Monday, August 18, 2008

Local Vs. Organic

Many of us bound gleefully through the greenmarket, feeling great about our food that came in from Jersey and the Hudson Valley - so close, so local. What this interesting grist article suggests is that in the excitement of buying local food - we forget how the food came to be.

In "Dispatches from the Fields," Ariane Lotti and Stephanie Ogburn, who are working on small farms in Iowa and Colorado this season, share their thoughts on producing real food in the midst of America's agro-industrial landscape.

A few years ago at farmers markets here and around the country, most customers would ask a farmer how she grew her vegetables and herbs. Eaters were concerned about organic growing habits and pesticide use on farms, and inquired about the methods used to grow the produce they were purchasing. Nowadays at market, almost no one asks if Dragonfly Farms is certified organic. (We're not, but are pursuing Certified Naturally Grown status.)

It's troubling because, from the perspective of a movement against agribusiness-as-usual, organic farming has a lot more substance than local does. The organic movement confronted industrial agriculture's use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that devastated local ecosystems. It addressed the health of migrant farm workers and the health of people who ate foods with pesticide residues or milk with growth hormones. Organic growers tried to imitate natural systems on their farms, and the science of agroecology grew out of this movement. The goal of early organic movement farmers was to one day feed the world through a system of cultivation that paid attention to landscape, ecology, and human health. Today, movement-style organic agriculture in the United States has largely disappeared, and its substitution, from a perspective of ecological or moral consumerism, has become the term "local."

For me, there are a few important reasons for buying locally. Food is fresher and tastes better. Buying local food supports the hometown economy. Buying locally shortens the commodity chain, which opens up space for consumers to hold producers accountable for methods of production (which can range from use of pesticides to paying their laborers a fair wage). It also enhances the chance that producers will be fairly and adequately compensated for what they produce. (Think about the percentage of a dollar a tomato grower at farmers market keeps for a pound of her product versus the percentage a coffee farmer from Guatemala keeps for a pound of hers.)

I find this problematic, mostly because a focus on buying locally avoids a critique of industrial agriculture from all perspectives except that of transportation. Theoretically, then, if one grew apples in Connecticut, using tons of pesticides (and believe me, tons of pesticides are used on apples), and employed poorly paid, undocumented workers who were exposed to said pesticides, but sold them within Connecticut to local consumers, these apples would be "better" than organic apples shipped from New Zealand.

I'm not particularly interested in debating whether local food is more climate-friendly than regional or even internationally traded food, however. What concerns me most is that the alternative food movement has dropped out of its engagement with the way most of the food in this country is grown. I've watched this happen, as organic first became just another marketing sticker on a product, then faded into obscurity as local become the latest alt-ag end goal.

What does this mean for you? Ask Ask Ask - how was my food grown? Do you use lots of chemicals?
It's just as important as Where was it grown!

Read On

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