (1975):
"Agriculture Secretary [Earl] Butz . . . became almost wild-eyed in his assertion that the specter of organic food production promises starvation for 50 million Americans."
Why all the panties in a twist over a micro movement that had little or no impact on the bottom line of the 1970s era food business? Because billions were being spent on marketing as well as production. Butz's Machiavellian machinations were restructuring farm subsidies as part of a grander scheme to change the way the agriculture sector worked. This new strategy depended on farmers flooding the supply of food to get the price to consumers down to absolute minimum. And BTW the consumers they were trying to please weren't you and me - they were mega corporations like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. The food biz was very mindful of the effects of the Vietnam War protests and how powerful the voting public could be if properly motivated. They didn't want a repeat wrecking the demand side if the organic food movement managed to generate a 'mistrust' of the food supply.
It is a great comfort to me, reading Hightower's book with forty years of perspective, that the organic movement has survived and indeed thrived since that time. There haven't been any food sit-ins or demonstrations or protests that I'm aware of. But people are voting with their pocketbook, and it's having an effect. Organic food still needs to overcome the stigma of being too pricey, too hipster-buying-kale. But the big food companies are taking pains to offer choices that appear to be healthier. Food co-ops and community gardens and farmer's markets are all the rage. If you're not sure that's true, take a look at the financials for Whole Foods, Earth Fare, and Trader Joe's. The wheel is turning slowly, but it is turning.
This post originally appeared during my participation in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.