I’m hungry, I want to eat responsibly
Vail, CO Colorado
I hear “local” is the new “organic” when it comes to food for my family. I was just starting to get the hang of organic. Which is it?
So, the Food Marketing Association of the Universe, anticipating the maturity and declining value of the “organic” brand, has released the new “buy local” campaign to redirect gullible consumers to the next high-cost creation.
Heh. Kidding, of course. But it sure feels sometimes like we moderately-informed, conscientious consumers are dangling from Da Man’s marketing strings, doesn’t it?
First, the 411 on both. “Organic” is a term regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food labeled thusly must meet certain standards that are verified by an independent third party. “Natural,” by the way, is not regulated and means diddly.
Some of the more important meanings of organic are: no bio-persistent (aka “bad”) pesticides, fungicides or fertilizers; food from animals given no antibiotics or growth hormones; fruits and vegetables grown without most synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge. There are others, but need we say more than “sewage sludge” to attest to the value of organic?
Local, on the other hand, is just as it says. As a rule of thumb you might use “within a 100-mile radius from you” or less to define your local. But it isn’t as much about distance as it is about your knowledge of the producer and his or her farming practices.
The reason you might be hearing that local is the new organic isn’t that they are in some all-out food source smackdown. It is that local in some ways accomplishes what organic does, but better.
The organic label is just a way for consumers, in our vastly complicated food distribution culture, to be better informed about the food they buy. And buying local is merely a simpler way to know your food. You will probably know if your neighbor is using sewage sludge to grow his tomatoes without having to read a label.
Buying local accomplishes other important things as well. Though organic farming uses only two thirds of the energy of typical farming, it still uses heaps of energy transporting from plot to plate. On average in the U.S., our food travels (we kid not) over 1,000 miles to reach us.
Fresh food (that you’re more likely to get locally) is typically richer in flavor and nutrients. Small-scale farmers have been selling off to real-estate development in droves for the past 80 years; if they can afford to stay and farm, the open spaces stay with them. You will also be supporting your local economy by keeping money and jobs in it.
And our favorite reason to buy local: community. If you ever shop at a farmer’s market, don’t just buy that sweet, plump tomato. Talk to the guy behind the table. He is not offering his shareholders greater return on investment in agricultural widgets. He is selling you, his customer, his life’s work. He rose early, worked hard all day, went to bed exhausted most days for a year so your family and guests will roll their eyes and make “ooh” and “ahh” sounds when they take that first bite of the salad you graced with the fruit of his labor.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one-third of farmers selling direct were both local and organic. So when you talk to that local farmer and ask him how he raises his animals and produce, there are good odds that he’s using organic practices, even if he hasn’t paid to be certified.
There is, of course, much more useful information out there. Try slowfoodusa.org or localharvest.org for all you can eat.
Don’t become overwhelmed by information and don’t sweat the choices too much. Whether you buy local, organic, conventional, shade-grown, free-range ” whatever ” is less important than the fact you made a deliberate and informed choice for your health, the environment and the local economy. The best thing you can do is stay informed and be diligent for your family.
As we express our values in the market, the market will respond (remember how much more expensive organic used to be?) Because, yes, Da Man will presume anything is OK unless we tell him it’s not … even sewer sludge.
Terra Mater is the alter-ego of Matt Scherr of the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability (eaglevalleyalliance.org). If you have a question about local recycling, sustainability or other such issues, e-mail email@example.com.