19 December 2007

Local vs. Organic

There is an interesting conversation going on at Garden Punks that is addressing the argument of "What is Organic?" I dig the spirit of the post, but what has caught my attention is what was said in the comments left by Patrick and Life and Lawns.

The question I think that is being addressed, is what makes something organic and is it REALLY organic. Quite honestly, Meg and I feel the whole "Certified Organic" thing is a load of bullshit, specifically for reasons Patrick had brought to light. Certified Organic is a USDA regulated tag and I'm sure it's pretty safe to say that they're readily influenced by some shady lobbyists.

Meg and I are very organic-minded in our lives and in our garden (if you could separate the two), but as consumers we find the organic/green tag to be nothing more than just a tag. What the hell am I getting at? Try this on: if you have to make the choice, is it better to buy organic, or local? Personally I would have to go with local. Although I like the taste and politics of an organic avocado from Trader Joe's, the fact that it was shipped in from Peru doesn't help the environment a damn bit (Meg's words).

Tiny Farm Blog put up a post today that I think brings together the best of both worlds. I dig his dedication to sustainability and earth friendly practices. Side note: he is Certified Organic, but he's growing in Canada so I'm not entirely familiar with their regulations. After reading his blog for the past six months or so, I'm guessing certified organic there means you're pretty kick ass.

To bring this back into Garden Punks's original post about organic beer, I would have to say I would prefer to go local. Fortunately we have a kick ass brewery right down the road (it's seriously like only three miles, max). If you ever run across a bar that serves Victory, I highly recommend a hearty sampling. Warning: If the Victory beer you're drinking is Golden Monkey or Old Horizontal, please don't drive. I swear the stuff will make you hallucinate.


Katie said...

Ah, it seems as though I stirred the pot...again!

I absolutely agree with you that the certified organic thing is just a way for companies to figure out how to get around the label and skirt the essence of what makes something organic.

And I agree with Meg's comment about Peruvian avocados....we stopped eating bananas for the same reason - hello ... thry don't grow anywhere near here! And as cool as it will be to have a Whole Foods down the street from us soon, their crap is usually trucked in from farther away than my local supermarket!

So yes, please strike the balance between local and organic with skepticism of large companies (like AB) getting into the "certified organic" ring for profit only purposes.

Excellent topic for a post!

Katie at GardenPunks

PS - I like beer that makes me hallucinate! I'll look for it around here.

Mike (tfb) said...

It's kinda funny and ironic that you can almost get called out for being certified organic these days. Of course, you're right, if you're not sure what food to trust, a certified organic label has become a red flag, at the least. This is mainly because the certified products most people encounter most of the time are processed food coming from big companies through long supply chains. Most folks won't be buying direct from the producer.

In practice, certification has nothing much to do with fresh food at the farmers' market, or local food in general, it's essentially a marketing tool for big business and international trade. Nobody pretends otherwise. In the Developed Nations, organic food is a profitable product category, and if it's cheaper to have it made in China, or in a big factory operation in a third-world country, like the rest of supermarket food, then the only obstacle is how to get people to believe it's organic... Well, certification! If it meets the Government Standards, then it's certified. And standards are there to be twisted, loopholed, incrementally altered—lobby for change! It's really no shocker...

My tiny, local market garden has been certified from the start, but certification has had little or no impact on business or on me personally (I explain on my blog). I remember being asked to see my certificate ONCE in four and half seasons at the market, and that was by someone new to the area checking in on local businesses. Face-to-face, a certificate means next nothing: you meet and talk to the vendor, check out the produce, you don't then ask for...credentials. Small, local growers tend not to certify: it's expensive, intrusive to some, and if their customers know them, it's not necessary. If all you're relying on for food quality is a...STICKER, well, good luck. :)

Certification is there to make people feel good when they really don't know where their food is coming from...

The annoying thing is that the organic production standard itself is pretty cool. You can divide it into three practical parts: for fresh produce, for livestock, and for processed food. It's basically a detailed set of allowable practices that define what can and can't be done in organic production. The most straightforward is the growing part. I had to read up on all of this for my first inspection, and it was like an intense crash course in sustainable agriculture. The production standard is a solid framework for organic growing, like any book from Eliot Coleman or Rodale Press or whatever. Livestock standards are also straightforward, but more complicated and costly to implement. When it comes to processing, it gets wiggly. Processed food is usually made from purchased ingredients, so certification becomes more of an accounting and auditing thing, more of a paper trail than a production standard: where did each ingredient come from, etc. A lot harder to pin down. Of course, most of the food we eat is...processed. What a mess!

Canada and the US are in sync as far as organic standards. Canada is just a few years behind in making it law. The European Union and Japan have different legislation, I think a little tougher, but it all harmonizes when it comes to international trade. Naturally...

Of course, this is all my personal impression. There are lots of people who know a lot more about the organics big picture, and they can and do tell or spin it every which way. In the end, what to trust, what to eat, it's really up to the individual to get a little information, apply common sense, decide... (It always comes down to that, doesn't it! ;)

Meg said...

