At the grocery store, tomatoes might be $1.99/pound. Or, for $3.99/pound you can buy organic tomatoes. What does organic really mean and is it worth paying double for? The term ‘Organic’ has taken on a certain cache among people who want to use their buying power to make the world a slightly better place. And yes, creating a demand for organic food is generally a good thing. Food with the organic label is grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, growth hormones, genetically modified DNA, etc. If you are what you eat, then we should all be inherently skeptical of what we put in our bodies. So yes, all else being equal, one should eat organic food. But healthfulness if not the only criteria by which we make decisions. For instance, an organic label does not really attempt to capture either environmental or economic factors. Organic salmon shipped from China and raised organically with slave labor and factory farming is not a good thing. It’s not good for the environment to farm that way, nor to ship food around the world. It’s not good for our local economy to import our food, nor is it good to support unfair labor practices abroad. Slapping an organic label on it so that well-meaning shoppers will overpay almost makes it worse.
Organic food is uncontaminated, but it is not inherently more nutritious. If we are what we eat, so too is our food. For instance, though both may be organic, the chicken raised on soy is not as nutritious as the chicken raised on a balanced diet of raw grains. Vegetables grown for mass production are chosen for properties like appearance and shelf life, rather than nutritional value. Growing them organically doesn’t change this.
Don’t get me wrong. I like organic. It’s just that you have to look deeper than the label. Where is the product from? Organic matters more with some products than others. Is this particular product worth paying more for? Is this a company you trust? According to the USDA website, organic regulations do not require that fertilizers, soil amendments, and pest control materials be organic. Someone mass producing organic foods could easily be farming in unsustainable ways and still be within the rules of the organic label. The opposite is true as well. The process of qualifying for the organic label doesn’t work for most small farmers. The vegetables you grow in your backyard don’t have a fancy label, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t grow them organically, just that the US Department of Agriculture hasn’t sent a representative down to your backyard with a whole bunch of paperwork and fees.
But you still want to use your buying power for a good cause? Great! Buy local. Your dollars stay local, improving your community. Your food will be more nutritious if it hasn’t had all of its vitamins leeched out by traveling around the world. Likewise, when food will be sold and eaten within days, rather than weeks, farmers can choose crops to grow based on quality, rather than shelf life. Also, you avoid the environmental costs both of shipping and of big agriculture. Your local farmers may not have the resources to get an organic label, but they are most likely farming in a much more sustainable way than most factory farms. Plus, you have better odds of both good labor practices and hygiene, when your food comes from a local farm.
In short, grow your own food organically and shop locally.