I'm thrilled to be able to purchase organic produce at the supermarket now. Organic has gone mainstream, and that's how it should be. I believe that organic farming methods, which involve steps to improve soil health, minimize pesticide use, and avoid synthetic chemical sprays, are better for the environment while also producing fruits and vegetables that are more healthful for consumers. So I am happy that large grocery chains now offer organic produce.
However, at the risk of sounding like a "Negative Nellie," there's also a downside to the mainstreaming of organics. Before this "corporatization," most organic produce was grown on small, family-owned farms and distributed to consumers via farmer's markets and local natural food stores. Now, the organic produce you see is likely grown in far off places -- perhaps a huge farm in California -- and shipped cross-country, changing hands among distributors and truckers countless times along the way. Some would argue that this contradicts the orginal spirit of organic farming, the intent of which was to be sustainable over the long haul, and which usually involved some level of relationship between farmer and consumer.
You may have heard the term "sustainable agriculture," but what does it mean? In essence, it means putting as much back into the land as you take away, so that the land can continue producing indefinitely. Techniques include cover-cropping to add nutrients back to the soil to replace those harvested in crops, recycling nutrients by applying farm animals' manure to crop fields, and minimizing off-farm inputs. It also means minimizing the use of non-renewable resources, because by definition these resources are finite and their use cannot be sustained indefinitely.
Advocates of sustainable farming -- and sustainable living in general -- feel that our mainstream consumer culture is not sustainable: We are using up our non-renewable resources, especially fossil fuels. We are living on borrowed time, until the day that the earth's resources can no longer support us. Only by adopting more sustainable lifestyles can we conserve these non-renewable resources and expect our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to enjoy our high standard of living.
Is Organic the Same as Sustainable?
Advocates for organic farming and sustainable agriculture used to be essentially one and the same. By its nature, organic farming was sustainable, in that most organic farms were relatively small; they were required to use techniques that nurtured the land; and, notably, the produce was grown near where it was consumed -- economies of scale did not encourage long-distance shipping.
Now that agribusinesses have realized that consumers are willing to pay more for organic produce, market forces are prevailing. Large farms are converting to organic methods to take advantage of this trend and fill the demand. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, because that means huge farms are converting to organic methods. But something is being lost, too. Organic agriculture on this scale is not sustainable when it requires that food be trucked thousands of miles from farm to consumer.The fuel required is not renewable, and the process not sustainable over the long term.
The Importance of Local
The owner of a natural products shop once told me he was glad that he was going out of business, at least theoretically. "It means that the products I carry -- natural cosmetics, organic cotton clothing, and the like -- are now available in mainstream stores." Some might say that this applies to organic food, too. Now that large farms can fill the market's need for organic produce, maybe it's OK for small, family farms to throw in the towel. I'd argue otherwise, for several reasons.
1. It is risky to concentrate our food supply into fewer and fewer hands. Not even taking into consideration things like bioterrorism and the like, depending on farmers thousands of miles away to feed us doesn't make sense. Food trucked that far can't be at its freshest. Food is too essential to our well-being and our survival for us to be so far removed from its source. Local farms provide some measure of food security and guarantee the freshest possible products.
2. Recent rises in fuel costs should remind us that when food is grown far away, food prices will rise when fuel prices rise. Imagine what food will cost if fuel costs rise to what Europeans pay at the pump -- more than $4 per gallon right now. However, if we wait to support local farms until this happens, then it will be too late and those local farms will likely be gone.
3. Supporting local farms supports your local economy. Buy from your local farmer, and that farmer will, in turn, buy from the local feed store, who then might sponsor your childrens' baseball team, and so on. Strong local economies build strong communities.
4. When food production takes place far away, diversity is lost. At one time you could travel the country and enjoy regional favorites. More and more, we're seeing the homogenization of foods and the resulting loss of local specialties. Tomato varieties, for example, are grown as much for their suitability for shipment as for their taste. Apples are grown for their uniformity. When was the last time you saw a display of 'Mortgage Lifter' tomatoes or 'Sheepnose' apples at your local supermarket?
5. Farmland is attractive, and farms provide a means for people to make their living off the land. As more and more arable land is scooped up for development, it is imperative that we keep some of the remaining land in farms. Once it is developed, it is lost forever for the production of food.
6. Finally, by supporting local farms we return, at least in part, to "eating in season." Now that you can buy strawberries from South America at grocery stores in January, a little of the thrill of that first ripe May strawberry is lost. (Although some would argue that the mealy, tasteless January strawberries aren't deserving of their name.) Sadly, many people have never tasted a fresh-picked, sun-warmed, juicy, red strawberry. The same with other seasonal favorites -- asparagus, tomatoes, peaches, and sweet corn come to mind. Off-season, often insipid-tasting, plastic-boxed imposters are available year-round, but it's too bad that so many people think that's as good as it gets.
This summer, support your local farmers. At grocery stores, farmers' markets, and roadside stands, ask where the food was grown. When a fruit or vegetable is in season in your region, seek out local sources. Get to know the small farms in your area, and let them know that you are interested in their products. It takes a bit of effort, but it is well worth it.