Tuesday, June 12, 2007

the organic/local food conundrum

I take a hobbyist's approach to many of my greatest passions--something I ought to discuss with a skilled therapist, perhaps--but lately, I have no trouble finding confirmation of their relevance in the daily news cycle.

While the mainstream media often discusses local and organic foods as if the two were in competition with each other--or suggests that the choice to buy one's food from anything but a supermarket stocked with the products of conventional agriculture is most basically a romantic one, as Time magazine does here--there may be even more reason for consumers to question the significance of their choices if the USDA continues to relax organic standards. I share grocery industry analyst Kevin Coupe's rejection of such actions, even in the face of the complications he acknowledges, like the shortage of organic feed crops relative to rising demand for organic dairy products. If giants like Anheuser-Busch want access to the lucrative organic market, they should be the ones funding the full conversion of their suppliers to legitimate, 100% organic farming practices. Smaller producers are doing it.

And, if we apply the analogy a little more personally, if the wealthier citizens of the wealthiest nation on earth want access to quality food, we have to be willing to put our dollars into the farmers and systems that can deliver it to us. And we have to use our brains to navigate the choices we may encounter along the way.

I had an interesting conversation about this the other day with my brother-in-law, a Denver area chef. His wife's family owns and operates a crop and dairy farm in southern Missouri. While still not convinced it is worth it for him to go for organic certification, B's father-in-law routinely pastures his dairy herd and is committed to many of organic farming's basic aims. It might make more sense both from an environmental and an economic perspective for consumers in the Ozarks to buy their milk from this or a similar local family farm than from a big organic producer like Stonyfield, which is located in New England.

An earlier draft of this post ended with a chirpy story intended to show how the organic or local question is often a false dichotomy. I wrote about laying in a small supply of ground beef for my party on Saturday from the meat guy who sells his wares at our CSA pickup each week, and who I believed was both a local and organic farmer. Make no mistake; the beef was good. One guest came up and asked me what we'd done, because that was about the best burger he'd ever eaten. That inspired th'usband to make a funny about my "college-educated cow meat," which I've gone on to repeat, smugly, several times.

But a conversation yesterday with the man also cited by the NYTimes for his incomparably delicious all-natural hot dogs revealed a stance very similar to that of my sister-in-law's dad in Missouri. Dines Farm is a 100% natural operation: that is, the cows (and lamb, pigs, chickens, ducks, and turkeys) are pasture raised on 120 acres without antibiotics or growth hormones, and their grass-fed meat is leaner and more complex in flavor than the cloyingly buttery corn-fed feedlot stuff. It is also fresh, very fresh: they have a processing plant on site, and do most of the cutting for the week on Tuesdays. But Dines is not an organic farm. "No need," said Mr. Dines. "I've got a top-quality product. I've been doing this for 20 years. But with 15 new plants going up to produce biofuels, the price of feed is already going through the roof, let alone certified organic feed. It would mean a lot of paperwork and a lot of expense, and it wouldn't make the meat any better."

Honestly, I was a little bummed to hear this. Like the well-trained, prestige-driven consumer that I am, I am drawn to the word "organic" on a label as to a favorite brand. But I'm going to use my brain here, as I exhorted everyone else to do just a couple of paragraphs back, and stick with Dines Farm meats. I'm persuaded of its quality and value, including its value for the community I live in and the reduction of our local dependence on fossil fuels. I do find that my confidence in the superiority of organic agriculture has clouded over a bit in the last couple of days, however, and for the first time I'm seeing the organic label as something of a gimmick.

If it is, then at least it's a gimmick I am happy to see succeed on a national scale. By all means, let big processed foods concerns pay for the right to stamp the word "organic" on their cheese doodles and salsa verde. Let Anheuser-Busch pour money into Yakima Valley to support the organic conversion of hops farms, and let Frank Purdue create a huge & compelling demand for organic corn. My freshly-minted feeling, though, is that until changes of this magnitude occur (and they can and should and will occur rather quickly, I do expect) to our systems of agricultural production, it is best for me to make a distinction between local and organic, and to choose local in every possible instance.

1 comment:

J said...

I enjoyed your article and think you bring up some important points. And I want to echo that the choice between organic and local is in some ways a false dichotomization of the issue. Alternatives to national USDA Organic certification do exist, and for the many small-scale farmers who farm organically or near organically but remain uncertified—similar to your brother-in-law and his wife's family farm—alternative certification might be viable and useful.

I work for 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 (http://naturallygrown.org/supportive-orgs.html), and it is a legitimate alternative to the "non-local certified organic vs. local non-certified” conundrum.

Hope you spread the news! There are probably a few farms (or farmer’s markets) in your area that would be interested in CNG. For more information about the program, you can visit http://www.naturallygrown.org.

Best,

Jivan Lee
Program Coordinator
Certified Naturally Grown
jivan@naturallygrown.org