Flour was a staple of my childhood—huge bags of whole wheat organic bread flour were almost always in the center of the kitchen. It was vital, literally the base of our diet, but also invisible because it was so available and familiar. Unlike the seasonal apples or the labor–intensive black walnuts, flour was a given that required no work and was always there. I didn’t even think about it until well into college, when I had one obsessive vegan in my life, which meant that there were fewer titillating topics at 3 am other than flour + fake butter + tofu (organic & local) + peanut butter (organic) + maple syrup (local) = ethical anti-establishment cookies.
What establishment? you ask. Well, to begin with, the industrial food complex, the corporitization of food, agribusiness, consolidation, vertical/horizontal integration, transnational takeovers… To most localvore types, these phrases sound dangerous, cues that our food system has moved far from the place where it was 200, 100, and even 50 years ago. Some of the structural changes have benefited society. More have not. Today I offer a superficial look at a few structural issues seen through my ethical adventures in buying flour.
I have diverse flour options: big organic flour, little organic flour, mainstream flour, regional flour, organic flour…. First: Big organic flour—take Arrowhead Mills—was involved with all those words mentioned in the previous paragraph. It was bought out by Hain Celestial in 1999 (at least in part, I imagine, because the owner wanted to retire). Hain Celestial has been growing by purchasing other organic/natural food companies for years now and has “strategic alliances” with none other than Cargill and Henz. Looking at Hain Celestial, we have:
- consolidation of independent organic producers;
- horizontal integration (different food products being consolidated);
- vertical integration (Cargill is a major producer of agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilizers);
- transnational takeovers (Hain Celestial has bought out some European brands as well);
- agribusiness (aka Cargill)
We can safely assume that the above list gives us an industrial food complex. So buying Arrowhead Mills would indirectly support Cargill and the consolidation leading to monopolies and monopsonies [Ed note: In case you were wondering, as I was, a monopsony is the opposite of a monopoly: one buyer, many sellers.] found in our centralized food system. The lack of competition generally harms those of us who sell/buy to/from the dominant players, and marketing structures work to keep smaller (i.e., regional) producers out of the market. Not in my cookies.
Little organic: Bob’s Red Mill from Oregon. Decent company, but it’s from Oregon. Does my flour really need to cross the entire country? And why is it packaged in plastic?
Mainstream flour: Ditto the bits about integration, centralized food systems with a lack of competition on all levels. And it’s not organic. Further up the corporate food chain, there’s an encyclopedia of additional issues, from advertising to children and nutritional skulduggery that are problematic but tangential to this post.
Regional flour: King Arthurof Vermont. Local-ish, depending on how strict your definition. More importantly, they are completely employee ownedand despite large growth over the past 20 years, I believe their goals of producing a minimally processed food with a low environmental impact (evidence: no GMO wheat, no bromation, all unbleached). Even better, they are embedded in teh historical American foodscape, and are quite involved in their community. Could I wish for more? Are they organic? Yes, they offer organic flour. Best of the bunch. Or maybe I just like the picture of the horse on the bag.
Ethical bakery is possible—cookies that support regional food systems, fair trade, environmentally and socially responsible production. Right. Now that that’s settled, I’m going to go disguise my CSA beets as chocolate cupcakes, using organic, whole wheat King Arthur flour, fair trade chocolate and sugar, orgainic eggs and butter and pureed beets…
[Ed note: We’re working on getting groundcherry to reveal the beet/chocolate cupcake recipe. We’ll keep you posted.]