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Eat Organic! Eat Local! Eat...What?
Erica Barnett, 23 Nov 07
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First, we were all told to "buy organic" food because it's better for our health, and for the earth. Then we were told that buying organic wasn't enough, because organic standards vary from country to country (and even within countries), making it difficult to know what you're really getting. And then there are the greenhouse gasses emitted by shipping all that organic produce thousands of miles -- from China, say, to the United States. Those lengthy "food miles" obliterate much of the environmental benefit of buying organic in the first place.

So next we were told to buy locally produced foods (and organic, if possible), in order to eliminate those global warming concerns. Plus, purchasing food grown locally benefits small farmers and local economies, is better for air quality and pollution, and supports responsible land development. And it gives people weaned on supermarket food -- i.e., most of us -- a chance to taste food that's both seasonal and impeccably fresh. So "buy local" has become the refrain, and not just among hardcore sustainability advocates: "locavore" was the New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year for 2007.

But it turns out eating local can have unintended consequences as well. Recently proponents of strengthening fair trade markets in emerging economies have pointed out that the trend toward "eating local" may hurt farmers who depend heavily on overseas markets to make a living. As Walter Moseley, a geography professor who does research in Africa, wrote recently,

If the local food movements in Europe and North America reduce their demand for organic and fair trade products from afar, the most likely consequence is that African farmers who have entered these niche markets will return to producing their export crops in the conventional, pesticide-intensive manner. While local food markets can provide some income for these farmers, they still are reliant on export opportunities for the bulk of their cash income.

Food miles, then, are not the single most important measure of responsible food consumption; how our food choices shape local economies (including those thousands of miles away) may be just as important.

In the long run, solutions need to merge economic, social and environmental concerns -- for instance, international bodies need to make and enforce rules governing working conditions on farms worldwide, and promote organic farming practices through subsidies and other assistance (which have typically been offered to conventional agriculture through international aid and development schemes). But until those changes come, writes Walter Mosley, "it is a cruel joke to condemn developing world farmers to commodity crop production and then remove the only hope they have for higher returns -- organic and fair trade crops and products."

The United Kingdom Soil Association has attempted to address the inconsistency between promoting local consumption and supporting fair trade by requiring all organic food imported by air to meet fair trade standards, something we’ve covered in the past. However, this hardly addresses all fairly traded produce, because it still applies only to products that are certified organic. Traditional farmers in poor African nations use virtually no pesticides on edible produce; their crops are organic in all but name. But that name, when it comes to satisfying export regulations, is sometimes all that matters.

The solution, then, is to push for stronger regulations on working conditions and better assistance for farmers in developing economies. In the meantime, we would do well to eschew zealotry -- organic, locavorean, or fair-trade -- in exchange for a mix of all three. Throwing up our hands and buying out-of-season, conventionally grown and paid-for produce is far worse than choosing fair trade over local, or vice versa.

Image: flickr/panduh

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The governments should be funding organic certification checks, where the produce is naturally grown but they don't have an actual stamp or certificate to prove so. There's always going to be the problem of "is it truthful or not" regardless of what body certifies any farm or garden, since you can't see for yourself what's going on year-round.

This was always a problem for some folks - they couldn't afford to pay for the certification and conversion process of going organic, and felt cheated because they always had grown products naturally.
There can also be problems getting certification because of location - say you're near a field that does GMO trials, or does heavy pesticide use; that affects your land too.

A tiered solution could work - a certificate as per usual if all requirements are satisfied, and a different certificate for naturally-grown - but not necessarily having covered every aspect of the usual certificate. For example maybe not using organically produced seeds, but still growing them naturally yourself.

I did some educational coursework in organic farming and growing almost a decade ago, and these issues and other related concerns were very much raised points then also.

Justnow, I have only a choice of supermarkets or an occaisional farmers market to buy from here. It's never clear at the farmers markets if they have grown produce naturally, so I tend to go for the organic certified supermarket goods, because I do notice the difference in a lot of ways from consuming anything that's been grown with artificial fertilisers and so forth. However the supermarkets aren't good about other things, such as they often have frozen fruits for transportation or bought them picked unripe. So the whole tatse benefit is lost, though the environmental benefit remains in the country it was grown in.
One of the supermarkets does do a box scheme - that ensures fresh produce, and just about all of it is from this country.
Often box schemes handle their own deliveries - there's a dairy one here that delivers to the door. Like in the not-too-distant-past when there'd be a milk round for everybody.

As regards transportation - sometimes air works out well. There was a place in Edinburgh that'd fly in their own fresh Italian ingredients personally. Which echos another area of importance that can be overlooked - it's often difficult if not impossible to buy preferred varieties of fruit and veg, even in the cities.
I'd say in general more reliance on shipping produce would be welcome when it comes to imports, because more people have access to that on the smaller scales (the way it used to be) - and a lot of those boats don't use a lot of fuel.
All our cultures in the 'west' are ingrained with imports anyway - tea, coffee, sugar, bananas.

Posted by: zupakomputer on 24 Nov 07

The recently released IPCC Synthesis report states that climate change puts 70 to 200 million africans 'at risk' (translation: death by famine) by 2020. We would not be doing the developing world any favours if we are in the least bit slack in combating climate change.

An easy solution to the dilemma would be to buy local, organic etc, and start paying the Third World reparations for several centuries of exploitation. No punative damages, just fair value for everything we stole. This would be totally fair, just, and address their development needs while being serious about climate change.

