November 10, 2005

Eating organic is not good enough. Eat local.

I was at a grocery store last weekend examining some organic cookies when I started to feel vaguely uneasy. Organic products are starting to look suspiciously like some of their non-organic competitors in terms of packaging and ingredients, albeit with the assurances of “Healthier! Safer! Better for the Environment!” in bright letters and with naturalistic imagery on the front. It was then that I realized how often “organic” pops up on products and in places where it wasn’t only a few years ago.

Organic as a lifestyle is definitely gaining ground today, so much so that it has become something of a stereotype involving yoga and white as an interior-decorating theme. When I buy organic food, I think that I have done the responsible and conscientious thing in choosing from the pantheon of organic products. I take organic to mean ingredients that are from closer to home and less processed with fewer synthetic additives, and also products that are better for animals and the land. But with organic products becoming more widely available and easier to access, I have to wonder, is organic the responsible choice?

Organic began as a counterculture movement in the 1970s to reject conventional ideas about food. It aimed to change the methods of production at the level of growers and farms, distribution in health food stores and cooperatives, and also in consumption, by raising awareness about the political and ecological ramifications of where we get our food and how we eat it. The organic movement started as a subversive lifestyle that espoused ideals of locally grown foods with little processing, animals that were treated humanely, and cultivation without environmentally harmful pesticides and fertilizers.

This lifestyle prefers production on a smaller scale, yet today scale is one of the problems in organic. Organic is now a $7.7 billion industry, a considerable fraction of the entire $400 billion American food industry. Many organic growers and producers are scaling up to keep up with market demands and compete with huge agribusinesses that can grow much more at a time and distribute coast to coast. At the same time, agribusinesses understand that there is considerable demand for organic foods and so are buying up the very organic businesses which started in reaction to them. It seems that in this compromise, organic loses much of its meaning.

Though organic foods do not use the more controversial practices of agribusinesses such as genetically modified ingredients or hormones, there is still a large list of permissible additives that organic can use, and many organic foods are as processed as non-organic foods. In addition, although there are specific guidelines for a food to be USDA certified organic, companies tend to use this term and others such as “free range” on packaging in very loosely regulated ways. And now with scaling up, businesses distribute organic foods as far and wide as non-organic foods, meaning just as much pollution from fossil fuel is used in transportation.

So how can today’s conscientious consumer avoid products from conventional sources as well as make responsible choices with organic being taken over by large agribusinesses? It now seems that buying local is a better alternative than buying organic for several reasons. Growers are selling foods close to where they are grown, so fewer fossil fuels are used in transportation across great distances. This means less pollution and damage to the environment caused by oil extraction. Buying local also helps community business thrive, providing more competition against dominant agribusiness. Local is better for the consumer, since small farms aren’t as likely to use industrial strength fertilizers and pesticides. Therefore there is less chemical contamination, and fewer residues end up in the food. This, of course, also benefits the growers and the local ecosystem itself, since they are not exposed to these chemicals.

Local farms are also more likely to grow a wider variety of foods than agribusinesses, so there is more genetic diversity. This preserves biodiversity in the local ecosystem and usually results in more flavor in the food itself. Farmer’s markets, local health food stores, and CSAs (community-supported agriculture) are great ways to buy local. CSAs involve paying for produce upfront and getting a share of the food back over the summer.

While organics are definitely better for the environment, they may not be the best choice. The key thing is to be informed about local growing habits and practices. Organic is better than non-organic, but if you really want to eat green, consider eating local.