Local vs. Organic Foods: Unifying Place and People
In discussing local versus organic foods, I will draw no conclusions. There are too many romantic, moral, economic, environmental, and social welfare aspects of the question to generalize.
What I hope is that my thoughts will help you, the reader, make your own decisions and draw your own conclusions. I will describe these aspects in brief, offering you food for individual thought and community discussion. My own biases will, however, show through, I'm sure.
The Politics of Food
Let's start with a broad perspective. Food is not simply nourishment. A small change in how it is produced and marketed can have a great effect on personal health as well as the economic and social health of a community and the environmental health of an ecosystem. Local food consumption can help maintain cultural diversity. Organic food production can help preserve ecosystem health and diversity.
A local climate may not be conducive to enough diversity to satisfy a local population's nutritional or other needs. Climate may also be a deciding factor in the use or avoidance of agricultural chemicals.
Thanks in part to collusion between agricultural conglomerates, governments, and educational institutions, the number of small, family farms is shrinking. Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp organized the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on their land. Dave Matthews joined their Board of Directors in 2001, and to this day they continue to work together. It hasn't been enough, however, to slow the decline in numbers of American family farms.
Wendell Berry and Conserving Communities
No one has spoken more eloquently to these issues than the poet/farmer Wendell Berry. In his essay, Conserving Communities [http://home.btconnect.com/tipiglen/communty.html], he notes that as of 1993 the U.S. Census Bureau was no longer counting Americans who live on farms. Their numbers had become so small, 4.2 million as of 1991, as to be "statistically insignificant".
Berry goes on to speak of the prevalent prejudices in modern society: economic prejudice against small or family sized businesses both in cities and in rural areas, and an industrial prejudice against anything rural and even against the land itself. In this prejudiced thinking, rural equals unsophisticated and unaware, and undeveloped equals wasted.
So Berry's discussion is one of politics and social welfare. He sees two political parties emerging in America and throughout the world: The party of global economy that believes that community has no value, and the party of local community that believes that it does.
Berry describes this party of local community as one that sees that local needs are met first, that ensures that business and industrial development serves the needs of local farms and forests (including value-adding industries), and that guarantees that "labor-saving" does not mean exploitation, unemployment, or pollution.
Arguments by Berry and others give social and economic significance to decisions about local versus organic foods that otherwise might be kept in the subjective realm of personal emotions and ethics. For some, the choice comes down to taste, to others it's how they feel eating one or the other. Many people value relationships with their neighbors more than price or selection.
Definitions of Organic and Local
How you decide to buy and eat food depends also on your definition of words such as organic and local. Organic can be certified organic, or it can be trusting a friend, a farmer who transparently uses the best practices he can sustain. A farmer may not be able to afford certification, for example. Maybe "carbon footprint" is a better indicator. The term "organic" begs debate when organic food leaves a huge carbon footprint thanks to being shipped halfway around the world.
Local can mean a politically-determined area such as a city, county, state, or nation. It can also mean a biologically or ecologically-focused area as is meant by the terms watershed, bioregion, or a relatively new term, foodshed. A foodshed is quite simply an area where food is grown and eaten. The dimensions of a foodshed varies according to factors such as the availability of year round food and the variety of foods grown and processed.
I used to live in a rural community with a resource-based economy. The main commercial products were very few and specific: apples, raw timber, and beef. Most products were grown, harvested and butchered, then sent elsewhere for mass distribution.
In the local grocery stores, you could buy a local apple for three times the price of a banana from who-knows-where. You couldn't buy local beef unless you made arrangements with a rancher and a butcher. There were local mills for processing logs into timber, but then the timber went somewhere else for sale. Local lumber retailers got their products from distributors hundreds of miles away.
Food Binds Community and Place
Is it just me, or does this seem to indicate a kind of social insanity? And it's the tip of the iceberg. Modular homes are transported hundreds of miles, clothing is mass produced in China or Sri Lanka.
Maybe most importantly, there would be the practical as well as abstract benefits of being self-sustaining as a community. A community based on sustainable local food production, processing, distribution, and consumption would be defined by its ability to unify place and people. Such a community would be healthy, wealthy (in intangibles if not in tangibles) and wise.