Hello rainforest, it’s me, organic

Does being local and organic make an eco-difference?

I like local produce: local pears, local wines, and ripe local tomatoes. I like buying from the folks who produced them. Maybe it can even put me in touch with the seasons. Those are good things, but buying local food does not imbue such commerce with environmental greenness. And buying organic, may be less green.

Agriculture could be defined as domesticating the labor of plants and animals to provide food for us. Humankind has used agriculture for 10,000 years. Today’s intensive agriculture uses synthetic chemicals and sometimes genetically engineered organisms; organic farming does not. You might think of organic farming as farming the way great-great-granddad did it.

Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and other advocates for buying local food (aka locavores) proclaim organic food production to be sustainable and better for the soil, with yields comparable to conventional farming. Forgoing industrial fertilizers and pesticides means less pollution. All of this, they say, makes organic food safer and healthier, for you and the planet.

Yet, locavore campaigns have begun taking on cult-like trappings, using food-miles as the yardstick for piety, and the organic label as the talisman of true devotion. According to locavore scripture, local food—with its fewer “food miles” for transport—takes less energy (thus less pollution) than “factory farming.”

“[W]hen we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases,” wrote Pollan. That local produce needs less fuel to get to market than something that had to be carted halfway around the world appears to be a no-brainer, but cargo trucks and railcars carry more than pickups and vans can, so their fuel cost per pound is often less. Nevertheless, farm-to-market fuel is a small piece of the farm-to-table energy pie with transportation accounting for only a 14 percent slice on average. Household storage and preparation of food uses more than twice that amount (32 percent). Thankfully, we don’t hear pleas for us to give up refrigeration and eat only raw foods to eliminate the energy costs of storage and preparation. Oh, wait. We do hear that.

Another study noted, that a dietary shift from red meat or dairy less than one day per week makes a greater difference: “Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%. Different food groups exhibit a large range in GHG-intensity; on average, red meat is around 150% more GHG-intensive than chicken or fish. Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than ‘buying local.’ Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”

To prove that organic farming’s yields are comparable, many proponents point to the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial which compared three methods: conventional, livestock-based organic, and legume-based organic. According to Rodale, yields for corn and soybean in these trials are “the same across the three systems.” Please note, the organic plots produced the same yield because they used extra land elsewhere for feeding animals to provide manure, or for the legume-based system, took the plot out of corn or soybean production and grew nitrogen-fixing legumes instead. Obviously, organic farming needs more land to grow sustainable yields for the world. Worldwide, crops require 80 million tons of nitrogen to feed our current population. Generating that amount of nitrogen organically would require about six billion head of cattle plus the land to grow feed.

Fossil fuels allow conventional farming to use less land than organic methods. “By spending not much energy to make fertilizer and run machinery — and trivial amounts of energy to ship the stuff we grow from the places it grows best,” writes Stephen Budiansky, a former editor of the scientific journal, Nature, “we have spared and conserved hundreds of millions of acres of land that otherwise would have had to be brought into agricultural production. That’s land that protects wildlife, that adds scenic beauty.” That means we spare wetlands, grasslands, forests, and rainforests from being cleared for agriculture.

“But,” you may be saying, “isn’t organic food healthier and safer than food grown using manmade chemicals?” According to the Mayo Clinic, “No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food. And the USDA — even though it certifies organic food — doesn’t claim that these products are safer or more nutritious.” The US FDA and Mayo Clinic are not alone. Here is what the UK’s Food Standards Agency says,”In our view the current scientific evidence does not show that organic food is any safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Nor are we alone in this assessment. For instance, the French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA) has recently published a comprehensive 128-page review which concludes that there is no difference in terms of food safety and nutrition. Also, the Swedish National Food Administration’s recent research report finds no nutritional benefits of organic food.”

I like our local, organic food; it tastes good, and good, hard-working, conscientious folks produce it. Yet, as the Roman philosopher Cicero might have said, “Res ea non est quae prandium gratuitum aquet.” (There’s no such thing as a free lunch.) Measuring food’s “greenness” by how many miles it has traveled, or the way it was grown, considers only two morsels of the seed-to-table menu. By all means, patronize farmers’ markets for the freshness and local experience, but let us stop fretting about the food we buy at the grocery store. Odd as it may seem at first blush, since poorer nations are often also food exporters, you may actually help people in the developing world when you buy food from the grocery store. Buying at Safeway, Ray’s and Shop Smart could actually be good for people and the environment!

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