@ Katie

Yep. As much as we try to avoid big corporate food (including produce), it's not always possible. Heck, even the bagels and bread that our grocery store makes fresh probably contain flour grown and shipped from who knows where. When we are stuck with making non-local choices, organic is the next biggest priority. If we're going to give money to Kraft or General Mills, at least we can play politics a little...

@ Mike

Thanks for the input! I think it's really interesting that Canada and the US follow the same organic standards. That makes sense, because I'm sure a lot of food crosses the border in both directions.

I totally see your point about the "official" organic label working more as a marketing tool for big companies, which I think is why we were sort of surprised to read that you're certified. I don't think that any of the growers at the farmers' market we frequent are certified organic (except for the people we buy our chickens' food from, hmm) yet they all say they're organic and I believe them. However, as much as I generally trust small farmers, I think I would feel better about joining a CSA that could claim certification. And, if we were buying land from someone who could prove they were organic, that would be huge.

I've been reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and he's working through some of the sticky ethics involved in processed food. I'm about 15 pages away from the chapter titled "Big Organics," and I'm interested to read his take on the subject. If you haven't read the book, I highly recommend it for winter reading--I think anyone who has an interest in food production, whether in a big plant or on a tiny farm, will find some really interesting stuff.

Patrick said...

The organic standards are not much different in Europe than anywhere else I think. They are all very much synchronized, intended to put small farmers at a disadvantage and to promote international trade.

Not only do you see in the standards themselves with all the loopholes and nonsense regulations, but in the attitudes of the commercial farmers themselves. If you go and talk with them here you'll probably find them with a cigarette in their mouth, completely lacking any feel or dedication for what they do. They know if they bend the rules a bit no one is there to inspect them and they will get away with it. For them it's just a best effort undertaking.

If an organic farmer uses manure as fertilizer, it's supposed to come from organic cows. It's hard to get organic manure, so 80% is allowed to come from non-organic sources. When you're allowed to use 80% non-organic, what does it matter if 20% is organic?

If you use a mulching material like straw on garlic, there are no rules covering this material. This means if the straw was grown in a very chemically intensive way, and these chemicals in turn contaminate the garlic, the garlic can still be called organic.

Organic certified meats and dairy products cannot be fed GM food. At the same time in Europe there is no testing of animal food, and it's known that 20% of all animal food labelled as non-GM is mislabelled and really contains GM plant material.

Any large commercial organic farmer around here won't hide the fact they are just following the rules, and otherwise trying to grow their crops as cheaply as possible. They have no problem undermining the spirit of organic, even intentionally buying mislabelled product, if it saves them a few pennies.

I've heard the argument that organic certification is very important for the environment because organic farmers are not allowed to spray large amounts of chemicals on their crops, and this may be true to a certain extent. I don't think otherwise there is any reason to believe certified organic food is better in any way. It's all marketing.

You're much better off growing your food yourself or buying it locally from someone you trust.

Kelly said...

Hey Patrick,

Thanks for the comment and the great statistics from Europe. By the way am I the only one who is completely thrilled with this multi-country collaboration?

I think a good many folks out there would agree with what you are saying; I know Meg and I certainly do. I really support the last statement you made about growing your own food or buying from someone you know and trust.

We feel that Mike's blog is better than any form of certification. If you can't buy local, then the internet at least provides a source where you can see where your food is coming from. The folks at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods could really make a difference if they could get their suppliers to provide that kind of information.

Mike (tfb) said...

Meant to post back here a while ago, hope you read this. I forgot to mention Certified Naturally Grown, an alternative farmer-to-farmer certification program, created on the grassroots level as an alternative to the US NOP (National Organic Program) in 2002. I followed them at the beginning, and looking back now, I see they're in 47 states and have UK chapter! I'm gonna see if they're established here in Ontario.

I believe in the power of numbers and standing together and all that fine-sounding stuff, but I'm usually skeptical of the organizations that actually handle all the uniting. CNG, though, seems like it might be something to get behind... When the primary actors (food consumers, food growers) do things themselves, I think the chances of...integrity are better (although the chances of falling apart are also probably improved over having middlemen who want to be middlemen running things.) Anyhow, there's CNG and there are others.

It's also interesting to note that all of this certified stuff is just about a WORD. The absolutely only thing organic regulations regulate is commercial use of the word "organic", nothing more! I "knew" this from the start, but it's a wiggly concept that didn't fully hit me for a while...

Meg said...

Mike, that is so cool! Thanks for that link--I just spent a while looking around at the site and I recognized the names of a few Pennsylvania farms. I think they're at our local farmers' market! There are a couple of farms listed in Ontario now, too.

I really like that CNG farmers inspect each other and seem to pretty much run the whole show, unlike USDA organic, which is run completely top-down, probably by people who haven't touched a shovel in years.