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organic, local, fair-trade, blah blah blah

12 March 2009

Perhaps it was watching a garden grow in my backyard in Zomba before the rains even began (yikes, the water bill)… or maybe it was growing up in a place that has more industrial than non-industrial farming going on. But, after nearly a decade of caring about whether my food was “organic” or “local” enough, I recently decided it was more a marketing gimmick and political position than it was a healthy food choice. As for whether my tea and coffee purchases are “fair trade”, my recent visit to a fair trade tea producer in Malawi has convinced me that the definition for fair trade doesn’t meet the standards I’d require for using such a label as an information shortcut about which companies I should be patronizing. Who knew Mother Jones would ever publish an article that might encourage someone to buy non-organic from a chain grocer?

The MJ article even gives brief mention of the possible future of GMOs being a necessity by quoting David Swenson, an Iowa State economist:

Most organic farmers, for example, know that the legacy of conventional farming means that “it is virtually impossible to keep certain nonorganic substances out of the production processes, including modified genes.”

During my time in Malawi, I had the good fortune of having tea with Stephen Carr, formerly the World Bank’s principal agriculturalist in sub-Saharan Africa (I would say retired, but he seems too busy to be “retired”). In addition to learning a lot about Malawi’s fertilizer subsidy program, I enjoyed most about our conversation a discussion about the use of GMOs. He made the case for GMOs much like Robert Paarlberg does in Starved for Science: we don’t mind genetic engineering when it comes to medicine, but keep it out of our food? My thought is being anti-GMO is a luxury that only well-fed Westerners can enjoy.

The MJ article gives me hope that our debate about feeding the world can be more intelligent and nuanced than it has in the past.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 March 2009 8:43 pm

    Thanks for the interesting background on this issue. I’ve had my doubts, and now I know. (Although organic celery does taste better than non-organic.)

  2. 12 March 2009 8:46 pm

    I also think that garlic from Gilroy tastes better than garlic from China — but I haven’t subjected myself to a blind taste test. Perhaps Greg has with celery…

  3. 12 March 2009 8:51 pm

    I happen to have some of both in the fridge. I’ll conduct an experiment.

    As for comestibles from China, if at all possible, we avoid it. They still have too many problems to work out. Of course, I won’t have much choice when go there next month.

  4. 12 March 2009 11:50 pm

    Hi Kim,

    Your post is, obviously, nuanced and interesting and wonderful. One interesting notion about local produce that I have heard lately that intrigued me was how the produce in most grocery stores tends to be picked long before it is ripe. It then becomes ripe as it sits in the store or (as my bananas in the pantry are) in your apartment. There is some indication that ripening on the vine (so to speak) is very good for nutrients, etc (sounds fluffy, but only because I don’t know much about it). This is actually the argument behind frozen vegetables and produce. It tends to be flash-frozen at peak ripeness, which maxes out the nutrients.

    For local produce at those super crunchy farmer’s market’s and such, the produce is probably more likely to be picked at peak ripeness than the store brands. This is the most compelling argument I have heard for buying local, to be honest.

    Just a thought.

  5. Matt Spence permalink
    13 March 2009 11:52 am

    The organic label isn’t supposed to be shorthand for “healthy”, it’s only supposed to mean “no pesticides and no GMO”. Which, as you say, is a far cry from “healthy”. After all, an “organic” Baconator still has 830 calories and 51 grams of fat (is there such a thing?). It’s kind of like the “low-fat” label was degraded in the 1990s (“Fat Free Snackwells Cookies? I’ll have ten!”).

    And I can understand the good intentions of the local food movement — who wouldn’t want to reduce the number of miles your food travels, both to get fresher, riper food and to reduce truck pollution? But sometimes that just doesn’t make sense — is it really better to grow bananas in a local greenhouse in Boston?

    Also, and here come the jeers: it’s much, much worse to eat meat than to eat non-local food. Producing a pound of beef releases as many greenhouse gases as driving a car 155 miles at 50 mph.
    From Slate:
    “According to a 2005 University of Chicago study, a lacto-ovo vegetarian emits far less greenhouse gas than a counterpart adhering to the standard, meat-rich American diet—the difference is equivalent to around 1.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, assuming the same daily caloric intake. (The study’s authors thus claim that going vegetarian has the same effect on carbon dioxide emissions as switching from a Chevrolet Suburban to a Toyota Camry.) The savings mostly come about because of the disparity between the fossil fuel required to produce a calorie’s worth of grain vs. that needed to make a calorie’s worth of beef; grain is nearly a dozen times more efficient in this regard. Cattle are also a huge source of methane, a particularly noxious greenhouse gas; it’s estimated that bovines are responsible for roughly triple the methane emissions of the American coal industry.”

    And, I’m sure you’ve seen this, but just in case: Michael Pollan’s extensive NYTimes Magazine article:

    Ugh, I feel like Mark Kaswan!

  6. 13 March 2009 12:55 pm

    Matt #1 brings up a good point relevant to the quality of food and I definitely prefer to buy/eat food that tastes good. This works against buying most of the produce available at Trader Joe’s (which, I believe tends to be more of a ripen-on-the truck/shelves type of place than we’d all like to admit).

    Matt #2 is right to point out that I probably misspoke when I referred to labeling as an information shortcut for “healthy” food choice. I meant to say “good” food choice. Good in the sense that it’s good to eat AND good to the planet. Perhaps my subconscious slip-up is just another sign that we have put far too much in the hands of the labeling folks.

    Because I love food — really, I love to cook it and eat it and share it with friends — and because I think there are a lot of people in the world tilling the soil just to get enough to feed their families, I want us to come up with a workable solution that is devoid of politics and backed by evidence wherever possible. But, as a key informant said in Balaka district (Malawi), food is politics — especially where people are hungry. I’m just disappointed that a bunch of us who get full every day in the West are the ones who are trying to shape what people should be doing where many fewer people go to bed with a full belly.

  7. Mickey Mac permalink
    13 March 2009 2:55 pm

    Sorry for not bopping over here right away. I read “organic, fair trade, and local” in the Tweet and my eyes glazed over. Start with “pork bellies” to get Mickey Mac’s attention.


  1. Fertilizer: for the full but not the hungry? « haba na haba

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