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Local vs. Organic Part II

Pushing the Boundaries

Now 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 questions that jumps to (my) mind is: is buying food according to ‘carbon footprint’ really a good way to decide what to eat?  Consider the study by those New Zealand researchers who determined that it is better for the environment to ship their dairy – and lamb – to the UK than for the Brits to produce it locally.  Does this really make sense?  Could we be missing something?  I mean, haven’t the British been raising sheep for at least 1000 years?  Second, is continuing to eat the way we do because we’ll put 20% of the planet’s population out of work if we don’t a good reason to continue paving this path to hell?  Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place!

If you read the CNN article I linked to in Part I of this discussion, you’ll have gathered from that report that how food is produced, not where, is what matters.  As Oliver explains, despite the big fuss over food miles, transportation only accounts for 2.5% of the total emissions for food production.  Most of the oil consumption in agri-business in fact comes from the petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides, and from fueling the mammoth equipment used in sowing and harvesting supersized fields.  In total, “an average family of four in the developed world uses up the equivalent of 930 gallons of gasoline a year” to eat.  No wonder we are running out of oil much faster than we expected!

Because food miles – apparently the flavour of last month’s political concerns – are being de-emphasized, the push for local food may be similarly diminished in favour of organic.  I am not going to disagree that changing how we produce what we eat is the most important issue, but this still has me deeply concerned for a number of reasons.

For one, the terms “organic” and “sustainable” are deeply problematic.  President’s Choice now advertises organic baby food made via ‘sustainable farming practices.’  How exactly can they produce organically and sustainably on such a large scale?  Is this possible? What is organic, after all? Does it simply mean “no synthetic inputs used”? And how can you determine what is sustainable?  As for the lower carbon footprint of New Zealand animal products, if UK farmers went back to pasturing their animals (and we all ate less and paid a little more – we’re going to pay one way or another, so better up front as far as I’m concerned) they wouldn’t need oil to produce lamb and milk at all. 

To me, organic and sustainable go hand in hand, and mean a mode of production that can be carried on indefinitely.  It also means following a philosophy of balance, diversity, harmony and ethics towards both animals and humans.  It does not mean the large-scale monocropping with “natural” pesticides approach of Big Organic (i.e. industrial organic, which comprises all the organic food you find in grocery stores).  Yet the aforementioned arguments against local lay the foundation to support this very mode of production.  Which is essentially no change at all.  Granted some argue – with good reason – that at least Big Organic is not using synthetic pesticides (keeping in mind that “natural” does not mean “harmless” or “non-toxic”) and presumably less oil. Weeding, for example, is done by hand (by large numbers of typically low-payed un-unionized benefit-less workers).  So arguably industrial organic is still better for the environment than conventional techniques.  And if food miles are not such a big deal, then why not have everyone jump on board and be done with it?

Because growing food is about a lot more than assembly line production, and improving our planet’s health requires a lot more than reducing our oil consumption.  Producing food has traditionally been about self-sufficiency, a sense of pride, security and independence.  It is about community and about culture.  It is about a relationship with our bodies, our families and our neighbours, and also with the land, with animals, with nature, and with the environment.  It is about seasons, and cycles of birth and death, growth and rest.  It is about being in touch with the world around us, and with everything in it. 

How can we possibly get all this back through industrial food shipped 1000’s of miles, regardless if it is grown without oil based fertilizer?  We have lost so much and we don’t even know it.  We wonder why the very fabric of our society is crumbling, and yet we are happy to let the corporations slightly modify their technology and put the word “organic” on supermarket packaging so that we don’t have to change our ways.  I know many will disagree, but in my opinion (this is my blog, after all!) industrial organic is of very little help at all, and may even make things worse through perpetuating our complacency. 

But what about all the developing world workers dependent on growing food for our shelves?  Yes, this is indeed a very serious problem.  And no, I don’t have a quick and easy solution.  Because there isn’t one.  But that’s no reason for us not to start working at change.  Much of the developing world was self-sufficient in terms of food not too long ago, but through IMF and the World Bank policies, their economies were restructured with a focus on industrialization and exports.  Farmers were forced to produce cash crops instead of food, and induced to use industrial methods that entrapped them.  Forced deeply into debt with their land destroyed, many of the world’s farmers are in despair.  Ironically, non-governmental organizations are now traveling to developing countries to (re)teach their farmers how to produce their own food and grow without industrial inputs. 

The same is going on here in Ontario.  Organizations like FarmStartWOOFingC.R.A.F.T. and the Ecological Farmer’s Association of Ontario all have farmer education programs to teach people how to grow organically.  Truly organically, i.e. on a small scale with crop rotation and techniques to reduce pests like planning dill and garlic among cabbages.  Person to person transfer of knowledge – just like in the good old days – with communities coming together to help, enjoy and celebrate. 


So, you ask, once again – and now rather impatiently – when I go to the grocery store, which do I choose: the local or the organic?


I never promised an answer to this question.  I don’t have one.  I only know what works for me, and that is not going to work for everyone (I buy food that is both local and organic, and if I can’t find it, I typically go without, head home and search the internet until I locate some that is).  What I do know is that education is what counts, and being aware of the issues and the debates puts you well ahead of the game.  We each need to think this through, and to be aware of what is going on. 

I will encourage this though: try not going to the grocery store at all.  Just for one week.  Instead, go to farmer’s markets or find a farm or two nearby and visit and buy from them directly.  Invite family or friends to come with you.  Talk to the people who produced what you are buying.  Enjoy the conversation, make some new acquaintances, try some “new” foods you won’t find in stores. Spend just one Saturday morning doing this and then spend a little time afterwards thinking about what you gained from the experience.  That should help make your personal decisions a little clearer.   And maybe even a little easier.

3 Responses

  1. Thanks for a couple of thoughtful pieces on the relationship between local and organic. My comment – I think the search for a single solution to dilemmas about environmentally-sound food is really damaging. Why should we have to choose between organic and local? Why should we have to decide whether production or distribution is ‘more important’ in determining a food product’s impact?
    All of these factors are important – social and environmental – production and distribution and retail. The sooner we become able to recognise these complexities in our food systems, the sooner we’ll be able to make meaningful changes.
    More here.

  2. You can either hold yourself up to the unrealistic standards of others, or ignore them and concentrate on being happy with yourself as you are.

    Keep up 😀

    I do also have blog about nutrition, healthy eating, and health food. I have a summary of articles in the news, lists healthy recipes, offers tips and personal feedback on healthy eating, and reports on nutritional research.

    check this out:

  3. On a positive note, did I tell you that for the first time since WW2, Brits are planting more vegetables than flowers? Our newspaper is producing a pamphlet this weekend to teach people how to grow vegetables. Can’t get much more local than one’s own garden!

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