Thursday, June 21, 2007

local vs. organics, round two

A recent post about organic and/or local produce drew this comment about another certification option:
...Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), a certification program created in 2002 specifically for farmers who grow organically and sell locally but may not have the time and/or money to pursue USDA Organic certification. Certified Naturally Grown is designed to supplement the agri-business focused National Organic Program by recognizing small, local, organically committed farmers for their sustainable practices and giving customers assurance that CNG farmers adhere to specific, publicly-documented standards.
Certification through our program requires an application process, an annual inspection, and publication on our website of documents signed by the farmers and their inspectors. Certified Naturally Grown bases its standards on the National Organic Program, but improves on these standards where necessary (particularly with respect to livestock living conditions and access to pasture).
Currently almost 500 farms in 48 states are Certified Naturally Grown. CNG is a private, independent, non-profit grassroots effort that runs primarily on free-will donations from farmers and supporters, it's nationally recognized and endorsed (, and it is a legitimate alternative to the "non-local certified organic vs. local non-certified” conundrum.
Meanwhile, the May/June issue of Eating Well features an interesting article comparing and contrasting organic and conventional agriculture, particularly with regard to the impact of pesticides on food safety. Cited are a number of other organic certification alternatives, including
...Food Alliance, an Oregon-based group that has created its own alternative certification program for farmers committed to sustainable agricultural practices.
Part of the impetus for creating local certification bodies is a practical one; certain heirloom strains of apples and tomatoes, the article points out, are extremely susceptible to pests that require management practices off limits to organic farmers. Other farmers, like the ranchers behind Food Alliance, reject the kinds of compromises that overly strict organic regulations can occasion:
Doc Hatfield, a veterinarian by training, [explains], “We’ve got 14,000 acres of our own, but our cattle also range over land maintained by the Bureau of Land Management, and the BLM sometimes uses pesticides to clear weeds away from the roadside.” For that reason, his cattle can’t qualify as organic. But the Hatfields have come to believe that letting the animals roam over as much land as possible is more important to their health—and contentment—than restricting them to organic acreage.
Still others ask the kinds of questions raised by environmental journalist Michael Pollan in Omnivore's Dilemma and elsewhere about what organic labels mean when they are applied on a large, commercial scale. From the EW article again:
...a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group called the Cornucopia Institute reported in April that at least some organic milk sold by a major nationwide brand comes from industrial-style dairy farms with thousands of cows who are kept confined rather than being allowed to graze. Wal-Mart, meanwhile, recently announced that it will double its organic produce offerings—sparking new worries that the original notion of organic farming as small and local has been lost to big business.
I'm worried about all these certification tiers. I think that all or most--even the federal organic guidelines--are designed with the best of intentions, and provide important information to consumers in the absence of direct contact with producers. The danger, though, is that faced with a dozen different virtuous-sounding labels, a lot of people are going to get confused, and then cynical.

My guess is that the organic standard will soon really only be meaningful at the national level (when choosing between oranges, for instance, all of which are raised far outside of my foodshed), and as a gauge of the relative nutritional value (as in EW's focus on pesticide residues) of items within a category. For all the things that I eat that can be produced closer to home, meaningful choices are going to require a correspondingly closer look at the standards applied. Really, though, I'm back to the same realization that I made a few weeks back when trying to figure out what my food goal for the summer should be: it's only once I've completely adopted a locavore lifestyle that I need to worry too much about the relative merits of this apple vs. that one. And that's still a long way off.

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