produce on a kitchen scale.

Don't you wish weighing the environmental impact of your food was this easy?
Photo © cosma \ Fotolia.com

The words local and organic dominate discussions about greening our eating habits. Lately it seems that local food has overtaken organic as the preferred method of sustainable food consumption. Ontario passed the Local Food Act just last year to foster more resilient local food systems and encourage new markets for local food, and this April The British Columbia Local Food Act entered its first reading. At the same time, the organic food market is considered one of the fastest growing sectors in the global food industry.

Yet confusion around both terms persists. Just what do local and organic mean, anyway? Do they deliver on their claims? And which one is actually more sustainable?

Local

The main environmental benefit of local food is the reduction of so-called food miles: your food doesn’t have to travel as far to get to your plate, and thus uses less fossil fuel and has a smaller carbon footprint. It also supports local economies and often tastes better because it is fresh and in season. Just think about the difference between the blueberries you buy in winter and the baskets of fresh ones you can buy on the roadside in summer.

The downside of local is that many local farmers are still using conventional agricultural practices, including synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that have negative impacts on the local environment. And then there is the question of just what we mean when we say local.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) recently changed their definition of what constitutes local. Food can now be considered local so long as it is: a) produced in the province or territory in which it is sold; or b) sold across borders within 50 km of the originating province or territory. Given the sheer size of Canada’s provinces and territories, you can see how this provides a rather generous definition of the word “local.”

The definition is being used in the interim while the CFIA conducts a labelling review and will update it when that review is complete. Still, it’s quite a far cry from the previous definition that required food be sold within 50 km of where it originated, or within the same or adjacent municipalities.

Organic

Organic agriculture provides a number of environmental benefits. The one that people often focus on is the prohibition of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, but there are others as well. Organic agriculture maintains soil fertility and minimizes erosion, promotes biodiversity on farms and must rely on renewable resources. It is also GMO-free and have stricter guidelines for livestock care and living conditions.

The main drawback of organic is that it’s often imported, having to travel long distances to get to our supermarket shelves. There is also far more confusion around what organic means than local.

Understanding organic can be more complicated since there are more standards regulating the use of the Canada Organic label than there are governing the term “local.” The CFIA adopted the Organic Products Regulations in 2009 and they are enforced through the General Principles and Management Standards. Both are fairly lengthy documents and consist of dry legalese – not something most people have the time or patience to read through. However, the points highlighted above outline the most significant aspects of organic production standards.

Producers must apply through CFIA-accredited certification bodies, which conduct on-site inspections prior to certification and then annual inspections for producers to retain their certification. They also conduct a number of random unannounced inspections throughout the year. Any imported organic products must meet these same standards.

Local or Organic?

So that leaves us asking, which is better? This past January the CBC published an article regarding pesticide residues on organic produce, causing a number of people to wonder if the extra money is worth it if the pesticides are there anyway. This seems to be a rather narrow way of looking at organic agriculture. It’s about more than the pesticides on your produce. It’s about the pesticides and fertilizers leaching into soil and contaminating waterways. It’s about subscribing to a more holistic method of food production that considers larger systems and sustainability. Likewise, local is about more than food miles; it’s also about building communities, local economies and food system resilience.

The answer, then, is neither. Both have their merits and both have their drawbacks (expense being a drawback often shared by both). Food that is both local and organic has been touted as the ideal, but neither should be dismissed individually simply because they don’t meet that ideal. We don’t have perfect solutions right now, but we do have better options and raising one of those options above another as superior acts to discourage sustainable practices rather than treating both as important pieces in a larger solution.

If you want more tips, How Stuff Works, Well + Good and Grist have also tackled this question.

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