The Local or Organic Conundrum
Our ecological footprint has surpassed the Earth’s capacity. In 1999, Earth’s biosphere would have needed 1.2 years to regenerate what we used in one year, and by 2006 that number was up to 1.4 years. Meat consumption contributes largely to this dilemma – we consume so much meat that almost 74 percent of the world’s poultry and 43 percent of its beef was raised in factory farms by 2006 (Worldwatch Institute). What we eat has a large impact on the environment, but alternative approaches can ease the effects of our troubled food system.
Local and organic are two such alternatives that readily come to mind. But which is better? There are too many factors to allow a simple answer, but with a bit of thought we can make more sustainable choices when eating.
One of the biggest benefits of eating local is lowering the shipping impact of food. The average food item in America travels 1500 miles from the farm to the consumer. In comparison, most definitions of local food include food within a 100 to 200 mile radius (Wal-Mart defines local as “within state”). The transportation energy cost alone might be enough for some to choose local food – though arguments to the contrary do exist. Arguably the most cost-effective way to purchase local food is to buy directly from the farmer, at a farmer’s market for example. Doing so keeps money in the local economy and allows farmers to keep 80 to 90 percent of the money paid for the food, which is not true when purchasing from a corporate food manufacturer.
However, “local” simply refers to location and does not mean that food was produced with fewer synthetic chemicals, or that the animals were free to roam, or even raised on a small family farm. Buying food directly from the farmer allows you to ask questions about how the food was grown, which is a key benefit. With this access to information comes the limitation of seasonality: you can’t buy all types of produce all year round, which means that you have to eat seasonally, preserve food, revert to buying food at the grocery store, or a combination of the three.
One way that you can limit your chemical “foodprint” is to choose organic foods. Organic food is produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides or genetic modification. In the U.S., you can identify organic food by the USDA Organic label. Some pesticides used on conventional (non-organic) products have been linked to human health problems including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and developmental problems in children. In fact, long-term exposure to pesticides through the food system has recently surfaced as a cause for concern among many public health and environmental organizations. This is particularly troubling when we take into account that in some states as much as 97 percent of crops are sprayed with synthetic pesticides. Since most pesticides are persistent, they remain on the food long after crops have been sprayed. Studies have shown that plants and pests build resistance to prolonged use, raising questions about the long-term effectiveness of applying these chemicals.
Additionally, organic standards for animals require that no antibiotics or growth hormones are used and that the feed the animals eat is organic. However, the USDA does little to regulate the conditions the animals are raised in. In some cases organic beef comes from a cow raised in a factory farm, where animals live in crowded, unhealthy conditions. Organic regulations require that animals “have access to the outdoors,” but “access” does not mean that the animals can actually go outside.
The bottom line is that knowing where your food comes from and how it was produced goes beyond local vs. organic. For example, grass fed beef, whether it’s labeled “organic” at the grocery store or sold by a farmer at the farmer’s market, is usually a better option because of its healthier fat content and tendencies toward humane animal treatment, as well as adherence to higher agricultural standards. Growing your own food (organically if you can!) is also a great way to eat responsibly. Though the eco-friendly food choice might cost a bit more, it’s worth it if you want to take a step towards eliminating some of the negative impacts of our current food system and eat healthier.
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