Tomatoes from Holland?

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan suggests thinking of every product at the grocery store as having an “ethical price tag.” It adds to the ethical price of a tomato if the migrant worker who picked it was underpaid and exploited. It adds more if the fertilizers that were used to grow the tomato will have a negative impact on the environment.

Animal byproducts have high ethical costs when the animals are subject to inhumane factory farm conditions. The way they are killed in the slaughterhouse adds another cost. The treatment of the slaughterhouse workers yet another.

Global warming forces us to contemplate more ethical costs. If the product was shipped in from far away, lots of fossil fuels were burned in the process, and lots of greenhouse gasses were released.

A whole library of books would be needed to grasp all of these factors. David Shipler’s book The Working Poor, to understand the mistreatment of migrant workers. Pollan himself on fertilizers. Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation on factory farms. Fast Food Nation (Eric Schlosser) on slaughterhouse workers. Al Gore on global warming.

Could you really bring yourself to compute the ethical price tag of each item you put in your shopping cart? I thought about this while walking through Central Market the other day. The place is a pleasure palace filled with tempting possibilities. Just the display of Holland tomatoes had me caught like a deer in the headlights. I couldn’t begin to choose between the little orange variety, the special yellows, the mouth-watering reds. Too confusing. I bought the standard tomatoes that are available at Tom Thumb for much less money.

I haven’t the slightest idea where the regular tomatoes come from, but it did occur to me that I had a reason not to grapple with the bewildering tomatoes from Holland--they were shipped in from awfully far away. (Assuming Holland means Holland, as in The Netherlands.) I couldn’t quite picture it. Do they really load up jumbo jets with tomatoes and fly them into U.S. airports?

What I wonder is this—could I really go through the grocery story computing the ethical price tag for each item? What would it cost me in well being if I did so? I’ve already committed myself to paying attention to the animal welfare component. After adopting a set of general rules for myself, it’s not that difficult. I don’t have to pick up a package of bacon and contemplate its ethical price tag. I don’t pick up the bacon in the first place.

But the undeniable point that Pollan makes is that everything has an ethical price tag, and there are lots and lots of components. How could I pay attention to each and every one, in all it’s gruesome complexity? Wouldn’t I be losing out on an awful lot of spontaneity?

Well, yes. But it seems like a feeble excuse. One solution is to think of a whole store as having an ethical price tag. I know Central Market is full of Holland tomatoes, olives from Australia, fish from South America. I could pass up the whole place and go to the local farmer’s market. Great idea. But what local farmer’s market?

As far as animal products go, Whole Foods is a great option. They’ve studied the ethical price tags for all of their meat, dairy, and egg products, at least as far as animal welfare goes. The humane standards they impose on their producers are not perfect (see Peter Singer’s The Way We Eat for evidence), but they’re a huge improvement on the norm.

With more good decisions at the larger level of stores, institutions, communities, and even nations, an individual could live ethically without fussing and fretting about every tiny little decision, all day long. Wouldn’t it be nice?

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