Thursday, December 10, 2009

Local v. Organic? Some thoughts on the semantics of good food advocacy.

My boss at the sustainable ag nonprofit that pays my rent recently sent out an email to my program team that essentially posed the above question. As he put it, how and why should you make the choice for local, non-organic produce from Bentwood versus say organic from Chile? He's a bit of firebrand and a bit of an anomaly in the nonprofit world for his brassy Brooklyn attitude and for-profit professional background. He's new to the organization and the sector, and was seemingly brought on board to shake things up around here (generally a good thing).

Anyway, no one responded to his email for several weeks, until I basically replied with the below. This silence was less an indication that my team hadn't thought of it so much as a sign that we'd all thought about it too much to wrestle those thoughts into email format. Because it's a good question, albeit one that typically gets asked by those who are just beginning to investigate the wide and noisy realm of good food...

Local & organic are two very different sets of criteria (apples and oranges, so to speak), and each is a messy collection of factors and considerations that are in turn embedded in a hugely complex issue. So I think we -- as in, local food advocates -- should actually make a point of not answering the question of "local v. organic" whenever it's stated simplistically. We should push back on that and tease out the issues.

It's largely a matter of semantics, so the first step in any such argument would be to define the terms. Are we talking about Certified Organic? Certified by whom? And what about "local"? When we say local we don't just mean produced within 'x' number of miles. Our organization, and the local food movement at large, are advocating for a lot more than a reduction in food miles. We're advocating for a holistic system of good food and sustainable agriculture. I don't know of a single player in the local food movement that is only concerned with food miles, which is why anti-locavore arguments (such as those put forth by James McWilliams) tend to be mere straw men.

The implied attributes of "local food" are many: that it comes from a "small family farm", that the farm employs growing practices that are "sustainable", "natural", "environmentally sound", that the labor practices aren't exploitative, that meat is from animals that are "humanely" raised.

"Organic" used to imply a lot of those attributes as well, but the codification of that word into the label we have today meant that most of that was whittled away. "Organic" has been defined down to something very specific and measurable, for better or for worse. But as advocates rather than certifiers, we have the luxury of defining the word "local" out rather than defining it down. And we should take advantage of that luxury, because all of these sub-issues under the greater issue of "sustainable agriculture" (farmworkers rights, ethical animal husbandry, corporate ownership, etc.) are going to have their day in the sun very soon, and it will be hard to remain relevant if we stand for just one sliver of the larger picture.

So then the question becomes even harder to answer as stated. You can't say "buy local over organic in 'x' and 'y' cases, and buy organic rather than local in 'z' case." You have to ask, "well, in this specific instance, which product meets more of these attributes that we've identified as good?" And when we talk about local food generally, we need to make explicit that holistic picture of a distributed, small scale, equitable, healthy, sustainable, beyond-organic food and farming system that we are all working so incredibly hard to build. The Ethicurean, for example, promotes the idea of SOLE food: sustainable, organic, local, and ethical. (I don't necessary support such a deepening of alphabet soup syndrome, but the idea is good, I think.) If we don't make these things explicit, then I fear the wonderful, radical idea of "local food" will be captured by corporate marketers trying to maintain the status quo. It will be defined for us, defined down, and driven out of usefulness. And then we'll have to find a new word and start over.

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