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Local or Organic? I'll Take Both

Organic food is popping up everywhere these days, including the once-inhospitable shelves of chain supermarkets. Organic Rice Krispies and Organic Frosted Flakes now compete for prime retail space with their pre-organic cousins. Organic Oreos are due out soon, signaling agribusiness' final capitulation to the organic onslaught.

Photo: Organically grown produce at market
Locally grown beans at a market
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Consumer Reports tells us that nearly two-thirds of Americans bought organic foods and drinks in 2005. Organic foods sales have been expanding at a rate of 5 to 21 percent a year since 1997, compared with 2 to 4 percent for the overall food industry. Meanwhile, the price of Whole Foods Market stock has shot up like Jack's beanstalk. Since organic represents only 2.5 percent of the total food market, there's plenty of room to grow. And big business is hungry for the profits.

Good news, right? For years now, we've tried to buy organic, locally grown food—and, at last, the free market is giving us exactly what we want. Not so fast, say nutritionists and environmental activists, who warn that an overemphasis on buying organic could bring a host of unintended consequences. These critics caution that local organic growers, who practice a community-based agriculture system valuing small diversified farms and humane animal husbandry, are rapidly being edged out by "Big Organic" firms, whose business practices, fossil-fuel consumption, and focus on highly processed foods are indistinguishable from the industrial food system.

So what should concerned shoppers do?

The conundrum deepened last spring, when Wal-Mart announced its plans to add a thousand new organic products in all its stores and "democratize" them by charging only 10 percent more than it asks for comparable conventional foods. (Currently, consumers pay an average 50 percent premium for organic.)

The shiitake really hit the fan with food writers and small farmers issuing warnings that Wal-Mart's well-documented tactic of squeezing its suppliers to lower prices would further imperil and threaten the existence of small diversified farms and compromise the integrity of organic agriculture itself. "Wal-Mart will likely be buying from large farms, but that won't necessarily harm smaller farmers since their sales channels are growing too," Samuel Fromartz, a business reporter and author of Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew, told The Green Guide in a recent telephone interview.

As for the National Organic Standards that forbid the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and anything other than organic vegetarian feed for animals, "the drive to produce organic food cheaply will bring pressure to further weaken the regulations," wrote Michael Pollan, author of the delightful book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, in the New York Times Magazine in June. "It's hard to believe that the lobbyists from Wal-Mart are going to play a constructive role in defending those standards."

I found myself agreeing with Pollan's argument. But then I ran into my friend Donna, an editor at a mainstream magazine. "How can you know it's bad if it hasn't even happened yet?" she asked. "Isn't it a good thing if more people can afford to buy food with fewer pesticide residues?" Fewer pesticides is good, indeed. And although 20 percent of retail sales in the U.S. take place at Wal-Mart, consumers still have a choice and a role to play in what happens next. "You can make an impact," Fromartz says.

At the Union Square Greenmarket, which carries only food produced within 170 miles (274 kilometers) of New York City, I asked a few shoppers what they thought of the Wal-Mart news and whether, given a choice, they would prefer local or organic. By the Ronnybrook Farm Dairy table, which sells products from cows free of genetically modified growth hormones, Siobhan Fagan paused, holding the handlebars of a bike affixed with a laden basket. She said she shopped at the Greenmarket because she lived nearby and liked the relationship with the farmers. "I prefer to support local produce. It's better for the environment because it uses less fuel. And I don't want to give Wal-Mart my money," Fagan added. At the Hawthorne Valley Farm counter, Manena Frazier, pregnant and pushing her young daughter in a stroller, also mentioned shipping distance as a reason she chose local food. "I look for things that are not 'shallow organic,' things not made in a mass-produced way. Large farmers are pushing the limits of organic, pricing out smaller organic farms," Frazier said as her child took a big bite of a whole wheat bun spread with fresh organic cheese from a grass-fed cow.

The child's happy expression as she took another bite testified to the pleasures of freshness, taste, and feel. Sam Fromartz had said, "I raise the question in my book, as organic gets bigger, as it mainstreams, is it going to lose what gives the consumer a sense that the food is really different?" At another stand, Grace Darde appraised some bulging bags of spinach. "The big stores, I don't like the way they sell organic. There's too much water. It's as if there's no life in it anymore," Darde said of the greens she shops for. Nearby, Benjamin Heller was also buying greens. "I don't shop at Wal-Mart. I prefer small, neighborhood stores to big stores. I don't even think of local versus organic. I buy local—in season, in summer—because it's better, for the most part," Heller said.

