Organic isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be: Try Going Local

farmersmarket2.JPGEditor’s note: This guest post was written by Danae DeShazer, a student in Professor Simran Sethi’s Media and the Environment course at the University of Kansas. Danae originally published this post to the course blog on February 26, 2008.

We’ve all heard of the organic craze. People are switching their diets to “organic” foods. This is all supposed to be healthier and better for the environment, right? Organic food sales are on the up-and-up, increasing 22 percent in 2006 to a $17 billion industry (for the full article, read here). A lot of people have jumped on the bandwagon—with reasons of personal and planetary health—but how do we know exactly what we’re getting?

What does organic even mean? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.” Also, products that come from animals aren’t given any antibiotics or growth hormones (see The Meatrix if you’re unsure about the standard practices of processed meat companies). Ding, ding, ding! We have a solution. Go out and buy all the organic food you can.

There’s a lot more to “buying organic” to save the planet than just looking for that USDA Organic label. Yeah, maybe if your food is organic, it’s probably going to have a better taste and more nutrients (read more reasons to eat organic food in this Prevention magazine article), but you’ve got to read a little closer into those organic labels. Say you want to buy some organic honey. Sure, they probably carry it at your favorite mainstream grocery store—and you’re probably patting yourself on the back for a totally organic purchase. But, take a look at the label. Many honey packages, even organic ones, are produced across oceans from us. Try Hawaii (Volcano Island Honey) and Africa (Zambezi Organic Forest Honey). Even if it doesn’t come from far away lands, it may even be in Illinois (Y.S. Organic Bee Farm) or Pennsylvania (Dutch Gold Honey). Some may even contain labels including multiple countries, such as Full Circle Farm Organic Honey, which can be bought at Hy-Vee, but is made in Mexico and Brazil.

So is it really that good to buy organic, especially if it travels hundreds of miles in a gas-guzzling truck expending harmful gases into the ozone? It’s still good. But, there’s something better and even cooler you can do for the environment.

Go Local. Did you know there’s locally-made organic food? Alisa Smith and James Mackinnon began something called the 100-Mile Diet, a movement to get others eating local, organic food. They were dissatisfied with the idea that when an average North American sits down to eat, each ingredient has typically traveled at least 1,500 miles—which Alisa and James call “the SUV diet.” The 100-Mile Diet, which is an eating lifestyle that requires you only to eat foods produced within 100 miles of your home, isn’t supposed to be easy—but it’s a way to connect you with your food, your local farmers, the seasons, and the landscape you live in.

Some reasons to go local, instead of just organic:

Eating local means more for the local economy. According to a study by the New Economics Foundation in London, a dollar spent locally generates twice as much income for the local economy. When businesses are not owned locally, money leaves the community at every transaction.

Locally grown produce is fresher. While produce that is purchased in the supermarket or a big-box store has been in transit or cold-stored for days or weeks, produce that you purchase at your local farmer’s market has often been picked within 24 hours of your purchase. This freshness not only affects the taste of your food, but the nutritional value which declines with time.

Eating local is better for air quality and pollution than eating organic. In a March 2005 study by the journal Food Policy, it was found that the miles organic food often travels to our plate creates environmental damage that outweighs the benefit of buying organic.

Local food translates to more variety. When a farmer is producing food that will not travel a long distance, will have a shorter shelf life, and does not have a high-yield demand, the farmer is free to try small crops of various fruits and vegetables that would probably never make it to a large supermarket. Supermarkets are interested in selling “Name brand” fruit: Romaine Lettuce, Red Delicious Apples, Russet Potatoes. Local producers often play with their crops from year to year, trying out Little Gem Lettuce, Senshu Apples, and Chieftain Potatoes.

Supporting local providers supports responsible land development. When you buy local, you give those with local open space – farms and pastures – an economic reason to stay open and undeveloped. (excerpted from “10 Reasons to Go Local” from Life Begins at 30 weblog.)

Lucky for us Lawrencians, we have a vast arena for local food choices. Here are some ideas of where to go:

  • The popular Local Burger restaurant, owned by Hilary Brown, endorses the idea of local food made fast.
  • Homespun Hill Farms provides quality grass-fed meat.
  • For local meats, vegetables and fruits, try the weekly Farmers’ Market in downtown Lawrence.
  • For organic soy beans and tofu, check out Central Soy Foods.
  • The only certified organic produce section in Lawrence is available at The Merc, a store dedicated to providing organic and local foods.

Organic is great, but local is better. Eating organic may be better for you, and of course the planet, but eating local can help inch the environmental movement forward a little more.

Post inspired by Lawrence Sustainability Network’s article, “Local eating for global change,” covering information on the 100-Mile Diet.

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12 thoughts on “Organic isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be: Try Going Local”

  1. I notice that there’s a question you didn’t ask in this post — How do you know that your organic food is really organinc? Or, more specifically, how rigorous is the certification process, and how rigorous is monitoring to maintain certification?

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that a nontrivial portion of “organic” food isn’t as organic as one might think.

    This is, of course, yet another reason to eat local: who would you trust to tell the truth about what your food really is — a local grower, or a large corporate farm selling under a major organic label?

  2. Thanks for this! Another good point is the government’s weakening of organic standards in the wake of the pressure to make money on this label/segment. It’s good to question.

  3. Hi! I have orderd from this place twice and am very pleased to share. They have great kosher organic and natural food products including agave nectar.
    Here is a link
    p.s. I used a code try if it works for you bldc08

  4. Mike,

    That’s the problem with most organic foods. How do we really know? The USDA offers “organic guidelines” for your food to get the label, but who strict are these? Who can really say that if you follow certain rules that you aren’t slimming by with other small, yet meaningful, details?

    It’s obvious you can trust a person you meet face-to-face more likely than the “man.” It’s all about the details and personal discretion. We all must hold ourselves accountable for the decisions we make about organic and local foods.

  5. Your statement about YS Organic Bee Farms and and Dutch Gold Honey providing certified organic honey produced in the US is completely false. If you do some research, you will find that both companies IMPORT organic honey from Brazil and/or Argentina. They are NOT producing organic honey in the US. The label for YS organic is quite misleading and I will not buy their honey due to the fact that they misrepresent their honey as US produced, when it is actually imported.

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