Organic Versus Local Story Confuses the Facts
Lately it seems that green issues have become as popular as stories over who’s the daddy of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby. Last year the ever-trendy devoted a whole issue to it. More recently Martha Stewart devoted a week of shows to green lifestyles, so did style magazine Domino and even the local Price Chopper here in rural Pennsylvania has a great big banner out front touting its natural and organic products from Wild Oats. The trend was impressive, at least until Time Magazine’s March cover story www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1595245,00.html
When we first heard about the Time piece we were excited. After all, a couple of great Time Magazine cover stories in the late 1990’s helped wake up a large number of American to the power of nutritional supplements. Once we bought a copy however, our excitement turned to anger. We just couldn’t believe anyone with half a brain or at least a research budget and an editor would title a story “Eating Better Than Organic.”
NBN had an extra cup of coffee and started reading the piece, fearful that it would add nothing but confusion to the issues of sustainable food and farming..
Upon reading it we were right.
The story, examines the growing awareness of buying local and purports to examine whether buying local is better than buying organic. Yet the piece ignores many facts, most notably that the organic movement started as an effort to overturn big corporate agribusiness. Buying organic was synonymous with buying local. It was all about a return to sustainable ways of producing food. Of course things have changed since then and organic foods might include Chilean grapes and soymilk made with beans from China.
Yet while corporate giants such as General Mill’s (Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen) and Dean Food’s Horizon and Silk, among others have transformed organic into big corporate business, let’s not get stupid.
Isn’t the real question how to make choices that support companies engaged in sustainable business practices? Do you buy apples from a local grower who might likely use high levels of pesticides on his trees? What about organic grapes flown in from California or even Chile?
Time’s John Cloud’s creates an either or situation that makes about as much sense of G.W. Bush talking without scripted notes. In a poor imitation of Michael Pollan, Cloud takes us on his shopping trips and narrates his thinking as he buys food. Yet he comes off like a college freshmen lecturing about astrophysics. He’s got some moments of insight but it’s strikingly clear that he just doesn’t get the big picture.
Yet to Cloud, the local is better organic argument makes sense because he doesn’t believe that organic produce is better than conventional. In a statement that sounds dramatically similar to cigarette manufactures claims that there was no evidence that smoking caused cancer, Cloud states “if scientists could conclusively prove that agricultural chemicals are harmful, we would all go organic. But it’s not clear, for instance, that the low levels of pesticide typically found on conventional produce cause cancer. The risks of long-term exposure to those residues are still undetermined.”
Risks to whom, NBN asks? Groundwater, local plants and animals, young infants, children or adults, all are at risk. Furthermore more and more studies have shown that organic produce has higher nutritional values. At the same time other studies have shown that the costs to grow using high yield chemical fertilizers and pesticides benefits nearly everyone but the farmer and the consumer. In other words compared to organic conventional farming is inefficient. The yield per acre isn’t worth it, yet big business loves conventional farming because there’s a lot more money to be made selling chemical fertilizers instead of manure. And farmers stick with conventional because that’s what they know. Furthermore, the folks that work with and advise them, are often part of the industries that rely on conventional farm inputs.
NBN is excited that more and more people are thinking about buying local. But fact is out here in rural Pennsylvania and most of America we don’t have local produce, except for a few months out of the year. And if you’re late to the farmer’s market near me, about half of the items are all sold out.
At a time when more and more small farms are disappearing and remembered only on the signs of the housing developments named after the farm they were built on, a renewed focus on buying local produce could make a huge difference in keeping farms from becoming developed.
Yet if you think local is better than organic because the only fossil fuels used were in the truck to drive it to the market you’re either drinking moonshine or you’re a sales representative for Monsanto.
Meanwhile efforts like Albert Straus of the Straus Family Dairy are growing. Straus is leading the effort to further distinguish organic by adding certified GMO free labels to organic products that qualify. As big business’ growing efforts to make organic synonymous with nothing more than another business model, look for more efforts like these to create a new generation of organic products consistent with the birthrights of the movement.
And in the meantime support your local farmer. And, if they are open to it, send them to Organic Valley’s website. OV, the leading organic farm cooperative aids farms in transitioning to organic, minimizing the risks in doing so and also maximizing the prices that the farmer gets for their harvest.