Saturday, June 23, 2007

Organic Food Miles

Now that big corporations have become hip to the allure of "organic" food, it's not good enough to just pick "organic" at the store.

Some companies want the government to approve a list of non-organic ingredients they can use in their products and still maintain the "organic" label. Other countries are cashing in as well, meaning that "organic" mango you bought at the supermarket yesterday might have flown thousands of miles to reach you.

So now in addition to choosing between growing methods (organic vs. non-organic), consumers who care about the environmental impact of their eating habits will need to examine how far their "organic" groceries traveled. And knowing the country of origin may not be good enough. You'll need to know whether the products you buy were trucked overland, or shipped on a boat or by rail or flown air freight.

Of these, air freight is by far the most damaging to Planet Earth. But it may also be that produce traveling by ship from the other side of the globe has less of a carbon footprint than trucking that head of lettuce from the other side of the country.

Of course, you can eliminate all these complicated calculations and just buy food produced by one of your local farmers, perhaps sold at a local farmer's market. Or can you?

The Sustainable Table blog recently carried links in all of these areas. For instance, a recent Canadian study found that organic produce increasingly is being brought to market by truck, rather than more efficient rail or water transport. Organic mangoes were being shipped from Ecuador and Peru, rather than Mexico for conventional mangoes. Organic peppers tended to come from Mexico rather than the U.S. or Canada.

The study concluded that all of the shipping involved in bringing organic produce to shoppers cancelled out the environmental benefits of growing the food according to organic principles.

Meanwhile, the British are considering adding miles traveled to organic food labels. But just to show how complicated things can get, a recent report there concludes that tomatoes imported into Britain from Spain are still more environmentally friendly that those grown locally in hot houses heated with fossil fuels. (How about waiting for tomato season, when they can be grown outdoors?)

The rapid consolidation of businesses in Big Food continues to add miles to our victuals in general. Fewer local growers and processors means that raw ingredients and livestock are traveling farther to get to processing plants and distribution centers. Cheap labor in far-flung countries means it is less expensive to grow food there and ship it here. Corporate food processors now scour the globe for cheap ingredients of all kinds.

I know plenty of liberal-minded folk who think nothing of traveling miles in their Jeep Cherokee to pick up a few organic groceries, and don't even bother to recycle all the plastic bottles from which they suck their "healthy" spring water.

Can the day be too far off when we have "Energy Star" food, wherein our cantaloupes and broccoli will carry the same sort of carbon footprint labeling as our refrigerator and washing machine?

The sometimes counter-intuitive nature of "local" versus "non-local" has stirred a lively debate lately in the food blogosphere. But there are so many benefits to supporting the local farm community--to knowing exactly where your food icomes from and who is accountable for its quality--it's hard to think why anyone would argue otherwise.

Or, just turn off the television and grow your own...


tai haku said...

I was particularly impressed by the clarity of thought concerning industrial organic expressed in Pollan's the Omnivores Dilemma.

My own thoughts are that the good news here is that we seem to be at least moving in the right direction as we're at least thinking about the different issues now which most weren't 10 years or so ago.

Ed Bruske said...

Thanks for your observations, tai haku. I think some of us are moving in the right direction. Too many of us continue to move in the wrong direction.

Anonymous said...

we can't grow tomatoes outside in the UK. in scotland our growing season is too short and cold, necessitating greenhouses and heaters early and late season