Local or Organic? A concrete answer from a few experts.

 Photo from Donna Cleveland | flickr.com

Photo from Donna Cleveland | flickr.com

It’s a loaded question that anyone who reflects on their food purchases has asked, with lots of factors that a good answer needs to draw upon. The main answer that came out of Fresh City Farm’s “Local or Organic” panel is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. To find your personal solution, you’ll need some serious recommendations and information from a few people who dedicate their lives to local and organic food.

The real problem arises from a disconnect in our food system. It can be difficult to align our values with the food choices available in our area. Buying delicious strawberries from California in Canada the middle of February is a rather commonplace activity and doesn’t seem to immediately go against any of our core values. But upon serious consideration, we realize that when we buy strawberries that were grown with harsh pesticides, we are supporting agricultural practices that degrades the environment. Although we may never personally see the habitats polluted of this damage, we know they exist. We may also forget that these strawberries traveled a long journey to arrive in our grocery stores, and although we may not support the expansion of the tar sands in Alberta, we are perpetuating the necessity for the continued acquisition of these fossil fuels by purchasing strawberries that drove or flew thousands of miles. These warnings aren’t written on the box of strawberries like the warnings on a cigarette box, but they lurk just underneath the surface, ready to be probed by a thoughtful customer. It is due to the increased consideration of buyers that the movement towards organic foods and local foods has continued to grow.

These ideas was adeptly pointed out in the panel on February 20th in Toronto, hosted by Ran Goel, founder of Fresh City Farms. Panellists included Jennifer Pfenning of Pfenning’s Organic Farm; Jodi Koberinski of the Organic Council of Ontario, and Don Mills of Local Foods Plus. Each panellist brought unique, hands-on experience to the discussion and was armed with some great advice.

It began with an opening statement from each panellist outlining his or her role in the local and organic food systems in Ontario. Although each has a different role, their primary goal tends to align: the Ontario food system needs to be put back into the hands of the eaters, who can make educated decisions about what they want from their farmers and from the food that they are feeding to their families.

The first question was directed towards each panellist: Why and when is it important to buy local or organic, and should people pay more for it?

Mills began by noting that this isn’t an all-or-nothing movement. It is crucial, he thinks, that people understand that thinking consciously about your food is important (he even noted that he’s excited when anyone is thinking about their food choices at all), and doing what you can to align your purchasing habits with your values given your resources is really what this movement is about.

Koberinski’s recommendation is another question: “Rather than asking why organic is so expensive, we should be asking why is the other stuff so cheap?” She implies that there should never be a time when we aren’t buying or at least trying to buy organic.

Pfenning then chimed in, remarking that when people buy organic foods, or foods from a local farm where they know the farming practices, it is to their own advantage because the food is produced using healthy practices (or at least practices they are aware of) by people who are really putting care into the food they make – for the sake of community and the environment, rather than profit.

Although extremely encouraging, the opening statements didn’t exactly delve straight into the facts. That detail came later, and it’s all worth sharing. Here are the key points: 

Local

  • Buying local means putting yourself back into the equation and having influence over who you give your money to and what agricultural practices you support with your money.
  • It's helpful to remember that when you buy local, you put money directly back into your region’s economy rather than sending your money somewhere that you’ll never see the benefits.
  • Government support for local, small family farms isn’t there yet – the best way that you can support them is with your dollar.
  • Loblaws, one of Ontario’s primary grocers, carries only 30% “local” products (local in their case pertaining to products from all over Canada).

Organic

  • Organically farmed food takes 50-60% less energy to farm (when it’s still on the farm, not necessarily after it’s traveled to your grocery store).
  • Not all non-organic food is the same – it can be classified using the Cornell EIQ equation which classifies pesticides based on how harmful they are.
  • When it comes to genetic engineering (a common practice in lots of non-organic agriculture), we really can’t say how harmful it is, because we don’t know what the effects will be in the long run – on the environment or on our bodies.
  • Organic farming often takes more labour; when looking into buying organic, if labour issues are important to you, it is advisable to research the labour practices of your chosen organic farm.
  • The longer your food chain, the greater your food-waste. In other words, if food travels from an unknown farm in Mexico, much more of that has been wasted on the journey (along with unknown waste on the farm itself) than would be wasted at a local farm who tries to use all their produce in some manner (like Pfenning’s farm).
  • Buying organic from anywhere has a smaller environmental impact (based on chemicals emitted and fossil fuels consumed) than buying non-organic in a local area when the non-local food is driven, not flown to your location.

Based on all of these facts, it is clear to see that either decision you make is helping in some fashion. It is difficult to say exactly which is “better,” because that is largely based on the issues that are important to you, (pollution, fossil fuels, labour, local economy, etc).

Another issue that arose in the discussion is that organic and local foods often cost substantially more, a fact understood by the panellists. However, the undertone of the ensuing discussion is that a change of mindset is needed to help deal with this issue. If individuals are willing to make the effort, Koberinski explains, then it can work. The solution is to put more value on our food choices – if we place substantial importance on what we choose to eat and what environmental practices we choose to support with our food purchases, then allocating more money to this cause makes sense.

There is one extremely simple way to help subsidize this cost, but it requires a little compromise. Buying mostly in-season fruits and veggies means that it costs less for the farmers to grow or store them, and therefore you pay less. This means that you may have to sacrifice exactly what you want, but that’s not to say that winter produce isn’t just as nutritious. With a little effort, incorporating veggies and fruits grown in any given season a little closer to home can become easy and help save substantial amounts of money. 

In a perfect world, we would all have the money, opportunity, and drive to buy both local and organic foods every time we purchase food. But this isn’t always the case. That’s why the answer to the ever-present question is one that you must determine for yourself. If you have the means and opportunity to purchase organic and local, there is no reason why you shouldn’t try to practice this frequently. But for most of us, simply putting in the effort to think about food purchases, and trying to buy either local or organic (or both) whenever we have the chance is all that the three panellists ask. It is up to you to determine what combination fits best for your lifestyle, while always focusing on personal improvement. 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Jenny Lugar is a recent graduate of Acadia University, living in Toronto. She loves farmers markets, running, chai lattes and traveling and will be pursuing a Masters degree in Environmental Studies beginning in September.