This week marks the third annual Organic Week in Canada. Events and promotions are happening from coast to coast in celebration of organic food and farming in this country.
As an organization promoting both organic and local food and agriculture, ACORN wanted to take this opportunity to provide a detailed response to a question we are often asked: is organic better than local or is local better than organic?
We summed up our response years ago when we developed our long-standing “Local and organic…better together!” motto, but even we recognize that a catchy slogan only goes so far in communicating the complexity of our food system.
The crux of the matter really is that “local versus organic” is a mismatched comparison. “Local” and “organic” have had the misfortune of entering the mainstream as separate concepts and then getting jumbled up into one, unclear concept. To clarify, local and organic are distinct food labels that deal with different aspects of the food chain – distribution and production, respectively. They both have their merits and their limits; one is not morally superior to the other.
“Local” indicates where food is produced, while also providing us with opportunities to better understand seasonal availability, benefit from eating more fresh foods, get to know our farming community, and support our local economies.
All of this is essential to rebuilding our food system, but it does not speak to how the food is produced. It doesn’t mention whether the food was produced with any synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), sewage sludge, antibiotics, or hormones – or whether it was produced in a way that emphasizes diversity, health, environmental protection, and humane treatment of animals. This is when the organic label comes in handy – one word communicates (with the guarantee of a third-party inspection to boot) that the food has been produced without any of those unnatural substances and in a way that promotes all those good things just mentioned.
While these clarifications are conveniently clear, they still do not address the fact that shoppers find themselves struggling to choose between local or organic. To borrow wisdom from Maria Rodale, author of The Organic Manifesto, “local is great but organic is better.” We prefer to view it as a “different but equal” situation, but her hierarchal thinking does seem to bring some clarity to such a complex issue. She goes on to explain, “Local chemical agriculture contaminates local communities. But local organic agriculture heals and cleanses local communities.” It raises a very valid point about relationships: while you may feel good buying local because it supports your community, it’s worthwhile to consider what impact the farm is having on your community beyond the economy. Are they feeding their livestock genetically modified crops, which threaten the future of food as we know it? Are they fumigating soils, effectively killing all soil life? Or maybe they’re giving their chickens medicated feed and thereby contributing to antibiotic resistance?
As Maria Rodale describes, “Organic AND local is the gold standard.” Not always achievable, but most definitely worth it in order to have a positive impact not only on our local economies, but also on our local environment and communities.
For further clarification on the benefits of local and organic, check out this resource developed by Canadian Organic Growers: Regain Control of Your Food Choices: Build Your Local Organic Food Strategy.