Monday, February 15, 2010

The Nuances of Organic Food

By Nicole Sugerman

Our farm is not certified organic, and the reasons for this are many. On a practical level, our fields have not been pesticide-free for three years, a prerequisite to certification. We use city water, while organic standards require that a farm uses well water or filtered water. A few of our inputs, while made locally from sources deemed acceptable by organic standards, have themselves forgone the ‘certified organic’ label; for us to pursue certification, all of our inputs would have to be certified. Although the benefits are many, organic certification ignores nuances in growing practices; we are not ‘bad’ or ‘unsustainable’ because of our diversions from organic standard rules, and sustainable, environmentally-conscious farming is not a you-are-or-you-aren’t sort of a thing, as many people disagree as to the environmental impact of different practices.

On a theoretical level, I also think an organic certification is unnecessary for our farm. A certified-organic seal means that a third-party inspector has visited a farm, talked to the farmers, looked at their growing practices and records, and has determined that the farm is operated in a sustainable, environmentally-friendly way. This is a useful label to look for if the farms on which your food is grown are far away, because you can be assured that someone else has visited the farms and determined that the food is grown with environmentally sound practices. However, we sell our food very, very, locally. With our consumer base located pretty exclusively within a ten mile radius from the farm, we can cut out the organic middleman. Our consumers can talk to us farmers themselves, can look us in the eye and ask us if we use synthetic pesticides or chemicals on our farm, and, if they want, can easily access the farm to see our growing practices (the farm’s weediness is proof that we are herbicide-free. . . ). I like to think that in a truly local food system, transparency and honesty can render an institutionalized third-party certification system obsolete.

However, I have lately been complicating my own analysis of the organic/local debate. When I get asked, “Do you think that local is the new organic?” I am not sure how to respond. Yes, local is good, because it supports the creation of self-sufficient communities and undermines the destructive logic of globalized agriculture. But local is not a replacement for organic. The potential of locally grown food lies in its ability to hold farmers accountable to their communities, rendering the food system accessible and transparent, so that people can make wiser choices in choosing which foods they eat based on personal knowledge of where that food came from.

The question, “is local the new organic” makes me think of a real-life case study from a town in which I lived in Connecticut. The case study is usually too long to explain to people who ask the question, but helps me conceptualize the complexities of local food. As ‘local food’ became popular as a concept, people in my town in Connecticut would often patronize a nearby pick-your-own orchard for their peaches, apricots, and apples. The orchard was not organic, but tree fruits are very difficult to grow organically in the Northeast, so this was not a surprise, and, if local “trumps” organic, was justifiable to those looking to source their foods as locally as possible. However, this orchard had a long history, known to local environmentalists, of polluting the local stream with their (rather liberally sprayed) pesticide and fertilizer residues. Their dumping was illegal, but local authorities had turned their heads, and the orchard owners were unwilling to talk to environmentalists about or change their practices. They could greenwash their image by proudly telling customers that they were local, but they were not good stewards of their local community. Ten more miles up the road, I knew another fruit farmer who sprayed his crops only once or twice per season, and who talked about his orchard honestly and earnestly. Although his orchard was very slightly ‘less local’ than the first, I greatly preferred to patronize him.

Through this experience, I was able to see that local was not an end to itself. There are some local farms with good practices, and some local farms with bad. Similarly, there are certified-organic feedlots and huge, mechanized, “organic” vegetable farms. If the two orchards had not been local, however, I would not have been able to know whether or not I wanted to support them. In a supermarket, the produce from both would have been labeled “conventional peaches/apples,” and I would not have known any more about the extent of their pesticide applications or their relationship to their land.

I had the advantage in this scenario of being agriculturally-literate. Having worked on farms for several seasons, I knew what questions to ask, and I could understand the implications of the different chemicals and practices the farmers described in response. We do not all have the time or access to knowledge to become agriculturally-literate to this extent, however, nor do we all have the time or transportation access to visit all of our local farms. Thus, my idealized vision of a transparent food system is not exactly viable.

Capitalizing on popular confusion, large food corporations are using food descriptors in increasingly ambiguous ways. The recent controversy over certified-organic foods from China illustrates that the certification may no longer be trustworthy. Supermarkets display signs reading “locally grown”, yet upon questioning, reveal that their definition of 'local' includes the entire United States. And many traditionally organic companies, like Silk Soymilk and Horizon Milk, have been bought out by larger corporations and are now being advertised as ‘natural’ instead of organic, which plays on consumers desires for a healthy and sustainable choice, but without the accountability or meaning of an organic label; ‘natural’ foods may, and do, contain conventionally grown ingredients with pesticides, chemicals, and genetically modified genes.

With all these factors to consider, I still think that supporting local, small-scale farms is the best option. I still think that our decision to not certify ourselves as organic is sound. But I urge people to question the labels with which they are presented, and to be continually critical of the claims people and products make. Ask your farmers about their growing practices, and, since you come to our farm every week to pick up your vegetables, take a look around our fields! Let us know if you think we are doing a job that meets your expectations of environmental and human health.

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