But we're not going to do that, are we?

Posted by: Mike Kaulbars on 24 Nov 07

It is so easy falling into the trap of simplistic solutions to a complex problem like climate change. Thanks for highlighting the interdependence factor. The answer lies in a concerted effort by all actors, all countries, all disciplines.

Posted by: marguerite manteau-rao on 24 Nov 07

zupakomputer makes a good point - sugar, something so basic we take it for granted, is pretty much always an international import. I think we do have to face the fact that we're pretty much stuck shipping things here and there to satisfy demand. It's too ingrained.. going back to the time of the Silk Road and beyond. It's pretty much become a cultural necessity, and not just for the post-industrial world.

I think a useful way to look at this problem is not in terms of curbing our excessive appetites, but rather in terms of achieving higher efficiency. We can save fossil fuels a ton already by reducing energy waste like sealing up leaky buildings in New England winters and designing vehicles (and cargo ships/planes!) that don't rely so much on fossil fuels. Then people can have their sugar, and their coffee, and the occasional Argentine asparagus in January.

(Personal note: I love the seasons and I love eating fresh, local produce from friendly farmers I know by name, but there is a modicum of wistful poetic magic in crunching a coveted stalk of asparagus in the dead of Boston winters... right now be price to pay for that is indeed high. Which is why I propose that we think towards lowering that price so more people can enjoy an occasional reminder of spring without guilt.)

I guess the only problem is... can our engineers make a shipping plane that runs on [clean burning fuel of choice] before half the third world sinks?

Posted by: tina ye on 24 Nov 07

The fresh-food export business from Kenya and such places to Europe essentially exists because the airlines have spare cargo capacity on aircraft coming back from these places; now, if they go they've got to come back, and from an economic viewpoint, if there's a profit in going there they'll go.

The point is that the transport is essentially free; the aircraft doesn't burn significantly more fuel with some crates of produce in the hold than without. So the net increase in fuel use and Co2 emissions attributable to it is down in the noise; but the development benefits are nontrivial.

Posted by: Alex on 25 Nov 07

The "Buy Local" meme also seems to assume we all live in places with decent local growing conditions. I live in Texas with 100+ degree summers with little rain. I would be concerned that trying to feed Dallas from local crops would also be a pretty rough drain on the environment requiring outrageous amounts of water and fertilizers.

I feel really lucky to live in a world where I can have food from anywhere in the world, being a big indian and thai food fan. The first thing I here I here with "buy local" is that I'm back to southern food and tex-mex.

Posted by: John on 26 Nov 07

The "Buy Local" meme also seems to assume we all live in places with decent local growing conditions. I live in Texas with 100+ degree summers with little rain. I would be concerned that trying to feed Dallas from local crops would also be a pretty rough drain on the environment requiring outrageous amounts of water and fertilizers.

I feel really lucky to live in a world where I can have food from anywhere in the world, being a big indian and thai food fan. The first thing I here I here with "buy local" is that I'm back to southern food and tex-mex.

Posted by: John on 26 Nov 07

I am very much intrigued by the social implications which underly every discussion of sustainability, it brings the material back into focus. After all, sustainability generally is identified through an anthroperception (I made that word up, spread it around, I'm training to engineer the next Oxford word of the year). And what could be the simplest contributor to a fixed vision of sustainability? The food we have to eat to sustain our bodies... I feel that if we must have to confront the potentiality of global climate change, there will be more than just organic farmers in Africa affected by the outcomes.

I find it is a good start in turning that lense of sustainability back onto the individual. Really take a good look at your own personal sustainability; "What is habit, and what is neccessity? Or, What do I really need?" and in doing so, I am confident that the answers to a lot of the issues revolving with such tremendous momentum around the questions of how to feed ourselves will become more apparent.

After all, no one has the complete answer, we are all just taking shots in the dark in guessing with such limited foresight. Maybe we can think beyond conventional wisdom and approach something more fair and organic... that's my kind of local. And who knows, maybe there could be some amazing outcomes of expanding such an intelligence to broader contexts. Heh, I hate to do it, but I will... I'm going to quote Gunter Pauli in saying "We are limited by our inability to think; big, positive, and [globally]."

*If you don't know of Gunter Pauli, YouTube the name, he is an active proponent of Systems Thinking/Design... and despite the pomp and arrogance, at least he is provocative.

Posted by: blaze on 26 Nov 07

This article seems to believe that small farmers export produce to England, instead of World Bank- funded agribusiness farms exporting. Export-based economies of the type Mosely proposes aren't ssustainable, and neither is living in Dallas.

Many third world farmers have been pushed off their land to make way for export farms.

That may seem like a real paradigm shift, but that's what (most) Worldchanging articles are about. Dallas can not support it's present population-- it was just a temporary phenomenon. Sorry.

Posted by: Jim on 26 Nov 07

this argument seems a little reactionary/spurious. There is no reason not to do better for yourself and your community if you can, it may be harsh but depending on exports is their (?) situation, not ours. mail me for a debate about anything, my views are pretty out there...

Posted by: yarrow on 27 Nov 07

Erica - just want to say what a superbly written story this is. Hits all the right concerns that we as consumers have. V succinct. Take a bow.
alex scott

Posted by: alex scott on 27 Nov 07



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