A Localvore’s Dilemma
“Should I buy local or organic?”
Written onDecember 03 , 2012
It’s a sign of the maturity of Vermont’s sustainable agriculture and local foods movement that this has become a prevalent and perplexing question. Is it better to buy a local, organic carrot or one that’s just local? Even more challenging, is it better to buy a local, conventionally grown carrot, or an organic carrot from far away? What about other foods? Is local, organic beef any better than grass-fed beef from out West? What’s the difference, anyway—besides, maybe, the price?
The small scale of Vermont farming lends itself to family farms, direct marketing, and romanticism. It’s therefore easy to assume that all Vermont farmers are “basically organic,” with or without official certification. Certainly most farmers here farm conscientiously, with attention to issues such as soil health and animal welfare. Most farmers in Vermont care about their land, their crops, their animals, and their communities. So is organic certification necessary?
Fundamentally, for the consumer, organic certification means that a third party (in Vermont, usually that party is Vermont Organic Farmers, LLC, the certification branch of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, where I work) has verified that the product meets certain standards, which comprise the legal definition of “organic.” These federal standards reflect key principles of organic farming, such as enriching the soil, promoting biodiversity, and taking a proactive approach to animal health. You don’t have to inquire with a certified organic producer as to whether they use certain pesticides, or if their animals are routinely treated with antibiotics; the certifying organization has asked these questions for you.
If, however, you buy directly from a farmer who isn’t certified, yes, you have the opportunity to ask about practices such as pesticide use or grazing—but do you? For many people, the personal interaction at a farmers’ market or farm stand is about trust, and they may feel rude asking a producer if their berries have been sprayed or if their chickens were fed genetically modified grains. Sometimes the farmers themselves will use a phrase like “basically organic” to describe their practices, but they may or may not explain—or even know—in which ways their practices differ from those of a certified organic farmer. Though it’s unpleasant to think so, some could say they use organic practices when they actually do not.
If organic certification is a reassuring shorthand at farmers’ markets, it’s in the more traditional marketplace where it really can be of assistance. Bread, crackers, sauces, ice cream, and other processed foods, as well as milk, make up a large part of the products certified by Vermont Organic Farmers, as well as a large part of most people’s diets. In these cases, the certifier is asking the questions that the consumer has little opportunity to, since the makers of these foods are nowhere near the supermarket. Additionally, in places with less access to farmers’ markets or a large numbers of factory farms, the assurance that comes with organic certification may be the only way for customers to feel confident about their food choices.
Before the USDA organic program was established and began enforcing a single legal definition of the word organic in 2002, there were many certifiers with different standards and many more people calling themselves “organic” with no definition besides their own. This system presented few problems back when “organic” was a marginal part of the food economy and most organic products were sold locally. But as the number of organic growers increased—and as large food corporations began to take notice of the value that some consumers placed on organic food—the lack of a clear meaning of the word became problematic.
So the USDA, with help from existing certifying organizations such as Vermont Organic Farmers, crafted a set of standards to define organic. Now nothing labeled organic can legally contain GMOs, sewage sludge, synthetic pesticides or herbicides, antibiotics, artificial hormones, artificial colors or flavorings, or preservatives. All organic animals must have access to the outdoors, and organic ruminants (cows, sheep, and goats) must be on pasture during the grazing season. Sick animals treated with antibiotics cannot be sold as organic, so farmers must take a proactive approach toward herd health. Similarly, produce from land treated with synthetic fertilizers cannot be sold as organic, so farmers must take a proactive approach toward soil health. Producers must keep careful records and are inspected every year.
It is true that the standards aren’t perfect. It is true that you can buy certified organic versions of many junk foods, and that many large-scale organic companies are owned by even larger conventional ones. And it’s absolutely true that farmers can be skilled, careful stewards of the earth without organic certification. At NOFA Vermont, we recognize that many farmers choose not to get certified, for a number of reasons. The cost of certification can seem prohibitive (although there is a reimbursement program), and the paperwork is extensive (although some farmers are surprised to realize they’re already keeping all the records required). Some farmers may disagree with the organic standards for being either too stringent or not stringent enough. Some simply feel they don’t need certification to communicate their practices.
As for what to buy once you can be sure of a producer’s farming practices, much of your choice hinges on what you value about your food. People choose food based on taste, price, health, animal welfare, and/or community—just to name a few. When you choose something as simple as an egg, you must decide if it is important to you whether the chickens were fed non-GMO grain, whether they may have been treated with antibiotics, or whether they were scratching outside eating grass and bugs. Then you must decide how much it is worth—in dollars, as well as food miles and your time—to obtain the food that meets those criteria.
In Vermont, we are lucky to have hundreds of certified organic farmers and processors, producing everything from carrots and eggs to burgers and bread, so if you don’t want to choose between local and organic, you don’t have to. Find a certified organic producer who grows locally—and learn more about the organic standards—on our website, nofavt.org.
As for those non-certifed farmers who consider themselves “basically organic”? You’ll just have to ask them what that means.