Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

(NOTE: This is the first "review" of Diet for a Dead Planet, and it's long. All page citations come from this book. A review on another topic will follow later in the week.)

Some time back, the lovely Phoenix asked me which would be better: to buy food that is certified as organic but comes from far across the country, or to buy a similar item that is locally grown or produced but not organic.

It struck me as something of a dilemma at the time, and I wasn't quite sure of the answer myself. But after reading Diet for a Dead Planet and a couple of online articles, I think I have a better idea.

We've known for decades, even before the publication of Silent Spring, that the pesticides (and herbicides) sprayed on our crops were poisonous. Well, of course! -- that's how you kill the bugs and the weeds, right? It just took a while for people to realize, "oh, those chemicals might be bad for us, too." But even after such chemicals as DDT and chlordane were banned in the U. S., those chemicals still appear in our water, and they are now joined by a host of others because pesticide use has increased (up to 985 million pounds in 1997). (p.163)

Given that a variety of health problems and environmental hazards can be traced to the wanton use of pesticides and herbicides, it therefore makes more sense to buy organic foods exclusively, right?

Hold on. It's not as simple as that.

First, organically grown and produced food, though becoming more popular, still represents a very small percentage of the American food market, and its high cost (in the markets; it's still pretty reasonable when you buy directly from the farmers) means that for the most part, only middle- and upper-class citizens truly have access to it. (Grist recently had a good article, "Cost in Translation," on the topic of why organic food hasn't gotten cheaper; don't forget to read the comments.)

Second, more corporations and agribusinesses are hearing the increased demand for organic food, and they've jumped on the bandwagon. (For example, General Mills now owns Cascadian Farms.) And if you think that most corporations will approach organic farms any differently than conventional farms, you're as naive as I was when I picked up this book. The author puts it bluntly:

Large-scale monocrop organic farming is the most applicable model for corporations seeking volume and market share. Although this would be an improvement over conventional farming because it is less toxic, it still fails to sustain soils the way diversified agriculture does. (p.250)

Added into the idea of "more is better" promoted by agribusinesses is the fact that these large-scale organic farms can still be heavily dependent on migrant workers (thus raising questions of social justice -- are these workers treated fairly?) and long-distance transportation to markets (thus keeping the farming operations heavily dependent on fossil fuels and creating almost as harsh an impact on the environment).

So now you're thinking, so locally grown/produced food would be best? What if it's not organic?

And again, it's not simple, but there's an excellent (and brief) article from Natural Life magazine that goes into the question in some detail: "Eating Sustainably -- Which Is Best: Local or Imported Organic?"

Obviously, pesticides are still harmful, and if they're used on farms near your community, you have the option of talking with the farmers to see if they would consider reducing or eliminating their use of pesticides. They may not, depending on the type of farm they have, because they may be caught in an economic bind. On the other hand, if they are long-time farmers and long-standing members of the community, chances are they don't want to have to use the chemicals and might already be trying to get away from using them. (Maybe they're in the long process of converting to organic agriculture!)

Local farms top imported organic foods because the cost and energy expenditure of transportation is considerably lower. And supporting local, family-owned farms that practice diversification is the best way to ensure local food security. (You can find out more about the concept of food security from the Community Food Security Coalition.)

In an ideal world, we would have far fewer corporate monoculture farms concentrated in a few states -- and we would have far more local farms that choose

to "maintain strong organic standards and to promote agriculture that is local, small-scale, and family operated, biologically diverse, humane, and socially just." (p. 253)

I know I'm very lucky to live in a rich agricultural area that supports two local organic farms (and more in surrounding counties) -- and in a town with a thriving farmers' market where five months out of the year I can buy lots of locally-grown organic produce and freeze, can, or otherwise preserve the local bounty.

I shouldn't be "lucky." We should all have access to this kind of food security.

Ultimately... we need to make a fundamental shift in our priorities. We must put healthy, accessible, sustainably produced food at the forefront of our society's political and economic agenda. What could be more important for sustaining both present and future generations than providing good food in a manner that sustains not only its consumers and its producers but also the planet itself? (p.258)

And now I can put the pieces together from this book and from the novels of Daniel Quinn (Ishmael, The Story of B, and My Ishmael -- all worth reading): This "totalitarian agriculture" model of large-scale, corporate, monoculture farming that emphasizes profits over people does not sustain life.

It's time for a new vision, my friends.

Who will join me?


At 8/31/2005 5:08 PM, Anonymous Tina said...

Organic Style magazine had a reader letter in the last issue that asked the same question (imported organic vs local from their farmer's market), and they came to the same conclusion (local is better) for the same reasons mentioned in Diet for a Dead Planet. They also pointed out that many local farmers might technically be organic according to the standards, but simply haven't gone through the (long) process of having their farms certified, and suggested talking to local farmers to find out exactly what their practices are.

At 8/31/2005 5:13 PM, Anonymous Tina said...

P.S. Thanks for the review, sounds like a book I should pick up soon! And...

I will join you! Viva la revolucion de comida! (I think that's right...)

At 9/01/2005 8:12 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Your points are absolutely spot on... getting certified as organic takes at least three years and involves having everything at the farm be checked, including containers and fertilizer and some things you might not expect to affect the "organic" state of the produce. So yes, there are probably a lot of uncertified organic farms out there!

And welcome to the revolution! :)


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