Local, Organic, Sustainable, Conventional, Which One Means What Again?

Official seal of the National Organic Program

Image via Wikipedia

I talk a lot about local, organic and sustainable ingredients. After having several conversations with friends and family it occurred to me that not only had I never defined those terms on this blog, there is also a lot of confusion about what these words mean. So, let’s start at the top.

Local ingredients for me are anything grown in the Northeast. Locavores are people who eat a diet of only local ingredients defined by a mile radius limitation as small as 100 miles.

Organic:  Foods that are grown with environmental concerns, continuing soil quality, and health issues being the main focus. As most of us understand it, it is food that is grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides and the use of natural methods instead.

Sustainable:  Food grown in a system in which all of the resources used to make that food including but not limited to, soil, water, animal and human are used at their rate of recovery with the goal being continuing healthy production of foods for all involved.

Conventional: defined by UC Davis as: an industrialized agricultural system characterized by mechanization, monocultures, and the use of synthetic inputs such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides, with an emphasis on maximizing productivity and profitability. Industrialized agriculture has become “conventional” only within the last 60 or so years (since World War II).

On the surface all of these words seem to speak to the same thing, and in some ways they do. The language that we are developing to talk about the issue of our food environment is a growing and thus shifting one, and since these words are really only just entering our lexicon, they bear a slightly closer analysis.

Local is pretty cut and dry. What local can boast is a freshness that can’t be beat, as well as the satisfaction of keeping your dollars in your neighborhood and actually meeting the people who grow the food that feeds you. However, if you are trying to stay away from all conventional farming methods, local isn’t necessarily going to give you that. That’s where resources like these, come in handy, as well as simply asking the vendor.

Buying organic does not necessarily get you entirely away from either harmful chemicals or bad practices. Meat can be labeled organic as long as the animal was eating organic feed. That doesn’t mean that animal was frolicking outside with its herdmates, or even eating feed that was good for it, like cows eating grain and not grass. Findings on some of the organic pesticides suggest that they are not necessarily greener.

There is a category called beyond organic which is primary concerned with animals eating the food and living the life they were meant to thus benefiting not only quality of their lives before we eat them, but allowing us to reap the maximum amount of nutrients from them, which is certainly hard to argue with.

This leads us to slow food which is food that made only from local, seasonal high quality ingredients, and a worldwide movement started by Carlo Petrini in 1986, in direct response to a McDonald’s opening near the Spanish Steps in Rome. That essentially brings us to sustainable.

Sustainable farms are concerned with all of the elements that go into farming and the goal is continued healthy production. Sustainable farms reserve the right to use antibiotics to treat a sick animal, which frankly is what antibiotics were invented for, the treatment of the ill. Personally, I want people to treat their sick animals, plants and earth, but I want them to do it responsibly.

As consumers we put our faith (and as much as we don’t want to admit this next part) nearly blindly into the people who grow our food. Because we live in a society that runs on the division of labor, we trust that the farmers, food producers and the agencies that oversee them are doing what is best for us, since we all can’t be experts in everything. But as is now clear, this is not the case. Thus, labels, information and dialogue do give us a better chance of making food choices within the system of our individual priorities. Using myself as an example, since this is a blog after all, my two top priorities when buying food are local and sustainable. I want my money to encourage local farmers to keep growing and I spend it at places that are concerned with the welfare of their community. It is worth it for me to sacrifice some food pleasures in reaching for this goal. It is easy to get frustrated and bogged down by the labels just remember that they are tools for you to use to craft a healthier meal for yourself and your loved ones.

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