You can buy organic and you can buy local, but is it sustainable? And if it’s sustainable, is it organic or local? Are you overwhelmed yet? There are a lot of issues to consider with agriculture and food-buying decisions these days, but there are also a lot of resources available for selecting the best organic, local and sustainable foods to suit your needs. How do you decide which issues are important to you?
Whether your food choices are local, organic or sustainable, making a change in your lifestyle or purchasing style will ultimately benefit you and the environment – making you a little greener each day. To best explain the aforementioned terminology, we’ll use the example of a strawberry to illustrate how it’s grown and delivered to you.
First, we have our local strawberry. By definition, “local” means that a given produce or meat product is from the region or state in which you live. This berry didn’t have to travel very far to find your local farmers’ market and, therefore, will likely cost you less (less freight charges and fewer middlemen that you have to pay for). Furthermore, local farmers often utilize sustainable practices that may be in line with your values. Local products might not be 100 percent organic, but the carbon footprint left from their production is minimal.
If organic all the way is your motto, this next strawberry is likely the one for you. The USDA mandates that in order to label a food “organic,” the product and its producers must be in compliance with current USDA organic standards and must be certified by approved agencies. As a general explanation, organic food is produced “without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.1 For example, our strawberry was grown in sunny California at a USDA-certified organic farm. It then spent five days on a truck to make its way to your local organic grocery store or specialty market on the east coast, where you confidently picked it – knowing it had a certified background. You feel good about purchasing an organic produce item, knowing that organic farms put less pollution into the earth and into our bodies; however, bear in mind that our previous local strawberry required less energy and resources for transportation. Perhaps doing the research to find an organic farm in your state, which would allow you to purchase organic and local products, may satisfy both needs here.
Both of our strawberries above will bear the label “Product of U.S.A.,” which is required by federal law to be displayed on fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, meat or fish that are native to the United States. Another very common label we see these days is “natural,” which simply means that the food doesn’t contain artificial ingredients or colors. Note that natural foods are not necessarily organic, sustainable, hormone- and/or antibiotic-free, or humanely raised, thus the “natural” term has become somewhat obsolete. You may also see “Fair trade-certified” labels (most often on imported goods), which indicates that the farmers and producers of these products treat their workers fairly and “cultivate their land in a sustainable way.”2 The distinctions between these categories are evident, but how the differences affect us isn’t as obvious. First, you must decide your level of investment – emotionally and financially. Ask yourself if your emotional tie to these issues outweighs the financials, or if one of these issues is more important than the rest.
The phrase “going green” has come to represent overall environmental responsibility and may involve purchasing foods with some or all of the labels explained above. The final piece of the puzzle is figuring how to make it all last – sustaining our resources and practices. According to sustainabletable.com, “sustainable is an umbrella term for this culture.” Sustainability is a way of raising food that is “healthy for consumers and animals, does not harm the environment, is humane for workers, respects animals, provides a fair wage to the farmer, and supports and enhances rural communities.”3 Resources to help you be a more conscientious food-buyer include a variety of organizations – many of which have established online communities and blogs as a way for you to learn more about your particular region and connect with your like-minded neighbors.
In order to tackle the sustainability issue, a great place to start is with a seat at the Sustainable Table (sustainabletable.org), an organization that aims to “educate consumers on food-related issues and work to build community through food.” It sticks to its mission well, as this site provides a plethora of information and resources to help you learn about sustainability and carry it out in your daily life. Have you ever stood in your grocer’s refrigerated section trying hopelessly to decide between hormone-free versus free-range versus cage-free eggs? Ever come up with your own creative definitions for acronyms such as GMO, rBGH or rBST because you simply have no idea? Well, you’re not alone. And luckily, we can get informed together utilizing term glossaries, such as the “sustainable dictionary” offered on Sustainable Table’s Web site.
Sustainable Table also sponsors the Eat Well Guide (eatwellguide.org), where you can “find good food” by using its search function – simply enter your zip code and find listings of farms, markets, restaurants and stores in your area. The “green fork blog” helps you stay informed, while the “eat well everywhere” initiative allows you to plan an entire trip around where and what you eat. Additional postings of local events, regional guides and links to articles and recipes of interest are also offered.
As for the locally minded among us, groups of certified farmers are turning up everywhere and local farmers’ markets can easily be found. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is also becoming more important to consumers. 4 CSA is a group of individuals who support a farm’s operations in order for the farmland to be the community’s farm. The individuals cover overhead costs and, in return, are “shareholders” of the farm.
When you visit a farmers’ market or local farm, don’t hesitate to ask questions. The farmers will respect your interest in their products, as they have a lot of pride in what they produce. Ask your farmer: “Is your farm certified organic? If not, do you use organic practices? (Earning organic certification is a lengthy and costly process that some family farmers can’t afford.) If your farm is not organic, do you use nonsynthetic pesticides? If you do use pesticides, do you practice minimal spraying?”2 If your farmer answers yes to any of these questions, then you’re likely buying from someone who is conscientious about the impact of his or her agricultural practices.
One locally focused online organization, Local Harvest (localharvest.org), truly embodies its slogan: “Real Food. Real Farmers. Real Community.” This site has much to offer – from finding local farmers’ markets to tracking down grass-fed meats to reading about the latest news in sustainable agriculture. If you can’t find what you’re looking for locally, use the online store to make your purchases. You can also search for CSA farms in your area, or simply find a local restaurant that supports these principles. Furthermore, if you’re wondering why or how to buy from your local community, you can visit foodroutes.org so that you don’t come up short of an answer when asked “where does your food come from?” The motivation behind these organizations is simple: buy fresh, buy local, but most of all, buy informed.
If at this point you’re thinking that using the Web as a tool for eating local and sustainable foods seems like somewhat of an oxymoron, keep in mind that the Internet is one of the most powerful ways to foster sustainable food movements and ultimately initiate social change. Destin Joy Layne, director of Eat Well Guide (eatwellguide.org), explains that: “Although it may seem the most unlikely of catalysts, digital technology is jogging our memories of real food and agrarian culture. We may be going back to the land, but lots of us are bringing our smart phones and laptops along.” Sustainable Table’s recent book, Cultivating the Web: High-Tech Tools for the Sustainable Food Movement, elaborates on this idea.
Finally, if you’re feeling inspired at this point and are ready to go fast in the direction of conscientious and sustainable food-buying, why not go slow instead? Slow Food (slowfoodusa.org) is an international organization with chapters that span the globe, all focused on the same mission: “Slow Food is an idea, a way of living and a way of eating. It is a global, grassroots movement with thousands of members around the world that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment.”5 Visit Slow Food USA’s Web site to learn how to slow down with similarly focused people in your area.
So whether you take it fast or take it slow, remember to take it responsibly. We inhabit a world of many nonrenewable resources, and we all would do well to support our food providers (local, organic or otherwise) by taking it upon ourselves to put smart food on our plates.
1 Gold, Mary V. “Organic Production/Organic Food: Information Access Tools,” USDA National Agricultural Library. nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/ofp/ofp.shtml, June 2007.
2 “50 Easy Ways to Eat Green,” Bon Appétit. February 2009.
3 “What Is Sustainable Agriculture?” Sustainable Table, sustainabletable.org/intro/whatis/.
4 “Community-Supported Agriculture,” USDA National Agricultural Library. nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/csa/csa.shtml#intro.
5 “What Is Slow Food?” Slow Food USA, slowfoodusa.org/index.php/slow_food.