Is Local the New Organic?
As we celebrate National Farmers Market Week, August 3-9, 2014, I wanted to visit the question of local vs. organic. The Janesville Farmers Market is an all-local market, meaning that all farm products sold at the market must come from Wisconsin. Our farmers make this promise, and we reserve the right to do farm inspections if there is a question of the origins of the food. Farms do not have to be organic to sell at our market. You might hear people say that local is the new organic or that local trumps organic. Let’s explore the reasons why this might be the case.
There can be some confusion between the terms local and organic, maybe coming from the fact that the local food movement and the organic movement started alongside each other. Only 100 years ago, the terms local and organic were not widely used for food choices. At that time, nearly everyone had a close connection to the land, whether they were growing some of their own food or buying from local farmers. Foods that were imported from other countries or even other parts of the United States were available, but not in the way they are now. Industrialization brought us better mechanization, seed hybridization, refrigeration and transportation along with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. These changes allowed farmers to grow crops on larger parcels of land and ship them greater distances. After World War II, pesticides and herbicides, as well as nitrogen fertilizers really took off as war-time chemicals and factories were converted to agricultural use. The organic farming movement sprang up alongside these changes out of concern for their negative effects. Local farmers’ markets were part of the organic movement, which placed a high value on local food and sustainability. As the movement grew, it became necessary to have a definition and a set of standards that would define organic. Food miles and farm size were not included in that definition. Today the term organic can apply to farms both big and small that meet certification requirements. This means that today’s customers have to make difficult choices.
Studies show that the number of people buying organic produce is on the rise. Consumers give a variety of reasons for choosing organic foods, including nutrition, safety, avoiding genetically modified organisms and caring for the environment. Unfortunately, as consumer demand increases, larger companies are tapping into the organic food market. This leaves educated consumers wondering if they should go to the grocery store to purchase certified organic produce that may have come from a large corporation in another country or state, or do they want to choose instead to support a local farmer who may not be certified organic. The answers are not always simple and involve more than just a consideration of the miles that your food has traveled.
The original organic farming movement has been promoting local farmers and farmers’ markets for at least fifty years. Sadly, many local family farmers have already sold their land as cities sprawl and prices paid to those who grow our food have not increased on pace with inflation. With more people buying their food from various grocery chains, the prices paid to farmers have become increasingly controlled by large corporations (For example, one out of every four grocery dollars in the US goes to Walmart, giving them unprecedented purchasing power and control of prices.) Farmers are making a smaller percentage of every grocery dollar even though their input costs have gone up. The local food movement is one way that consumers can choose instead to spend their grocery dollars in direct support of farmers and the local economy.
Proponents of local over organic will tell you that while third party certification is very useful when produce is being grown on a large scale and shipped great distances, many local farmers use practices that would meet or even exceed organic standards. Instead of costly certification, they prefer to build a relationship with their customers. At a farmers’ market, you can talk to the farmer directly. You can pick up a carrot and ask how that carrot was grown. What natural or chemical inputs did the farmer use? Did he or she use compost to help build soil structure and improve the nutrient profile of the food? Is the carrot an heirloom variety or a newer hybrid? This kind of face to face interaction is good for both farmers and consumers.
As manager of a farmers’ market, I can say that the number of customers requesting organic food is growing. “Which farmers are organic?” is a question that I hear almost weekly. I respond by offering a list of farmers that includes those who are certified organic, those who are in the process of obtaining organic certification (transitional) and those who ascribe to “all natural” growing methods. I always encourage customers to ask the farmers themselves because local growers use a variety of sustainable practices. These kinds of conversations are an important part of learning and connecting to our food sources.
When you add in the taste and nutritional benefits of fresher food, local usually wins again. With standard grocery store produce, weather and seasons have very little impact on availability. Most of the varieties of produce sold in supermarkets are chosen for their keeping qualities rather than their nutritional value. Local eaters quickly learn that there are multiple varieties available of each fruit and vegetable. Of course, they also learn that produce availability changes with the season. Eating in accordance with seasonal availability definitely has its pros and cons. Today’s shopper is accustomed to very consistent produce availability. Certainly as the local food movement grows, more and more farmers are able to extend their growing seasons through the use of hoophouses (unheated greenhouses) and other methods. Some season extension methods, such as cold storage, hydroponics and heated greenhouses can narrow the availability gap but may also be a consideration in the taste profile and nutritional value of a food. For the most part, however, we know that most produce looses flavor and nutrients over time, making a farmers’ market tomato that ripened on the vine and was picked just two days ago the clear choice over a store-bought tomato that was picked unripe in order to be shipped to a warehouse and eventually sit in a grocery store.
As you can see, the choice between local and organic is complex but worth considering. Certainly people who care about food have ample reasons to purchase as much as possible directly from local farmers. Besides the obvious nutritional benefits of fresher food, choosing to spend your grocery dollars at a local farmers’ market or even a roadside stand will contribute to the local economy and encourage more farms to stay small and stay in business rather than the other business model of get big or get out. Those of us who are concerned about the impact of farm chemicals and genetically modified seeds are able to share those concerns directly with our farmers and hear their reasons for choosing various options on their own farms. As time goes on, we learn more about the real people who grow our food and the complicated choices they face every day in order to stay competitive on a smaller scale. We help inform those choices with our own thoughts and ideas and especially with our food dollars. Most importantly, we are spending our food dollars locally and helping to make sure that local food and farms will continue to be here for years to come. In these ways, local really is the new organic.
Goetz, S. J. and Swaminathan, H. (2006), Wal-Mart and County-Wide Poverty. Social Science Quarterly, 87: 211–226.
Dumas Y, Dadomo M, Di Lucca G, Grolier P. Review. Effects of environmental factors and agricultural techniques on antioxidant content of tomatoes. J Sci Food Agric. 2003; 83: 369–382.
About Farmers’ Markets, a summary of the impact of farmers’ markets on farmers, jobs and the local economy: http://farmersmarketcoalition.org/education/qanda/