Is Local or Organic More Important?

[This article originally appeared in the March/April 2012 edition of Velocity MagazineRead it in it’s original format here.]

It depends… first on what your definitions of “local” & “organic” include. These words used to imply small scale, independent, sustainable, fair, artisan crafted, heirloom varieties. Nowadays, these words have been stripped of their soul.

The term “Local” has no legal definition or any protections against consumer manipulation. One potato chip manufacturer markets their potatoes as “local” in Florida because of their proximity, regardless of the fact that they operate as a huge industrialized agricultural operation which is the antithesis of what people expect when thinking about a local farm.

To legally call a product organic, however, it must be certified by an agent who follow guidelines outlined by the USDA Organic program. Sometimes a certifying agent will have even more stringent guidelines than those outlined by the USDA Organic Standards – Oregon Tilth is one of those who have higher standards. Many companies who have been in the business a long time feel the USDA standards are too low, and refuse to even use the USDA Organic logo as they feel it would degrade the integrity of their product.

Certification is necessary in a globalized food economy because there is no connection between the producer and the consumer. We must rely on a third party to ensure that the producer is adhering to standards. Of course, we must stay vigilant about the standards to ensure they are not degraded by powerful big ag interests which has always been a constant battle. As consumer demand for organic swells, it has been infiltrated by powerful interests who want the profitable organic status without fully understanding the ethos.

A distinction can be made between “certified organic” and what I call “relationship organic,” which happens when small scale growers & producers follow or often exceed organic standards but are not officially certified due to any number of factors including: cost of certification, use of hydroponics (not able to be certified), or simply because the consumer has a relationship with the grower and can discuss what pest-control, fertilization, etc methods that are used. Here, you rely on your ability to judge character and use personal trust in that farmer whose land you can walk instead of blind trust in a system that you hope works. Either way is a gamble, and unsavory farmers have claimed to be using organic methods when they are not.

Let’s ask this question again, but in a different way. Would you rather feed your kids:

(A) a locally grown strawberry from a medium size business farm you’ve never been to that has been grown with pesticides that are known carcinogens.

(B) a batch of certified organic strawberries from a big farm trucked in from California.

(C) strawberries which were locally grown using organic principles unless there is a major threat, in which case the grower uses the mildest pesticide in the affected area to preserve the entire crop. These are not “certified” organic since the family farmer who grew them isn’t to the scale to go through the certification process and/or has a steady stream of customers who know him personally and has decided to keep the option about selective use of mild pesticides.

(D) strawberries you grew yourself in a your own garden.

I’m not the one to tell you what the correct choice is for your family, but it is important that you understand your food options at a deeper level so you can make the most informed decision given your circumstances, which may also be influenced by convenience, cost and how you prioritize your time.

I will leave you with one final thought – this one about flavor. On the one hand, choosing local, organic, seasonal & artisan food almost always ensures the best flavor. However, let’s keep it in our consciousness that our palette cannot distinguish whether or not the health of a farmworker, animal or ecosystem was sacrificed for our momentary pleasure. We must first see & hear for ourselves what has brought some morsel onto our plate so that all of our senses might be delighted in knowing that people, animals and earth were all respected and honored in order to satisfy our hunger. The more connected we are to our food, the more we can be assured of it’s purity and ability to nourish our physical, mental and spiritual bodies.

The most nutritious and delightful meal I can imagine would involve a potluck dinner with friends that included selections out of each of our organic backyard gardens. The produce used would vary in color and variety, uniquely suited for the climate in our area, and harvested at the pinnacle of ripeness. These foods would be minimally prepared with love as over-seasoning or cooking would detract from the flavor bursting from nature.

We would relish the company, delight in the diversity of food our friends passionately grew for this special occasion, and the discussion would contain ooh’s and ahh’s as we each sampled each others harvest. It might include some farmers market or natural food store purchases like artisan organic tempeh, local raw goat cheese, fair trade organic rice and domestic organic olive oil and wine to round it out. This is true nourishment.

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