Organic? Yes. Sustainable? Not always.

By: Michele Wolfson

At what cost do out of season organic tomatoes get delivered to your market thousands of miles away? While organic agriculture is all the rage, growing by leaps and bounds to meet increased consumer demand for healthier food, the products are increasingly removed from the traditional organic ideal: produce that is not only free of chemicals and pesticides but also grown locally on small farms in a way that protects the environment.

Community Supported Agricultures (CSA's) have become increasingly popular in the past few years, but when it comes to purchasing items like tomatoes or blueberries in a state like New York during this time of year, consumers often have to rely on grocery store produce that are imported from south of the border. This time of year, the tomatoes, peppers and basil certified as organic by the Agriculture Department often hail from the Mexican desert, and are nurtured with intensive irrigation.

The New York Times reports that "Del Cabo Cooperative, a supplier here for Trader Joe's and Fairway, is sending more than seven and a half tons of tomatoes and basil every day to the United States by truck and plane to sate the American demand for organic produce year-round." From Thanksgiving until the spring, countries from Mexico all the way down to Chile are enjoying their busiest time of year, but it comes at a price. "The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes here, for example, is putting stress on the water table. In some areas, wells have run dry this year, meaning that small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops" the NY Times further reports.

"People are now buying from a global commodity market, and they have to be skeptical even when the label says 'organic' - that doesn't tell people all they need to know," said Frederick L. Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. It has been said that large farms that have qualified as organic employed environmentally damaging practices, like planting only one crop, overtaxing local freshwater supplies. One of my father's favorite hobbies for the past 30 years has been gardening, so I can say with confidence that planting only one crop is also bad for the soil's health.

Experts agree that in general organic farms tend to be less damaging to the environment than conventional farms. In the past, however, "organic agriculture used to be sustainable agriculture, but now that is not always the case," said Michael Bomford, a scientist at Kentucky State University who specializes in sustainable agriculture. He added that intense organic agriculture had also put stress on aquifers in California.

The original idea of "organic" was to consume products that are local and sustainable, but now that shoppers can buy organic at markets such as Target, Whole Foods and even Walmart, it's easy to find an organic tomato or basil in areas where these two foods can't be grown in colder months. Some argue that the energy cost of shipping those tomatoes from the Baja to NYC makes for a debauched purchase. Those of the opposing view state that few areas in the United States can farm organic produce in the winter without resorting to energy-guzzling hothouses. In addition, American labor costs are high. Farmers who come to pick tomatoes in Baja make about $10 a day, nearly twice the local minimum wage. Tomato pickers in Florida may earn $80 a day in high season.

The term "organic" is definitely a buzzword these days, but many are now wondering what the values and practices it really represents? The notion that "certified organic" means "environmentally sound practices" may no longer be implied.

It's common knowledge that the shorter the chain from the farm to the kitchen, the more incentive there is for responsible agricultural production, conventional or organic. The problem is that we love having tomato soup in the winter and blueberries in our yogurt, so what's the solution?

What do you think? Is it better to buy local conventional products or organic non-local produce? 

Photo: scyrene 

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