local v. organic: the complex landscape of sustainable food production

3 Mar
organic kale sprouts

Organic greens sprout at Los Poblanos Organics in Mesilla, NM.

When examining food production, there are three identifiable areas of concern: health impacts, environmental impacts, and ethics. These are all, of course, interrelated. However, when faced with the daunting task of honestly examining food production, it’s easier to take one topic at a time. I talk a lot about the health impacts of our dietary choices in some of my other posts, and I discussed ethics in a recent post as well. So now let’s look at the environmental impacts of food production, specifically as they relate to sustainability.

Humans experience life through contrast. We tend to simplify the grey areas of complex topics into black and white whenever we can; our minds automatically distill muddied waters into crystal-clear solutions, even when none exist. When confronting the issue of sustainable food production, many a well-intentioned activist has been caught up in the following false dichotomization:

Which is better – buying local produce, or buying certified organic produce?

If there is one thing I have learned thus far in my wellness odyssey, it’s that food is NOT simple. There are no simple answers. Humankind has entrenched itself deeply in an unsustainable system of feeding its ever-growing population. How do we feed billions of people without destroying our health and our environment? Is it even possible?

Many of the perceived solutions address only part of the problem. For example, America’s organic certification system does nothing to address worker safety or transportation inefficiency. And, according to a 2008 Mother Jones article, many certified organic produce operations buy manure fertilizers from feedlots, which are the antithesis of sustainable food production. Many of the hormones and antibiotics used in commercial beef production are present in the cows’ manure, and this then is added to “organic” fields to fertilize crops. Thus, the current organic certification system only alludes to the original motivation behind the movement, which was to create a sustainable and low-impact method of food production. Adhering to the letter, but no the spirit, of the law.

As the demand for organic produce increases, organic farmers are faced with the dilemma of satisfying demand while keeping costs down; the same dilemma, incidentally, faced by industrial farmers. So, just like industrial agribusiness, the organic sector cuts corners to cut costs.

Furthermore, the organic production sector currently only covers about 3% of food production, according to the Mother Jones article. Increase this model to feed the ever-increasing 6.7 billion people currently on the planet, and we are presented with a major land defecit. If we wanted to provide the world with organic food, we would need 2 to 3 times the amount of farmland currently available – which means knocking down more rainforests and taking over more wild land for farms.

And now, of course, there is the renewed debate over organic farming and genetically modified (GMO) crop cross-pollination, thanks to recent approval by the USDA of GMO industrial crops likely to cross-pollinate with nearby organic operations.  Since USDA organic regulations require organic farms to be free of GMOs, it is feared many formerly organic operations will become “mostly organic,” with a percentage of their crops including GMO varieties due to cross-pollination.

Why does the GMO debate matter? According to the Food & Agriculture Organization, “The main food safety concerns associated with transgenic products and foods derived from them relate to the possibility of increased allergens, toxins or other harmful compounds; horizontal gene transfer particularly of antibiotic-resistant genes; and other unintended effects.” Furthermore, the FAO reports that the potential impacts of GMO crops on the environment have generally not been subjected to regulatory controls. Studies have shown organisms found in GMO crops like alfalfa and sugar beets may cause miscarriages in livestock. Various other health problems have been tenuously linked to GMO crops, prompting many consumers to boycott GMO products.

The GMO bottom line: nobody is really sure what the long-term effects are on health and the environment, and many people are unwilling to take that risk.

organic chickens free range

Free range chickens enjoy the sunshine at an organic operation in Radium Springs, NM.

So maybe organic certification is not the answer. Surely buying local produce from farmer’s markets must solve our food woes?

Maybe not. Again, focusing on the transportation benefits of local food production is oversimplifying the wider problem, according to a 2008 Carnegie Mellon finding. “Our analysis shows that despite all the attention given to food miles, the distance that food travels is only around 11% of the average American household’s food-related greenhouse gas emissions,’’ said Christopher L. Weber, a Carnegie Mellon research professor.

