Wouldn’t you know it?
Another dietary controversy that challenges everything we’ve been led to believe in the recent past about what’s good for our health and our planet.
There’s a grassroots movement afoot that’s gaining support on many fronts for the idea that eating locally grown foods is somehow “better” than eating organically produced goods.
But is this really true? Are locally grown, sustainable foods usurping organics as the crown jewel of farming practices?
And isn’t eating organic supposed to be the ultimate for personal and ecological health?
Advocates of organics would certainly have us believe that. But proponents of regionally grown foods would have us believe that sustainability is the key to our own, and the environment’s well-being.
So, let’s have a look at both sides of the argument so we can make an informed decision about which camp gets our support – and our consumer dollars.
20th Century Organics
In today’s society, we tend to think of the terms “organic” and “local” foods as fairly new concepts. But really, many cultures have used natural growing methods for thousands of years.
And prior to industrialization, buying locally was the norm – with the exception of goods from the Spice Route, which were out of the price range allowable for most households.
It wasn’t until the advent of refrigerated rail cars in the 1880s that transporting perishable goods long distance became feasible.
Prior to that, shopping for locally grown goods was pretty much the only option available to the majority of consumers.
And while many societies used organic farming practices, in some locales mineral pesticides have been in use for millennia.
The Sumerians used sulphur compounds to control insects 4500 years ago, and “smoking” crops with a variety of agents such as sandarach (red sulphide of arsenic) was used by both the ancient Greeks and Romans to control mold and mildew.
Controlling weeds with salt and oil was another common practice in Carthage and Rome – and a good curse was another favorite herbicide, providing the gods were on your side (1).
In modern times, arsenic-based insecticides were widely used in the 1920s and 30s – until the connection was made between this practice and arsenic poisonings caused by residue left on apples (2).
In 1911 American agronomist F.H. King published Farmers of Forty Centuries after an extensive tour through eastern Asia, where he studied the time-honored methods of tillage, fertilization and growing in China, Japan and Korea.
His work would later become a valuable reference in the world movement towards new and improved natural practices in agriculture.
In a 2013 review for the Sustainability Journal at MDPI, Joseph R. Heckman calls King’s work “… a classic with valuable lessons and experience to offer towards teaching modern concepts in sustainable agriculture.”
One of the first alternative agricultural systems of the modern era was developed in 1920 by Austrian Rudolph Steiner, which he dubbed biodynamic agriculture.
It emphasized the interrelation of animals, soil, crops and the farmer as a single entity, with local production and distribution being a key component.
Choosing natural manures and composts over chemical fertilization, and the use of an astrological calendar for planting and sowing, were other integral parts of biodynamics.
The USDA’s National Agriculture Library credits Lord Northbourne, a.k.a. Walter James, with first using the term “organic farming” in his book Look to the Land, published in 1940.
Based on the theories of biodynamics he used on his land in Kent, he conceived of a farm as a living organism with an environmentally holistic and ecologically balanced approach to agriculture.
British botanist Sir Albert Howard and his wife Gabrielle, a plant physiologist, observed and documented traditional Indian growing practices while working in Bengal, and determined the results were considerably superior to that of contemporary agricultural practices.
Howard’s book An Agricultural Testament, published in 1940, refined these natural practices and proved to be greatly influential on both farmers and scientists of that era.
Howard’s contribution is still referenced today in academic institutions, such as the University of Illinois’ Local Food Systems and Small Farms extension programs.
In 1943, farmer and organics innovator Lady Eve Balfour published The Living Soil in the UK, which quickly became a keystone text for the emerging non-chemical farming movement.
It chronicled the results of her four-year study, The Haughley Experiement, with neighbour Alice Debenham, which was the first of its kind to compare the results of organic versus chemical-based farming.
She was also responsible for organizing The Soil Association, which is still the UK’s leading environmental charity supporting organic agriculture.
The Tipping Point
It wasn’t until after WWII that the manufacture and use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides became widespread.
