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Imagine you’re standing in the produce section of your local grocery faced with a variety of apples. You want to make the best choice, for the good of your family, farm workers and the environment. Do you buy the organic Galas shipped from across the country or the Granny Smiths grown conventionally but locally?
The decision is not easy.
First, consider organic. Organic farming, because it shuns synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, is friendlier to the environment than conventional practices. And evidence is increasing that organic food is better for you.
Organic produce on average contains about twice the essential minerals of conventionally grown food, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Nutrition. And a University of Washington study found that children eating conventional food had six to nine times the pesticide exposure of children who ate an organic diet.
It is no wonder that consumers have made organic food the fastest growing sector of agriculture. Sales of organic food are rising by 20 percent annually.
But organic is not without problems. As organic sales have grown, organic farming has moved away from its small family-farm roots and is becoming industrialized. The organic carrots I buy at Wal-Mart were probably grown on a large scale, a system dependent on fossil-fuel mechanization, underpaid farm labor and imported organic fertilizers. How sustainable over the long run is the diesel tractor plowing up the soil? How fair are the labor practices? And the chicken litter fertilizer might be organic, but how far was it shipped before it was spread on the field?
This distance question highlights a problem of our entire food system, including organic: our love affair with airlifted, railroaded, tractor-trailored grapes in December or tomatoes in February. Often this produce comes from Mexico or Chile or some other faraway place, and its cheap price belies the waste of energy used to transport it to our tables.
"Eaters might begin to question the sanity of eating food more traveled than they are," quips Joan Dye Gussow, author of "This Organic Life". Noting that a calorie is a unit of energy, she says: "It costs 435 fossil fuel calories to fly a 5-calorie strawberry from California to New York."
The burning of fossil fuel to move food means more globe-warming greenhouse gases. My organic carrots from Wal-Mart might do my body good, but in eating them, I’m harming the larger body of our earth, and that ultimately circles back to everyone’s health.
Now consider locally grown food. It solves the problem of shipping food long distances. The Granny Smith from your nearby orchard only has to travel a few miles, in contrast with the 1,000 to 2,000 miles that most of our food travels from field to plate. And because of this short commute, local food — organic or conventional — is naturally fresher and tastier.
Another advantage of buying locally is food security. Today’s centralized system processes food in huge factories and moves products in large quantities, creating attractive targets for terrorists looking to contaminate as much food as possible. A decentralized system of small local farms and processors would be much harder to disrupt on a large scale.
Finally, buying local food means keeping our dollars circulating in our own communities.
So next time you are in the supermarket pondering the organic Gala or the local Granny Smith, consider how you might help create a food system that is both organic and local. Seek out a local farmers market or vegetable subscription service that provides a weekly bag of produce. Meet your local farmers this way. Encourage them to use organic methods and local sources of compost and other soil amendments. And seek out the small growers, who don,t have to exploit labor to gather their harvests.
If you enjoy quality food and a healthy planet, consider what you eat, where it was grown and how. Let’s choose both organic and local if possible, so we can begin moving our food economy in ways that benefit our health and the earth’s.
JIM MINICK teaches at Radford University in Virginia and also farms. A poet and essayist, his latest work, "Finding a Clear Path", will be published in 2005. Minick is a member of the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.