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Local vs. Organic: Part I

Setting the Stage

Which is better – local or organic food?  I am asked this question all the time, and have come across this debate in the media on a regular basis.  The quick and dirty answer (for me) is: ‘local-organic.’ And this is what I strive to eat.  But as locally produced organic food is not always easy to find, this response doesn’t help resolve the dilemma when faced with having to select one over the other.  Indeed I find myself struggling with this issue quite regularly, as I purchase my non-organic locally grown apples every Saturday morning.  Are they really better than the organic imports I can buy at Loblaws?  And how do we determine what is ‘better’?  Is it the apple that is more nutritious?  Less harmful?  Harmful in which way(s)?  How do we measure to decide?  And if we want to get really picky, we must ask: how you define local?  And last but not definitely not least: what exactly is organic?

I am not going to pretend to have the answers, or that I can do these issues justice in this short space.  But I am going to dig into them a little for now.  And probably a lot more in the future.  I think it is paramount to enter into this debate, to keep it going, and to keep going back to it.  We are far from coming up with a solution to our impending food crisis and every angle needs to be examined and considered. 

While I do wholeheartedly believe that eating local-organic is the ideal, the reality is that we simply do not have the capacity right now to produce all our food locally, and what we do produce cannot be switched to organic overnight.  Here in Ontario (and much of the rest of the world as well) we are a good two generations into industrial farming.  The knowledge of how to grow food without industrial inputs is lost to many, perhaps even most.  We have paved over much of our best agricultural land, and driven most of our farmers off their farms and into other professions.  Returning to a local, sustainable food system is not something that is going to happen overnight.  And it’s not something that’s going to happen without significant political will and probably more than a little discomfort on our part.  

The good news is that the government is getting on board and so political will is gathering some momentum.  As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, various levels of government are starting to focus on this problem in hopes of making changes before we end up with food shortages (a very scary prospect for all governments, especially if they realize that change is going to take years, not weeks and months…).  The will of the people is another thing.  I don’t think we are there yet; most people I talk with complement me on my efforts but see eating more sustainably as something they wish they had time and money to do, maybe someday, but…

But?  But we may not have much of a choice.  Starting very soon.  This week I had to pay $1 more for 4L of milk than I did last week.  And $0.50 more for a loaf of bread.  Wheat just went up another 25%.  And this is just the beginning of a lot of increases we are going to see in the very near future.

Nevertheless, you ask – still perhaps in denial – what about right now?  When I go to the supermarket, what should I buy: local or organic? 

In the March 06, 2008 edition of Maclean’s Magazine, Pamela Cuthbert published an article titled ‘Local schmocal: Just because a food is ‘local’ doesn’t mean it’s the better choice.’  At first glance it got my hackles up, but as I read on, I had to concede that she makes some very good points.  As Cuthbert points out, most ‘local’ food found in grocery stores (with local being defined by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency as having been grown or(?!) produced within 50 miles) is industrially produced with “environment-destroying fertilizers and sprayed with pesticides that prove residual” and then stored in “energy-sucking refrigeration systems.”

Better (i.e. worse) yet is how animal products are conventionally produced: “the typical commercial pig farm in Ontario has roughly 6,000 sows each year, where each animal is fed on a ration of genetically modified soybean and corn that is enhanced with antibiotics and growth hormones, to a mature weight of about 250 lb. in a period of six months. [It takes a naturally reared pig 2 years to achieve this weight]  They are raised entirely indoors…with an allowance in group pens of eight sq. feet per animal.”

Hmm…  Not so appetizing sounding, is it?

Furthermore, locally grown food can still produce very large carbon footprints if grown industrially and stored inefficiently.  And finally, the local label does not offer any guarantees about labour practices and conditions.  With over 16,500 non-unionized migrant workers in Ontario every growing season, questioning domestic labour conditions is not out of place. 