Pesticides such as DDT, Captan and 2,4-D (Agent Orange) were effective and inexpensive to produce, and seemed safe for mammals. Indeed, in 1949, Dr. Paul Muller won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering the insecticidal properties of DDT – which greatly reduced the spread of insect-borne disease such as malaria, typhus and yellow fever.
At the same time, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers gained popularity when leftover supplies of ammonium nitrate from munitions factories were converted for use in agricultural applications.
Prohibited by the USDA’s organic control standards, they’re still widely used in conventional agriculture today and are a responsible for a host of environmental pollutants.
However, with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962, the devastating effects of widespread and indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides on the environment could no longer be ignored.
Sensational in its effect, Silent Spring enraged chemical and agricultural lobbyists, and galvanized environmentalists and ecologists – it was the impetus for today’s organic farming movement on a global scale. (Silent Spring refers to the mass die-off of birds after DDT was sprayed to control insects).
Along with the birth of the modern organic movement, farmers’ markets became a valuable component of sustainable, healthy and locally grown foods – and both rose in popularity together.
Today, organic farming is no longer the domain of small, back-to-the-earth growers – it’s big business and certification isn’t reliant on size, with many organic farms claiming thousands of acres.
With big-box stores like Walmart now carrying organic products, they’ve certainly lost some of their earlier cachet as belonging to a somewhat exclusive domain, even though the prices still place them outside the realm of the majority of consumers.
Nonetheless, natural growing techniques are head and shoulders above those of conventional methods in terms of lightening the load of toxins in our bodies and environmental pollutants.
The synthetic fertilizers mentioned above leach into groundwater, streams and rivers and they are responsible for the dead zones created in lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.
The excessive amount of nitrates that wash into the water encourage algae bloom, which consumes oxygen so that fish and marine life can’t survive.
And fertilizing the soil with ammonia and synthetics reduces micronutrients and minerals in produce, as well as weakening the topsoil.
Moreover, at least one study has shown using manure over mineral fertilization causes an increase in vitamin C, minerals and polyphenols and a decrease in nitrates – and that organic produce tastes better (3).
And of course, organics are GMO free. In 2012, 170 million hectares of biotech crops were grown globally, with the US accounting for 40% – genetically engineered primarily for herbicide tolerance and insect resistance (4).
Additive and pesticide-free farming also encourages biodiversity in local flora and fauna.
An oasis for birds and wildlife, the presence of beneficial insects, non-toxic seeds and safe groundwater found on these lands partially replicates a natural habitat for indigenous critters, conditions which are not found on industrial, high-yield sites.
However, organic farming doesn’t necessarily guarantee food safety, as the tragic 2006 outbreak of E. coli from tainted organic spinach, with victims in 26 states, made abundantly clear (5).
And certification for farmers can be challenging as well, with conflicting regulations between regional and federal governments.
A lack of support and direction from local governments is often cited as a reason for not certifying, as are inadequate distribution channels to get foods to the consumer.
Also, many organic growers now fall into the category of mega-producers, with profits often going to areas other than where the goods are purchased.
Sustainable, Local Farms
The local food movement’s aim is to create a connection between food producers, distributors, retailers and consumers within the same geographical region.
This connection helps to develop food networks that are self-sustaining and self-reliant, with greater resiliency than those with a dependence on global economies.
Numerous other positives are being promoted as well, such as the improvement in local economies, social and community impact, and environmental benefits.
Locally grown goods offer an alternative to the global food model, which often has food (conventional and organic) traveling thousands of miles before making an appearance in your grocery store.
Transportation costs for moving food long distances factor into the price we pay, and ecological concerns for using a system that relies on fossil fuels are also growing.
Produce hauled long distances is often picked green and allowed to ripen in transit – which often results in a bland, insipid taste as it hasn’t been allowed to fully ripen on the plant.
Locally grown food can taste better, and it often looks better, too – it’s fresher, as crops are picked at their peak, allowing the flavors to develop fully.
