Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Organic and Sustainable Organic: Eat Locally

I somehow missed Michael Pollan’s explanation, in Sunday’s Times Magazine, of why Wal-Mart’s decision to sell cheap organic food is generally a bad thing, but two other blogs – Bootstrap Analysis and Gristmill – didn’t. Here’s the crux of his argument:

Assuming that it's possible at all, how exactly would Wal-Mart get the price of organic food down to a level just 10 percent higher than that of its everyday food? To do so would virtually guarantee that Wal-Mart's version of cheap organic food is not sustainable, at least not in any meaningful sense of that word. To index the price of organic to the price of conventional is to give up, right from the start, on the idea, once enshrined in the organic movement, that food should be priced not high or low but responsibly. As the organic movement has long maintained, cheap industrial food is cheap only because the real costs of producing it are not reflected in the price at the checkout. Rather, those costs are charged to the environment, in the form of soil depletion and pollution (industrial agriculture is now our biggest polluter); to the public purse, in the form of subsidies to conventional commodity farmers; to the public health, in the form of an epidemic of diabetes and obesity that is expected to cost the economy more than $100 billion per year; and to the welfare of the farm- and food-factory workers, not to mention the well-being of the animals we eat.

Generally bad, but not universally bad. He also discusses how the industrialization of organic farming is likely to lead to reductions of a pervasive pesticide called Atrazine and, for people concerned with the health of coastal waters, particularly the Gulf of Mexico, reductions of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers (nitrogen, of course, is the cause of the vast areas made lifeless in summer by hypoxia).

But back to the “generally bad” category: Pollan also makes the point that buying organic produce grown in Mexico or New Zealand or elsewhere is hardly sustainable environmentally because of the transportation involved. You might be getting strawberries without pesticides, and there might be no pesticide residues left in the local soil, but how much fuel did it take to get that strawberry up here?

His piece reminded me that one of the best thing we can do for the environment and definitely the best thing we can do for sustainable agriculture is to eat locally, and if you eat locally it’s easy to eat organic.

Farmers markets are opening soon throughout Connecticut, Westchester, Long Island and New York City (if they haven’t done so already). We’re big fans of the New Canaan Farmers Market, which opens on Saturday. At least three organic farmers sell their stuff there: Riverbank Farm, Shortt’s Farm, and Stones Throw Farm.

So forget industrial agriculture. Eat locally.


Blogger Tamara said...

We have a nice farmers' market here in West Hartford three times a week. It's a great way to buy great organic produce.

Some of the farmers also offer Community Supported Agriculture programs, where people can purchase a share in advance that entitles them to produce throughout the harvest season.

11:05 PM  

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