Furthermore, increased urbanization necessarily dictates that local food production is not always feasible. Again, the 2008 Mother Jones article addresses this pitfall:

The reality of 21st-century America is that food demand is centered in cities, while most arable land is in rural areas. What open land remains around cities is so expensive that it either is out of reach for farmers or requires that farmers focus on high-end, high-margin products with little utility as mainstream foods. Thus, although there is great potential to increase urban agriculture (as we’ll see in a minute), urbanites will always depend on rural areas for some of their food—especially given that by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in or near cities.

Conversely, rural areas with good farm potential will always be able to outproduce local or even regional demand, and will remain dependent on other markets. “One farmer in Oregon with a few hundred acres can grow more pears than the entire state of Oregon eats,” says Scott Exo, executive director of the Portland-based Food Alliance and an expert in the business challenges of sustainability. “Attention to the geographical origins of food is great, but you have to understand its economic limits.”

Lastly, if we are to accept a definition of sustainable agriculture as one that provides continuing food security for the world’s poor, long-distance transportation is a necessity. Regions like sub-Saharan Africa, and resource-poor nations like Haiti will depend on the fertile soils of the American Midwest and other surplus-capable regions to satisfy their food demands.

The article posits that to truly obtain a sustainable agricultural model, we will need to broaden our standards of sustainability beyond the status quo. Vertical farming is one possibility, as is rooftop gardening and other urban food production techniques. And instead of demanding the elimination of all chemical fertilizers, it may be more prudent to establish farming techniques that render the use of such fertilizers less necessary.

The truth is that there may be no way to fix the system. The growth of the human race could simply have outpaced the planet’s capability to provide food in a sustainable manner. Time will tell. But one thing is certain: nothing will change until consumers are educated properly about food issues, and are inspired to care about how their diets affect their health and the environment.

Fine… so our food system might be completely messed up for quite a while. And so we come full circle. What can we do in the meantime to decrease our dietary impact? Local? Organic? Both?

While solving the world’s food crises might be overwhelming, and the solutions are not as simple as a checklist, we can do a few things to help.

First: plant a garden. Even a small one in pots on your apartment balcony. Grow a tomato plant or some herbs. It helps. Really.

Second: get to know your local farmers. I’ve connected with more than ten local food producers for this project, ranging from organic free-range to industrial farmers. When you can physically visit the places your food comes from, you can better make informed decisions about what to put in your body. Farmers are not the enemy. As one industrial farmer told me, “People don’t understand that the soil is our livelihood. It feeds our children, too. Why would we want to do anything to destroy that? We try to be good stewards, but we also have to put food on our own tables.”

Third: STOP eating so much meat and dairy. I know it’s inconvenient to forgo that Sunday meatloaf or that pile of cheesy fries, but… seriously, folks. Those same Carnegie Mellon researchers mentioned above write, “The authors suggest that eating less red meat and/or dairy products may be a more effective way for concerned citizens to lower their food-related climate impacts. They estimate that shifting to an entirely local diet would reduce the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions as driving 1,000 miles, while changing only one day per week’s meat and dairy-based calories to chicken, fish, or vegetables would have about the same impact. Shifting entirely from an average American diet to a vegetable-based one would reduce the same emissions as 8,000 miles driven per year.” Not to mention all of the health benefits you get from decreasing your meat and dairy intake. (Of course, I always advocate that you eat only ethically raised poultry, and fish is another matter to be discussed at a later date. Eating more vegetables is best.)

Fourth: remember that change comes in baby steps, and any change is better than none. Even if you just give up meat and dairy on Wednesdays, or if you shop once a week at the farmer’s market, or if you buy organic products at Wal-Mart, or if you write to Congress about USDA regulations… it will make a difference. Most of us aren’t innovators or trained agricultural scientists. We are not equipped to affect large-scale change or come up with new methods of food production. But if we choose to support the least harmful of the available “evils,” so to speak, we will send a message that consumers want change. We vote with the almighty dollar, my friends.


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