Monday, April 21, 2008

Local versus Organic - which is best?

Should I try to avoid pesticides at all costs OR should I help suport the small local farmers who may use them?

Should I think about the carbon footprint and reduce the number of miles my food travels OR should I buy food produced in an ecologically sound manner no matter where it is grown?

So these questions have come up again and again in my mind and in discussion with my friends, and I think it deserves some more time to talk it through. The short answer: there is no answer. You need to weigh the pros and cons and come to a decision that makes sense for you and your family. I will list out some of the basic facts and you can make your own decision from there.

LOCAL:

  • Keep the money local: By purchasing from local farmers and business owners, more of your dollars will get reinvested locally – rather than filling the pockets of a national or multi-national chain store.

  • Support family farms: Locally produced food is also often produced by small farmers, not big agribusiness. It is this industrizliation of our food supply that minmizes our food choices. By supporting the family farm you support their values, and their way of life that produces superior food.

  • Reducing the carbon footprint: If you buy locally, you avoid creating as much of a demand for food to be flown and shipped long distances, hence you reduce the oil needed for transportation and the pollutants emitted by the cargo vehicles. Those pollutants contribute to climate change, so buying local food helps fight climate change.

  • Local variety: Local food usually tastes great and there typically is more variety in the types of produce, i.e heirloom tomatoes, and local varieties. It often is more 'fresh' since it has not been trucked across the country or flown in from another continent.

  • No pesticides?. : Some small farmers may use pesticides to deal with certain insects, diseases etc. When in doubt ASK. In my personal opinion, the question is not are no pesticides used, but are they used in the smartest/best way possible. Same is with giving animcal antibiotics. I don't think that animals should be given them all the time just 'in case' they get sick- but if they are sick, then yes, could be an option. Note that the organic law does not prohibit ALL pesticides, but it says MOST. So again- be smart and ask questions like, "'What pesticides and fertilizers do you use?" For the worst agricultural pesticides, see the Lawn Care Product Report at www.thegreenguide.com/reports.

ORGANIC

  • Protecting and preserving the environment: Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.

  • Labeling: To earn the organic label, farmers have to grow the food according to strict USDA guidelines. They can't use most pesticides and must also forego any synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, bioengineering and irradiation. Their fields have to be free of the prohibited substances for three years before they can harvest an organic crop. Look for labels that reflect your values. Know which labels are meaningful by downloading the Food and Drink Label Choices Smart Shoppers' Card. (http://www.thegreenguide.com/doc/116/local)

  • Inspections: Foods labeled "USDA Organic" come from producers that have had their operations inspected by a government-approved inspector. (note that with the explosion of organic products, certain vedors like Aurora farms have been fined for not following the organic standards. It begs me to ask if the USDA has enough inspectors to make sure the producers are not taking any privileges with the rules. Do you ever wonder how an organic apple looks just as perfect as teh conventional apples? Well I do)

  • It's an all around good choice: Organic farming is good for our land, waterways and people. It uses less energy, because it avoids synthetic fertilizers (which are petroleum products) and most pesticides. Some studies show that organic food contains more nutrients. So all in all, a good choice.

These questions arise because we want to do what's right. The problem, though, is that these questions set up false choices. When it comes to doing the right thing, what really mattered was thinking about the choice -- being aware, staying informed, and being conscious of our role as consumers. But what you actually chose -- local or organic -- doesn't really matter.
I loved this quote from an article I read ... summed it up perfectly for me.


"I buy local, organic, and conventional foods too, because each meets a need. Is the local product better than the organic one? No. Both are good choices because they move the food market in a small way. In choosing them, I can insert my values into an equation that for too long has been determined only by volume, convenience, andprice. While I have nothing against low prices and convenient shopping, the blind pursuit of these two values can wreak a lot of damage -- damage that we ultimately pay for in water pollution, toxic pesticide exposure, unhealthy livestock, the quality of food, and the loss of small farms. The total bill may not show up at the cash register, but it's one we pay nonetheless. So what's my advice? Think about what you're buying. If you want local food, buy local. If you want organic, buy organic. The point is to make a conscious choice, because as we insert our values into the market, businesses respond and things change. There's power in what we do collectively, so is there any reason to limit it unnecessarily?" (http://www.grist.org/advice/books/2006/05/18/fromartz/)

I summed up the info from these two articles: http://www.grist.org/advice/books/2006/05/18/fromartz/; http://www.thegreenguide.com/doc/116/local


SO ASK QUESTIONS, MAKE GOOD DECISIONS, AND MAKE A STATEMENT!

2 comments:

Leslie said...

What a good post!

I'd add one more thing to the pros/cons list in favor of local over some Organic: That much of what I refer to as "chain store organic" supports big agribusinesses, NOT the family farms that most people mentally associate with Organic, and where animal-related products are concerned, the animals are often faced with many of the same living conditions as with standard industrial farms. Plus if the organic produce is from an entirely different section of the globe, the benefits of organic growing practices are in my mind outweighed by what it takes to get that produce to us.

But like you said, overall there's NO one right answer - everyone has to make the choices that are right for their own families. For me, for example, that's going to mean finding things like grapes and green peppers all year round, since those are some of the only non-processed foods that my elder granddaughter will eat. We all have to balance the reality of our own family's needs, and simply do the best we can.

Natasha said...

This was a very thoughtful post. I wish there was an easy answer. Thankfully, here in Loudoun County, we can have both. But winter creates a major challenge for me. I stick to American products, except bananas. I only buy foods in season elsewhere. It's hard when I need a red pepper in January and the only choice is one that comes from Israel. I should have more in my freezer from my summer garden. We do the best we can.