Now that we’re talking about labourers, we can’t ignore the rest of the planet.  According to Rachel Oliver of CNN (in her March 17, 2008 article “All About: Food and Fossil Fuels), if we stop importing produce, we would put as many as 1.5 million people out of work.  And if we follow the advice by many to become vegetarian or vegan – the global raising of animals produces “18% of the world’s entire greenhouse gas emissions” (more than the transportation sector) – we would put 1.4 BILLION people out of work.  

OK, so eating local may not be all its cracked up to be.  What now? 

Cuthbert goes on to examine ‘organic,’ conveniently (for my personal dilemma) selecting apples as her example: in order to avoid the seven chemical baths that industrial apples receive before we eat them, many advise us to eat the organic version.  However, she writes, these in turn are laden with food miles and grown in arid conditions (to minimize pests and rot) requiring substantial irrigation. 

We just can’t win, can we?

Not to worry, all may not be lost.  Studies highlighted in that article conclude that, “locally grown food can in fact leave a bigger carbon footprint than food imported from countries on the other side of the globe.”   For example, researchers discovered that “dairy raised in New Zealand and shipped to Britain actually had a smaller carbon footprint than the U.K.’s own dairy.”  In other words, they are implying that importing food might not really be so bad after all, or at least may be the lesser of two evils.  I am curious to know who funded this research, but that of course was not mentioned…

While she doesn’t draw a specific conclusion, what I draw from Cuthbert’s article is that the best approach is to buy local-organic (or local-“sustainable”) when possible, and otherwise carefully pick and choose between the two options, depending on the item.  This is pretty sensible advice in theory, but does it really help the average shopper make choices at the supermarket?  I can just see now the little pocket food-guides soon to be published with tables and grids to help us decide which to buy, where and when…

I, for one, am not satisfied with this conclusion.  My goal in eating local was first to establish the limits of our food system, but then to subsequently push those limits.  So while the above is reasonable advice, and the quoted statistics suggestive of clear(er?) resolutions, I want to take this discussion to the next level.  And that’s what I’m going to try and do…as soon as I have a bowl of bio-dynamic local(ish) yogurt with local organic maple syrup to recharge my batteries.

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5 Responses

  1. You raise lots of good points for discussion and you’re right about checking out the funding for research before simply accepting the conclusions.

    Some of the studies that suggest imported food has a smaller carbon footprint assume that we will continue to eat non-seasonal food and base their calculations on local food grown using energy intensive greenhouse operations.

    Transportation has environmental impacts beyond simple carbon use. For example, sea freight helps spread invasive species when bilge water is dumped, and air freight leaves contrails which affect the global heat balance.

    Industrial meat production is unhealthy for the environment, the animals, and for anyone who eats them. I’ve switched to grass-fed and finished bison and elk from local Southern Ontario farmers. Unfortunately this resource can’t feed the mass of meat eaters out there.

    You mention ‘organic’ maple syrup in your last sentence. I’d pretty much thought that all maple syrup was organic. What kind of practices or production techniques would make it non-organic?

  2. There is quite a big propaganda effort in my view to muddy the water over the huge growth in air freighting of food…my take on this is here http://another-green-world.blogspot.com/2008/03/food-miles-increasing-planet-being.html

  3. Hi Alan – I agree 100%. There are so many more reasons to buy local than simply worrying about air-miles. And I hadn’t even thought of the issue of spreading invasive species, but that certainly is a big one. As is spreading disease. Even by shipping animals the relatively short distance of a few hundred miles to slaughter (since small scale facilities have all but been shut down) has led to disasters such as the massacre of over 6 million animals in the UK after an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease in 2001.

    We don’t have enough pastured meat produced in Ontario to keep us all happy, but if more people made an effort to buy it, and to avoid factory farmed meats, that would change.

    As for the organic maple syrup, what I meant to emphasize was that it was local (from about 20km away). Yes, as far as I know, all real maple syrup should be organic!

  4. Derek – I’m not at all surprised that there’s a conscious effort to undermine the notion of food miles being problematic. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter and your blog.

  5. […] that I’ve outlined the fundamentals of the mainstream organic vs. local debate (see Part I) , I am going to dig a little deeper.  After reviewing what I just wrote, one of the first […]

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