Local is the New Organic? What on Earth am I Supposed to Eat?

By: Leah Koenig

Imagine you are standing in the aisle of a supermarket in New York City. Two adjacent bins of peaches are displayed in front of you. The sign over one bin reads "organically grown, Mexico." Over the other, the sign reads, "low spray, upstate New York." Which of the peaches, if either, do you put in your cart?

Over the last several decades, "organic food" has morphed from a virtually unknown idea, to a buzz phrase favored by granola-eating idealists and, more recently, into a billion dollar business. Once confined to natural food co-ops, organic foods - those grown or raised without synthetic pesticides, growth hormones or antibiotics - are now common fare at supermarkets and restaurants. The USDA certified organic logo graces the labels of mainstream products like macaroni and cheese, mayonnaise, and even decorative cake sprinkles.

As organic foods have grown more popular with consumers (they now represent the fastest-growing sector of specialty foods in America), large corporations have begun to offer organic versions of their conventional products (organic Heinz ketchup recently hit the shelves), and have started buying smaller organic companies (Stonyfield is owned by Dannon, Seeds of Change is owned by M&M/Mars. These large companies have joined the organic movement - genuinely interested in using their corporate leverage in the world, but many others simply recognize that the joining organic food sector could increase their own profit margins.

Whether or not the attention from big business will ultimately equal a victory for the organic movement is still unclear. The emergence of "big organic" does mean that organic foods are now being purchased and eaten by more families in America than ever before. But whereas organic certification standards (like the USDA organic label) were originally created to assure customers of more sustainable growing standards, their connection to big industry renders them a potential source of consumer confusion. A USDA organic label on a peach is one thing, but organically certified Oreos or Tostitos? The organic movement was pioneered by small food producers that wanted to move away from conventionally produced foods. Should food items filled with saturated fat and processed sugar grown 1,000 miles from the factory be considered organic simply because the wheat in them was grown without synthetic pesticides? A number of smaller organic certifications (e.g. NOFA, Oregon Tilth, Pennsylvania Certified Organic), which are arguably more thorough in their certification standards than the USDA, might be reluctant to certify Oreos. But according to the USDA, which is currently the most widely-recognized organic label, organic Oreos are just fine (and will hit the shelves in the near future).

More recently, the concept of eating locally - which roughly translates to eating foods grown and harvested within about a half-day's drive from one's table - has begun to percolate into the American food conscious. (Though, people who remember eating before World War II, which marked a major turning point in American consumerism, would rightly point out that locally grown food is not a new phenomenon.)

According to Michael Pollan, author of the current best seller, Omnivore's Dilemma, (highly recommended by the Hazon staff!) local foods appeal to the consumer's desire for authenticity - the idealized notion that food is more pure if it was grown by a real, hardworking farmer or caught fresh from the wild. In theory, eating local foods also connects a consumer more directly with the place the food was grown ("Poughkeepsie! We vacation right near there!), and with the
people - typically small family farmers - who grow it.

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