Organic vs. Local

October 24, 2007 at 5:25 pm (environment, food, Other, permaculture) (, , , , )

You’ve probably heard of the “100-mile diet.” It seems it’s on everyone’s lips lately–at least everyone in the high-end natural foods stores in which I work. I frequently do demos in the local Capers markets (I also shop there for some things since there’s one so close to my house) and I’ve noticed that they do a great job of clearly marking which products are locally grown or locally produced. They know that their shoppers want to support local growers and the local economy.

For many people around here, it seems buying local is a social thing and they never stop to think that they’re also doing something good for the environment. They buy Canadian- rather than American-made products to keep Canada strong economically, and therefore, politically. They prefer something made in British Columbia over something made in Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, or the Prairie Provinces because, in order, nobody likes Toronto, the Quebecois don’t like Canada, nothing comes out of the Maritimes but people, and the people of the plains are way too conservative for the likes of Canada’s “left coast.” None of this comes close to the real reason, the best reason, my reason for buying local: the environment!

For years, health and environment experts have been touting the benefits of eating organically-grown foods. For those who said organics were too costly, they came up with the “dirty dozen” list (I still have my copy mom and I do use it!), which named the top twelve pesticide-and insecticide-laden fruits and vegetables so that we could at least be buying these organic even if we had to buy conventional in other areas to cut our overall spending on groceries. I suppose if your number one priority is your own health and you buy organic for the sole purpose of keeping mysterious chemicals out of your bloodstream, then you’d be doing well to find a grocery store that stocks the widest variety of organics, regardless of how far those foods travel. On the other hand, maybe your concerns are not so much for your own health, but for the well-being of the planet. Environmentalists prefer buying organically-grown foods because their production doesn’t entail the use of deadly chemicals that end up in groundwater, their producers use more sensible shading, irrigating, and composting techniques, and because they generally are grown on smaller farms that have more respect for biodiversity (i.e. because they’re better for the environment).

If given a choice between an apple grown on a small family-run orchard that practices organic, sustainable farming methods and an apple grown on a large industrial farm that has maximum-output-for-maximum-profit as its modus operandi, the environmentalist and the health-nut would probably both go for the first apple. Surely, its production was easier on the earth and it probably has more flavor and nutritional value even if it doesn’t have the blemish-free waxy exterior of the second apple. It would be my choice, too. But, what if the organic, family farm is in New Zealand and the industrial farm is located just 10 miles outside your hometown? Then which apple is better for the earth?  The way I see it, there’s just no point in supporting organic agriculture if it requires polluting 5,000 miles of ocean to get the food to market.  Of course, if you absolutely can’t survive the winter without tropical fruits and polluting the ocean is the only way to get them to North America, then please do go for the organic ones.

“Food Miles” is a term I’ve heard a lot lately, having recently immersed myself in the local-food movement through my new job; it refers to the distance that a given piece of food travels from field to plate. Processed foods rack up food miles faster than fresh produce because you have to take into account the distances traveled by each ingredient and the fact that such foods are rarely grown, processed, packaged, sorted, and sold all in one geographical region. For example, cranberries are locally in-season right before Thanksgiving and are commonly packaged and sold under the Ocean Spray name. If you buy them directly from a local farmer at a farmer’s market, you’ll spend a little more money, but you’ve saved the earth all the fuel and emissions that are spent transporting locally-grown cranberries to a processing plant on the east coast for cleaning, sorting, and packaging and then shipping those same cranberries in pretty blue and white be-waved bags back to their birthplace. I recently read that the average North American meal travels 1500 miles before it reaches our tables. Isn’t it sad that our food gets to see more of the world than we do?!

Ideally, we could always get organic, locally-grown foods, but that’s just not the case. It wouldn’t be natural if we could. Having come to the realization that a globalized food (or any other commodity for that matter) production system is having an adverse effect on the environment, I’ve resorted to buying local over organic if I can’t get both. Ultimately, though, if we want more local food, we have to get used to a limited variety of offerings, as we have to buy within the bounds of the natural growing season.

Alternatively, and this seems to be pretty popular around here, there’s always the option of growing your own fruits and vegetables in a backyard garden–that way your food miles are zero–and eating less processed and pre-packaged foods. This year, I grew swiss chard in my backyard. I attempted broccoli, but it didn’t do anything. With fond memories of helping in my grandmother’s garden, I will attempt to diversify next summer’s garden. I want fresh herbs and salad greens. Some tomatoes would be nice… mmm…

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