There are few buzzwords that conjure up strong feelings, yet confused meanings, more than “organic,” “all-natural” and “free-range.” Plastic, pre-packaged food, plastered with an icon boasting that the product is United States Department of Agriculture certified line the shelves of supermarkets. What appear to be plain brown eggs boast a claim that they are from free-range chickens, along with a higher price tag. Meats sporting a similar declaration often cost more than double their non-organic counterparts. Are these foods really better than the standard, non-organic foods that many of us grew up eating?
According to the USDA, “Overall, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity and using only approved substances.” In theory, this is all well and good. We should all do our best to protect natural resources and conserve biodiversity. But in some ways, buying organic products does exactly the opposite.
At first, the idea of organic farming sounds problem-free: farmers growing crops or raising livestock without any kind of artificial fertilizers, antibiotics or hormones. Ideally, the food is fresher, tastier and more nutritious. But like most other things in today’s society organic farming has largely become commercialized. Large commercial organic farms now rival the size of even the largest conventional farms. Along with size, some organic farms have reportedly used non-approved methods to add nitrogen to the soil, like urea pellets. Again, the ideal situation would be for the farmer to plant alfalfa or another nitrogen-rich crop to keep the nitrogen cycle spinning, but due to cost and a demand for production, such methods are less feasible.
However, there is something we can do to help solve this problem. Rather than depend on commercialized organic products, we should utilize more locally grown or raised products. Most communities have some kind of farmers market in the fall or summer season, or even a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where participants receive a share of a farm’s bounty for a flat fee. For those off-put by the higher prices associated with certified organic food, have no fear. Most times, local produce will actually be cheaper than produce available at a local supermarket. Produce that is imported is often waxed or artificially ripened to ease the strain of transporting. According to a University of Georgia study, produce such as tomatoes are exposed to ethylene gas while still green to mimic the natural ripening process, which leads to an inferior taste and texture.
So while that container of organic salad greens may seem like a smart, environmentally conscious decision, one must take a step back and realize what it took to get those greens to the store. The commercial organic farms are often based in California, almost 3,000 miles away from us in New York. And despite what we all want to think, that these are vegetables hand-picked by the farmer’s hand, in reality it is a $400 million industry in California alone, half of which comes from only five companies. They may not have any petroleum-based fertilizers on them, but one must consider the gallons upon gallons of petroleum used to transport them across the country.
Simply, the answer is local. Even in Oswego, fresh fruit, vegetables and meat is available for a large part of the year. Every Tuesday until the middle of October, the Oswego Farmers Market is open for local farmers to sell his or her bounty. Whether it be truly environmentally conscious consumers finding Earth-friendly produce, or simply someone who cares about good food, local is the way to go.