The Organic Conundrum, or What About Local?

11/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


I have a confession to make. Until recently, my affection for all things organic was as much affectation as inclination; hazy remnants of my hippie days, as well as my generally liberal political leanings, seemed to dictate the necessity of relentlessly championing the inherent superiority of any and everything organic.

Then I decided to educate myself a bit, just so I could be reasonably sure. Man, is my head spinning -- talk about having your comfortable and facile assumptions turned upside down and round about. There are so many complex considerations, so many vastly differing viewpoints and "facts," so many passionate people urging mutually-exclusive choices -- I hardly know where to begin to make some sense of it all.

First off, I discovered that it's important to distinguish between "organic" the philosophy and "organic" the marketing label. "Organic" as a philosophy speaks to a worldview, a set of feelings about how man should relate to his immediate environment and the larger planet; "organic" as a marketing label has simply to do with a set of requirements and restrictions implemented by the government to provide a basis for consumer comparison and to prevent outright fraud.

Let's try to get a simplified picture of the marketing "organic." The basic requirements for organic labeling are these: avoidance of synthetic chemicals, genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and the use of sewage sludge; farmland that has been free of chemicals for a prescribed number of years; detailed written records; and periodic on-site inspections.

For single-ingredient foods (think vegetables, eggs, milk), when these conditions are met, the "organic" label may be used. For multi-ingredient foods, the labeling becomes a bit confusing: "100% organic" means just what it says; "organic" means that at least 95% of the ingredients are organic; "made with organic ingredients" means that at least 70% of the ingredients are organic. And now, let's complicate it further by noting that the USDA currently allows 245 non-organic additives in "organic" foods! You'll practically need a scorecard, and definitely your reading glasses, the next time you go grocery shopping.

"Organic" used to connote small and personal, but now it is big and impersonal business. One of the most telling indications of this is a comparison of statements on the USDA website, and how they have changed in a mere 20 years. Consider this from 1995:

Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony. ... What is organic food? Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.

Now consider this current "modification" on the 2009 website:

U.S. producers are turning to certified organic farming systems as a potential way to lower input costs, decrease reliance on nonrenewable resources, capture high-value markets and premium prices, and boost farm income.

Big business, indeed, with consequences for farmer and consumer alike.

But let's talk for a moment about "organic" as a philosophy, and this is where the discussion tends to get emotional and heated. It ties into the whole "green" movement, and suddenly becomes entwined with carbon footprints and sustainability and pollution of all sorts and the very way that people choose to live their daily lives. And there is no unanimity of discourse, no single-voice chorus of opinion and solution, to make our choices straightforward and clear.

Within the green community and the scientific community, consensus is about as likely as a snowball's chance in the hot place. Most can agree that ingesting pesticides is not a great idea, but beyond that it's chaos. Are organic veggies more nutritious? Depends on whom you talk to. Is organic asparagus flown in from Ecuador better for the environment than non-organic trucked in from the next county? That's iffy. If Wal-Mart is selling organic products, are we selling our "green" souls to big business? Some would argue yes, some would claim it spells salvation.

To me, the most intriguing aspect of the current debate has to do with "organic" versus "local." The rallying cry has always been "You are what you eat," but could it be that "You are where you eat," as well, in terms of considering the origins of your food, not simply the manner of production? This seems to be the latest twist in the ongoing discussion - does eating "local" trump eating "organic"? Are fruits that don't have to travel far and are thus picked closer to ripeness, more nutritious and delicious than organics that traverse the globe and consume resources in so doing? There is a growing clamor, from restaurateurs to food writers to scientists, of the answer "yes," and an equally emphatic group of environmentalists and advocates who trumpet the enduring and superior virtues of the organic movement.

So what's a fella to do? You know, there's just no way to reconcile all these conflicting opinions and studies and passionate discourses to accommodate them all -- and yet one must eat, and hopefully eat healthily and well. And as a private chef, I have a responsibility to my clients as well, to provide them with the best food and most current information I can, to better their health and enhance their culinary pleasure. I still absolutely believe in the virtue of going organic, despite the conflicting dynamics of the issues surrounding it these days.

So here's my take on the matter, for what it's worth: do what works for you, do what fits your life and times, do what you can.

Ideally, a mix of local and organic, with plenty of overlap between the two, will fit the bill. Your neighborhood farmers market is of course indispensable; and as you come to know your local purveyors, you can not only be confident about the foodstuffs they provide but you can feel closer to the actual source of your food -- and that can be so satisfying. And many supermarkets now identify the sources of their produce and meats, allowing you to make the local choice there as well. And as someone remarked, organic junk food is still junk food, so keep it clean and try to cook from scratch more often.

These are tiny steps, and don't even begin to encompass the overwhelming complexity of the "organic" issue. But we must begin somewhere, eh? And it's the small brush strokes in life that finally create the big picture. Buy organic. Buy local. Love your food, love the earth that provides it, love your family and yourself by paying attention and making the best choices you can.

Note: A version of this article appears in the September issue of Better Nutrition magazine.