Organic or local food: That’s the question, but is there an answer?

By Darwin Kelsey

The bad news is there is no single right answer. And that can easily lead to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and frustration: I give up, forget it! Well don’t. We all can think our way to reasonable, practical, rules-of-thumb for deciding the issue of local vs. organic.


First though, let’s be clear that comparing local to organic is a classic apples to oranges exercise.


It could be worse, I suppose: We could be comparing apples and oranges to cucumbers and raw milk! And why not? I mean, really who’s satisfied these days with merely debating organic vs. local. Those are just two entrees from a much bigger menu:


So many choices. There is local, organic, post organic, beyond organic, naturally grown, real, authentic, ethical, sustainable free-range, grass-fed (& finished), humanely-raised, socially responsible, fair-traded, hormone & antibiotic free, GMO free….


And furthermore, let’s be clear that all of those are supposed to represent desirable and virtuous alternatives to what John Hightower colorfully calls “long-distance, bar-coded, tasteless, nutrition-free, corporate crap food.”


Those of us with lesser literacy skills usually just call this stuff conventional or industrial food – which, by the way, accounts for 96 percent to 98 percent of all the food consumed in America day in and day out, year in and year out. Conventional and industrial are catchall umbrella terms. They encompass not only, say, pretty looking heads of broccoli from California megafarms – they also include what Michael Pollan calls, “edible foodlike substances…which our grandmothers probably wouldn’t have recognized as food.”


Right. Well, that is at least some of the context for any informed discussion of organic vs. local. Sorry, there is more.


For starters, organic ain’t what it used to be. Once upon a time, say 30 to 40 years ago, the word organic began to be used to distinguish certain kinds of farming and agriculture from the new kind of large-scale, chemical-intensive agriculture that began to explode in America (and elsewhere) after World War II.


In general, the term organic was used to mean the kinds of the farming practiced since the beginning of agriculture itself – some 10,000 years ago – until roughly WW II. But, more specifically, by the 1960s and 70s, organic food meant to its producers and users, food grown in harmony with nature and neighbors; food grown, distributed and eaten mainly in one’s own community; food of superior quality – countless variety, healthy, safe.


Eventually, say 15 to 20 years ago the organic community decided (for scores of reasons, good and bad) that national standards were needed to rigorously define organic – and thereby allow it to achieve mainstream consumer recognition and acceptance. In 2002, after a decade of debate and scuffling among old time purists, and new time agribusiness opportunists, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published strict rules and regulations on how food had to be grown and processed to be legally called organic.


For old timers in the organic movement that has turned out to be a sad case of be careful what you wish for – you might get it. Yes, the new USDA rules did eliminate the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, GMOs, and various drugs in many parts of the food production system. And many would argue that growers, consumers, and the environment are better for it.

Still, the new USDA rules had nothing to say about how workers were treated or neighbors affected, and nothing about how many thousands of miles organic food can be transported regardless of the nutritional or environmental consequences. And so, the original vision of organic as living in harmony and stewardship with one’s community and the environment got reduced to farming and processing methods.


Indeed, reduced to methods that are readily adaptable to industrial scale forms of production – the point of which is always maximizing short-term income with little regard for most of the original meaning – the soul – of organic.


Many of the best organic farmers in America have now abandoned the term and legal label organic – though not its methods. They focus on product qualities difficult for industrial scale producers to replicate (taste, nutrition, diversity), and they focus on relationship building with their own communities, and customers.


Yet, they have struggled to find meaningful alternative names or labels to describe what they do: Hence the terms beyond organic, post organic, real, authentic, ethical, responsible, sustainable, local. For many, “local is the new organic”.


Oh, really? How so – if organic and local are like apples and oranges? According to the USDA, they aren’t really like apples and oranges. According to the USDA, organic is organic regardless of whether it’s local or long distance.


And, in Cleveland you can buy fruits and veggies legally labeled organic whether they were driven in from the Cuyahoga Valley, or flown in from California or China. It’s all the same to the USDA.


But the reality is, modern local organic is much more apt to be like old time organic. Consciously, stubbornly grown for great taste and nutritional potency; grown for the good of the growers and his/her friends, neighbors, community. Long distance organic, except for certain limitations on specific production inputs, is grown (and transported) pretty much like long distance conventional – on a speedy, simplified, standardized, mechanized, grand-scale.


You may rest assured that few if any laborers (illegal immigrants or otherwise), executives, or stockholders from the megafarms and multinational corporations that grow and ship long distance organic food knows you – or has any reason to care about you, or your kids, your health, your neighbors, your school, your church, your fire department, etc.


And how do they do that? Well, among the ways it’s done is to begin with varieties/breeds of fruit, veggies, steers, broilers – whatever – selected to grow to harvest weight quickly (too quickly to acquire much taste or nutritional density), rather than selected primarily for taste and nutrition.

They also select varieties/breeds able to survive rough, high speed, mechanized harvest and/or processing, then survive days/weeks of distribution travel time (while loosing even more taste and nutrition) – yet arrive still looking pretty as they are placed on the grocer’s shelf, and able to keep looking good for a few days more.


And that is the point! That is what we as a culture have been taught to see, perceive, and value: Appearances (superficial, surface looks). And we’ve been taught to happily part with our money for it – especially if it’s also perceived to be cheap, or a bargain.


So where does all that leave us in the organic vs. local debate? Obviously I think long distance food has its down sides. But local food can also have its down sides.


Local isn’t necessarily organic – even if it is not produced on an industrial scale, it may well be conventionally bathed in pesticides. It may contain antibiotics, hormones or GMOs. And sometimes it too is taste and nutrition challenged.

How about local organic – or something close to it? If that matters to you (given your values) then you might be willing to inconvenience yourself enough to search it out at local farms and farmers’ markets, join a CSA farm or buyers club, seek out restaurants that “buy local”, etc. Most importantly, you will have to inform yourself about the issues I’ve raised here, and be willing to start asking the people you buy food from, the tough questions you care about.


The good news is that we as a society seem to be entering a new and blessed state of constructive confusion. And that, friends and neighbors, represents extraordinary progress compared to the past several decades of utter obliviousness to the issues we are discussing.

Is organic always/ever safer? More nutritious? Better for the environment? More/less expensive than local/conventional?


Once upon a time we did feed ourselves almost entirely locally – so could we do it again? How much – 100 percent, 50 percent, 10 percent, 1 percent? By when? How? Why would we want to? It depends.


As I say, the good news is that we are entering a new era of constructive confusion. All the issues I have talked about here have ceased to be fringe – they are becoming mainstream topics.

A good place to start is the Countryside Conservancy website. There you’ll find a lot more about what it is going to take to change the way Americans think about food – and to live responsibly in this place we call Northeast Ohio.


One thought on “Organic or local food: That’s the question, but is there an answer?

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