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Is Organic Food Always Better?
If you've been buying organic in the belief that it's better for you, you're right. But if you're buying organic because you think it's better for the environment, the picture's a bit murkier. I've been harping on the importance of buying organic for years, but lately I'm starting to wonder whether where our food comes from is just as important as how it's grown, if not more so.
The Case For and Against Organic
Organic food sales have skyrocketed as more and more of us are willing to pay extra for chemical and pesticide-free foods. Studies have confirmed that organically grown foods contain more nutrients. And pesticide-free produce is well worth paying a premium for, especially if you have kids, who are far more sensitive to toxins than adults.
Plus, who wants to be a guinea pig for genetically modified crops, or bovine growth hormones? We're still finding traces of DDT in the soil, thank you very much.
As organic foods become more profitable, farmers all over the world have an incentive to adopt sustainable farming methods. This should make green living easier. Surely if we're buying from organic farmers, we're doing only good for the planet, right?
Well, not necessarily. Converting any conventional farmland to organic is a definite plus for the environment and the workers who pick the produce. But it takes an awful lot of fossil fuels for those organic raspberries to get from Chile to your Whole Foods shopping cart.
You can't taste it in your organic spring mesclun mix or pasture-raised pork (thankfully), but petroleum permeates our food supply, and that includes organics.
The business of agriculture has also been affected by the organic trend, and not exclusively in a good way. Wal-Mart, the nation's leading food retailer, is now number one in organic dairy sales in the U.S., a perfect example of the industrialization of organic food. Sound like a contradiction in terms? It may well be.
On the surface, it might seem like some kind of David versus Goliath- style triumph for the cause of sustainable dairy farming. But the company who supplies Wal-Mart's organic dairy products, Horizon, has come under increasing scrutiny for relying on factory farm practices that violate the intent of the organic standards.
Another giant in the organic food industry, Earthbound Farm, achieved near-total domination of the organic produce market through sheer ruthlessness, putting legions of small scale farmers out of business the same way that Home Depot forces the little mom and pop hardware stores to close up shop.
You'll see the Earthbound label on most of the organic produce at Whole Foods, and the fact is, if I need a head of cauliflower and there's none available at the farmers' market because it's not in season, I can either buy an Earthbound Farms cauliflower that's been trucked across the country, or I can rethink my recipe.
The Pros and Cons of Buying Local
Buying produce grown by local farmers obviously requires far less fossil fuels to get to you than some organic produce does. This goes a long way in making locally grown farming more eco-friendly than buying organic goods that have been shipped or driven from great distances, and there are many other perks, too.
Many small scale farmers grow organically but opt out of certification. Michael Pollan discusses the so-called "beyond organic" movement in The Omnivore's Dilemma, delving into the many factors that compel farmers to not seek organic certification. Some can't deal with the bureaucratic burdens certification imposes; others find some of the standards simply violate common sense.
I gained some insight into the beyond organic phenomenon when I visited Bobolink Dairy Farm recently. Bobolink's cows are pasture-raised in an entirely sustainable way, but Bobolink's founders, Nina and Jonathan White, opted not to be organic. When I asked why, Jonathan pointed to Odessa, a 5-day old calf, who was born with a spinal infection. If Bobolink were organic, Jonathan couldn't treat the sick calf with antibiotics without violating the organic standards.
That's another great thing about buying from local farmers: if you have any questions about how that head of lettuce you're buying was grown, you can ask the farmer directly.
By supporting local farmers, you also keep precious farmland from falling into the hands of developers who would love to see a mini-mall or a multiplex cinema on that land.
On the other hand, locally grown produce can be hard to find. Most of us can't always make it to the nearest farmers' market in the middle of the workday or find ourselves busy on weekend mornings.
So, should we avoid buying organic foods that are from far away? The other day I found myself picking up an organic pear at Whole Foods, and after verifying its country of origin (Argentina), putting it back. But where do you draw the line? Would a pear shipped from Washington State be OK? Or do I have to wait till the pears grown right here in the Hudson River Valley are in season? There are some foods many of us will never be able to buy locally, such as citrus fruits and bananas. Am I going to give them up? No way.
The conscious consumer has to decide what's more environmentally friendly, the transcontinental organic carrots from juggernaut farms, or the carrots from the farmers' market, which are locally grown but not necessarily organic and are harder for most of us to get?
In an ideal world, we wouldn't have to choose between organic and local. But when you consider the agribusiness alternative, with its non-sustainable factory farms and processed foods full of suspect ingredients, either one looks pretty good by comparison.