by guest blogger Alberto Gonzalez, founder and CEO of GustOrganics.
For most people who think about what goes into the foods they buy, there is a question that constantly arises: Is it better to buy organic or local?
In America, the word "organic" is owned by the government, which means that in order to label a product "organic," it must be certified as such by an authorized third party. The United States Department of Agriculture/National Organic Program (USDA/NOP) has some of the strictest standards in the world, and when the USDA Organic logo is present, it means that a third party has audited the operation and the product meets all national requirements.
Organic food by definition cannot contain any chemicals, artificial substances, synthetic hormones, antibiotics, or GMOs (genetically modified organisms), also known as GE (genetically engineered). The program's thorough audits verify that organic integrity is maintained throughout the distribution chain--from the farm to the consumer. Today, less than 1 percent of the farmland in America is certified organic and organic food represents about 3 to 4 percent of the national food sales.
Local is a term used to describe proximity between a food's production and its consumption. Some people consider food local if it was grown within 50 miles of where they live. Others put the distance at 100 miles or 500 miles. And still others consider food to be "local" if it was produced within the U.S. On average, the food in America (even some organic foods) travels 2,000 miles. And freezing fruits and vegetables for long trips can deteriorate their nutritional value. So, being able to find food that is produced closer to home has advantages in terms of freshness. But the advantage of consuming local food goes way beyond freshness.
Carbon footprint is a major issue in our food system. It's estimated that 10 percent of the energy used in the United States every year is consumed by the food industry and it requires 7 to 10 calories of energy to produce and ship 1 calorie of food--not a very efficient system. Factory farms, which unfortunately, account for 98 percent of our agriculture, are extremely dependent on fossil fuel (oil). And the biggest culprit for fossil fuel use on farms isn't from transportation, it's from the artificial fertilizers and pesticides they use: 40 percent of the energy used to produce food on a factory farm comes from producing chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It's estimated that cultivating one acre of factory-farmed land requires 5.5 gallons of fossil fuels.
Organic food generally has a smaller carbon footprint than conventional food because organic farmers aren't using those chemicals. Still, even organic food is often shipped long distances, which increases its footprint. And, in order to have some organics on the shelves when they are not in season, they are often grown on land that requires intensive irrigation, which is not a very sustainable model. Small family farms need much less oil per acre to operate properly, which contributes to their smaller carbon footprint. And buying local is a great way to learn to eat with the seasons. However, as I always say, "terrible things can be done around the corner from our house." Unless we really know the farmer, it's hard to tell how much a local farmer is spraying chemicals or using heavy fertilizers to increase productivity, at the expense of our health. Local doesn't necessarily mean healthier--you have to know your farmer.
So, back to our question of organic or local? You have to ask yourself this: Do you know your local farmer? Do you know whether or not he or she uses a lot of chemicals? If you're not sure, then you have to decide what's more important, knowing that your food does not contain any artificial or chemical substances (certified organic) or being able to eat seasonal, fresh food harvested close to home with a smaller carbon footprint (local)?
I have three children, two of them are almost babies, and I am a firm believer that the chemicals, synthetic hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs used in growing conventional foods are very dangerous for them. So when we do not know the local farmer, we tend to go for organic. But the ideal situation is to be able to find food that's not only organic and local, but TRANSPARENT. It's the perfect marriage for a healthier and sustainable lifestyle. So, even though "local" and "organic" are words used to describe healthier food options right now, I think that "transparent" would be a more appropriate word to describe the food we want to buy. Transparency is important because it allows us to see more clearly the farmer's practices, values, and products so we can make more informed purchases.
Here's to transparency in our food system in 2012!
Alberto Gonzalez is the founder and CEO of GustOrganics, the world's first certified-organic restaurant using 100% organic ingredients, and one of the greenest and most progressive restaurants on the planet,www.gustorganics.com.
For more from Maria Rodale, go to www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com