Arguably, it’s better for you due to the reduced time between leaving the farm and arriving at your table, so nutrient loss is minimized. Not only do non-local foods spend more time in transit, they often sit in warehouses before being distributed to retail outlets.
Sustainable farmstead products such as cheese and wine are usually hand-crafted in an artisanal way, rather than a factory environment, and employees are from the region as well.
Livestock products will often be processed in facilities with a close proximity to the farms, and the farmer will typically have a direct relationship with the processing outlet, allowing them to oversee quality. This is not the case with animals processed in larger industrial plants.
Local food is also touted as being safer, with a perceived assurance that comes from face to face interaction with farmers at a local market, or from seeing the fields and crops worked through the seasons as you drive by.
Buying locally also supports your community and families that live in that community. Farmers that sell their goods at wholesale prices receive payment that’s often very close to the cost of production.
By selling direct to the consumer or neighborhood retailers, the middlemen are eliminated so they can receive better prices for their food.
This encourages farmers and future generations to stay on the land rather than selling to developers, and this brings a healthy contribution to the region’s tax base.
In numerous studies conducted by the American Farmland Trust, farmland creates more of a fiscal surplus than commercial or industrial bases.
And this surplus plays a significant role in helping to offset the shortfall that occurs from residential demand for public services (6).
In other words, cows don’t go to school, beans don’t require policing and potatoes don’t make trips to the emergency room. But farms pay taxes for all those community services, which keeps taxes down for all residents. And this is true for both styles of farming.
Proponents of genetic diversity also fall on the side of the locavores.
In large scale agricultural systems, which many organic growers utilize, plant species are chosen for a uniform ripening period and the ability to withstand mechanized harvesting and packaging, and they need to have a long shelf life.
However, the small scale grower will often plant an array of varieties of the same crop to provide a staggered and longer harvest time, and to produce crops with different shapes, colors and flavors which ensures genetic diversity.
And livestock diversity is often greater with a number of small farms as opposed to a few mega-farms.
Like organic farms, locally grown foods also preserve open spaces, which benefits the environment and wildlife.
A well-managed farm creates its own ecosystem, providing water sources and gleaning grounds for wildlife and migratory birds, and green products perform the very important task of exchanging carbon for oxygen in our atmosphere.
Community growers often provide educational opportunities for learning about agriculture, land stewardship and insights into nature’s seasonal character.
A working landscape, such as those found in regional vineyards and orchards, also contributes in secondary economic activities such as tourism and recreational pursuits.
Of course, just because foods are grown in your neighborhood, that doesn’t mean that they’ve been grown in a healthful manner.
If you’re unsure, ask your farmer about the practices they employ to determine if their produce or livestock meets your standards.
A Tough Row to Hoe
Clearly, both organic and sustainable local farms offer numerous benefits for us to consider when making our grocery purchases – and they often share the same values. This makes choosing a difficult task.
So, hopefully, we’ve given you some food for thought to help with your decisions. Which side of the furrow do you fall on? Let us know what you think in the comments.
(1) History of Horticulture, Roman Agricultural History; J. Janek, Purdue University, https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/Hort_306/text/lec18.pdf
(2) Farming in the ‘30s, Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/pests_04.html
(3) The Organic Centre, State of Science Review: The Taste of Organics, https://www.organic-center.org/reportfiles/Taste_SSR_October_final.pdf
(4) Library of Congress, Restrictions on Genetically Modified Organisms: United States,
(5) Food Safety News, Dole Spinach E. Coli Outbreak, http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2009/09/meaningful-outbreak-7-dole-spinach-e-coli-outbreak/#.Vo84SFJlzfb
(6) American Farmland Trust, Fact Sheet – Cost of Community Services Studies, http://www.smartgrowth.bc.ca/Portals/0/Downloads/COCS_factsheet07.pdf
Unless otherwise noted, photos are sourced from dollarphotoclub.com and are licensed by Ask the Experts, LLC for use. Copyright is held by various independent photographers.
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.