The dark side of the natural food craze

We need to start evaluating choices through the lens of how it affects the producers—not just the consumer
October 3, 2020

When Ohashi Tetsuo, a southern Japanese tea and rice farmer, first used pesticides at agricultural school in the 1970s, he struggled to breathe. As he started spraying the crops, his eyes would water and he would choke from the fumes, even with protective gear around his face. He vowed that when he went back home to his house and family, he would never use pesticides again.

Since then, Ohashi-san has run a tidy, self-sufficient farm that has indeed never once used pesticides. I’ve drunk his tea and tasted his rice, now exported globally, and admired the toasted, nutty kernels that form the backbone of his genmaicha tea. I’ve recommended it to other people and told them how, 45 years later, he has kept his promise.

But often the questions that come back—is it organic, is it pesticide-free, is it healthy?—evaluate his decision through the lens of how it affects the consumer, rather than the person actually behind the product’s making. While there are people with pure and virtuous pesticide-free diets who might be able to sense their absence, many of us would not notice a single thing if we ate products with a few pesticides in them, let alone feel our chests tighten and our throats narrow in the same way a farmer (or his labourers) would. Yet to say this isn’t enough: there must always be something in it for us.

I thought about this recently as I read the case of Valentina Passalacqua, the Italian vintner behind the trendy Calcarius wine range, whose iconoclastic bottles—labelled like an element on the periodic table—adorn the shelves of every wine shop where customers ask “what do you have that’s natural?” Passalacqua’s wines are “natural”—in so far that they are made biodynamically and contain minimal sulphites—which is why the news that her father, the landowner Settimio Passalacqua, has been arrested for alleged caporalato has caused an uproar in the wine world. Caporalato is the practice common on larger wine estates in Italy where agricultural workers, mainly migrants from poorer regions in Europe or Africa, are recruited through intermediaries often linked to organised crime and made to work through harvest season on poverty wages. Although no wrongdoing has been established in the making of Calcarius, the revelations have caused some importers to stop selling the wine, at least until there is more clarity on the issue (the UK importer, Les Caves de Pyrene, still imports Calcarius.)

The tension between a clean brand image and labour issues has been a ticking time bomb for the natural wine world. It may be that some importers, keen to ensure that Passalacqua’s wine and other wines were sulphite-free, were perhaps less interested in discovering who was making it and in what conditions. And this is part of a larger problem with natural food, as well as wine: to what extent do “ethical” food makers, eager to assure us of the organic nature of their products, get close to ignoring the exploitation of their workers?

In recent months I’ve heard of smaller vignerons who have abused their staff, or been photographed wearing swastikas; at past tastings in London, I’ve witnessed a winemaker repeatedly behave around women in a way that can’t just be excused by him being French. And inevitably, I’ve also read numerous fawning profiles of the very same winemakers, which laud their ecological practices and treat them like rock stars.

People who care about the condition and quality of their food also need to start thinking about the labour conditions under which such products were produced. The use of pesticides is an issue for us all, but it is the health of those who use them and that of their families we should be worried about most. The level of sulphites in your wine measures only that; not how ethically it was made, or how much the people who didn’t administer them were paid. The meat you buy may be labelled as “free range,” but that tells you nothing about the conditions of the workers stuffed inside those slaughterhouses.

Some would say that these virtuous labels are simply a middle-class invention to give us a kick of serotonin knowing we are doing right by the earth. In some sense they are right, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care at all: it means we should care more.