Gardening Articles: Health :: Health

Organic or Local?

by Suzanne DeJohn


I'm thrilled to be able to purchase organic produce at the supermarket now. Organic has gone mainstream, and that's how it should be. I believe that organic farming methods, which involve steps to improve soil health, minimize pesticide use, and avoid synthetic chemical sprays, are better for the environment while also producing fruits and vegetables that are more healthful for consumers. So I am happy that large grocery chains now offer organic produce.

However, at the risk of sounding like a "Negative Nellie," there's also a downside to the mainstreaming of organics. Before this "corporatization," most organic produce was grown on small, family-owned farms and distributed to consumers via farmer's markets and local natural food stores. Now, the organic produce you see is likely grown in far off places -- perhaps a huge farm in California -- and shipped cross-country, changing hands among distributors and truckers countless times along the way. Some would argue that this contradicts the orginal spirit of organic farming, the intent of which was to be sustainable over the long haul, and which usually involved some level of relationship between farmer and consumer.

Sustainable Agriculture

You may have heard the term "sustainable agriculture," but what does it mean? In essence, it means putting as much back into the land as you take away, so that the land can continue producing indefinitely. Techniques include cover-cropping to add nutrients back to the soil to replace those harvested in crops, recycling nutrients by applying farm animals' manure to crop fields, and minimizing off-farm inputs. It also means minimizing the use of non-renewable resources, because by definition these resources are finite and their use cannot be sustained indefinitely.

Advocates of sustainable farming -- and sustainable living in general -- feel that our mainstream consumer culture is not sustainable: We are using up our non-renewable resources, especially fossil fuels. We are living on borrowed time, until the day that the earth's resources can no longer support us. Only by adopting more sustainable lifestyles can we conserve these non-renewable resources and expect our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to enjoy our high standard of living.

Is Organic the Same as Sustainable?

Advocates for organic farming and sustainable agriculture used to be essentially one and the same. By its nature, organic farming was sustainable, in that most organic farms were relatively small; they were required to use techniques that nurtured the land; and, notably, the produce was grown near where it was consumed -- economies of scale did not encourage long-distance shipping.

Now that agribusinesses have realized that consumers are willing to pay more for organic produce, market forces are prevailing. Large farms are converting to organic methods to take advantage of this trend and fill the demand. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, because that means huge farms are converting to organic methods. But something is being lost, too. Organic agriculture on this scale is not sustainable when it requires that food be trucked thousands of miles from farm to consumer.The fuel required is not renewable, and the process not sustainable over the long term.

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