Thursday, May 18, 2006

Another Take on Local vs. Organic

There's a fascinating article (actually an excerpt from a new book) up at Grist today on an issue we've discussed frequently here: the local vs. organic conundrum. According to author Samuel Fromartz, though, there is no conundrum: it's a false choice. He makes a rather persuasive argument that either are a viable, responsible alternative, and that simply by building awareness of the issues surrounding food issues, we're taking individual steps forward that create a more sustainable food supply:
Which brings me to a final point: How we shop. Venues like Whole Foods are not fully organic because people are often unwilling to spend more than a small portion of their grocery budget on organic foods. It's too expensive. This is one reason why organic food accounts for just 2 percent of food sales -- 1 percent if you include eating out. Similarly, local foods, though important, total 1 to 2 percent. So arguing over local or organic is a bit like two people in a room of 100 fighting over who has the more righteous alternative to what the other 98 people are doing. It doesn't really matter, because the bigger issue is swaying the majority.

When I shop, visiting the Dupont Circle farmers' market in Washington on Sunday morning and then going to the supermarket, I make choices too. I buy local, organic, and conventional foods too, because each meets a need. Is the local product better than the organic one? No. Both are good choices because they move the food market in a small way. In choosing them, I can insert my values into an equation that for too long has been determined only by volume, convenience, and price. While I have nothing against low prices and convenient shopping, the blind pursuit of these two values can wreak a lot of damage -- damage that we ultimately pay for in water pollution, toxic pesticide exposure, unhealthy livestock, the quality of food, and the loss of small farms. The total bill may not show up at the cash register, but it's one we pay nonetheless.
In the end, Fromartz argues that making conscious choices about the food we buy makes the most difference: if we purchase foods that we know lessen the footprint of commercial agriculture, we've made progress. I think he makes many good points, and provides a path of action that we're all capable of following. The only element I might throw in (which he may well address in another part of his book) is the power wielded by the big organic companies, which we saw last Fall in the battle over organic standards. I suppose, though, that if we keep informed, there's only so much greenwashing that these companies can get away with... And I suppose this is ultimately more productive than the raving idealism I and others spout...

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