There are no Wal-Mart stores in New York City, so it's arguably easy to say one doesn't shop there. Meanwhile, demand for local food is so great that this summer the Greenmarket, a project of the Council on the Environment of New York City, added 10 new farmers' markets, making a total of 45 throughout the five boroughs. Many of these new markets are sited in low-income neighborhoods that have had little or no access to fresh local foods, and some farmers are accepting electronic benefit cards, an ATM version of food stamps. Local food is a growing trend nationally, as well. From 1994 to 2004 the number of farmers' markets nationwide grew from 1,755 to 3,706, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Given the choice, I usually go local," Pollan told The Green Guide in an interview. "It often is organic, even if not certified, and you can always ask the farmer." (The cost of organic certification can also become burdensome for a small grower.) "Plus, local supports so many more values that I care about: preserving the agricultural landscape near where I live, keeping farmers in the community, and energy conservation," he said.

Pollan, however, agreed with Donna that the expansion of organic acreage to satisfy Wal-Mart's 4,000-store demand will benefit the environment and human health. "It's a good thing because organic will not be an elitist food—people will have access to it who never did before. And it will educate. Many people don't know what organic is," Pollan said. But then he struck a cautionary note: There's also "how they drive the price down to 10 percent above conventional food, which is itself already too cheap," he added, explaining that conventional food would be much more expensive if the environmental and health costs of pollution, soil depletion, and processed foods were included.

A Patchwork of Values

"Sometimes, though, local versus organic is a false choice—sometimes you can't find organic, or the local choice is bad," Pollan said. Fromartz argued that local and organic not only cannot but should not be mutually exclusive. For one thing, each represents such a tiny fraction of the food market. For another, in Organic Inc., he profiles a small southeastern Minnesota farm that sells locally, but also ships its tomatoes 600 miles (966 kilometers) to a Whole Foods distribution center in Chicago, to be sold at their stores throughout the Midwest. In other words, it's possible to do both.

In the "Big Organic" chapter of The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan criticized Whole Foods' "supermarket pastoral" signage that waxes poetic about small family farms and happy chickens and cows, while the reality is often the industrial feedlot rather than the pasture, and produce that "comes primarily from the two big corporate organic growers in California..." This resulted in an email exchange with John Mackey, Whole Foods CEO, in which Mackey vowed to let individual store managers do more business with local farmers, and to provide a ten-million-U.S.-dollar loan fund for small farmers. "I'm very impressed by the steps they've taken. Since Mackey's letter, I've talked with produce managers in a few Whole Foods stores and the rules of buying have changed," Pollan says. And, he pointed out, now that Wal-Mart has entered the mix, Whole Foods will "need to distinguish themselves from cheap organic. With local, they can."

Small farms can also distinguish themselves and are doing so, by delivering on values that go beyond organic. "Other concerns are coming into play and will be reflected in labels," says Fromartz.

For example, the Association of Family Farms is developing a new seal for food produced by small family farms. "Consumers are wanting to know where food comes from, rather than distance," says Fred Kirschenmann, Ph.D., an organic farmer and distinguished fellow at the Leopold Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. The institute is helping develop the seal with the National Farmers Union and the Food Alliance, which will serve as an independent third-party certifier that standards are met. Criteria will include environmental stewardship, humane animal care, fair labor standards, and ethical business standards. The new seal will provide "full transparency to bring food from farm to table with values consumers want to support," Kirschenmann says.

As shoppers, we're lucky. We're being courted by producers big and small, and we have a plethora of choices. From them, we can fill our baskets with foods from a variety of labels, farms, and retailers that reflect the colorful patchwork of farm fields. All we have to do is stay informed and follow our values as well as our own good taste.

What You Can Do

  • Think, but don't fret about what you eat. "It's difficult to eat 100 percent organic. There are trade-offs. If you buy salad mix from California, that's a lot of food miles, but a lot of acres in California aren't going to be covered in pesticides," Fromartz says.
  • See if you can eat more locally, especially in the season of abundance, from summer through fall. For inspiration, read the adventures of Sue Kiyabu, a Honolulu writer who, inspired by The Omnivore's Dilemma, resolved to eat nothing but food organically grown in Hawaii for a week—no small task in a state that grows only 25 percent of its food. See "No Shoyu. No Milk. No Bread. No Rice. The Gas-Saving, All-Organic 100-Mile Hawaiian Diet," available online.
  • It's harvest season. Go to a nearby farm and pick berries, apples, or pumpkins. And visit your local harvest fair..
  • Ask your local farmer how he farms and raises animals. "Don't ask, 'Are you organic?' That's the wrong question. Ask, 'What pesticides and fertilizers do you use?' They'll tell you," Pollan says.
  • Learn to separate marketing hype from meaningful words. "I'd encourage people to look beyond the language; read carefully," Pollan says.
  • Look for labels that reflect your values. Know which labels are meaningful.

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