Organic, Sustainable, Local Must Work Together

This column is a follow-up to my last one (September/October), which you can check out on our website if you wish.  The basic message of the previous column was that the social movement in which we are all participating – sometimes called the Good Food Movement – benefits greatly from its diversity, but faces great adversity if we cannot overcome internal fragmentation.  In this column I wish to take that theme a step farther in being more specific.

There are many different attributes that can be and have been assigned to food to make it more interesting to consumers and, at the same time, more profitable for farmers to produce. We seem to be coming up with new ones all the time, some of which are based on credible criteria and others less so.  But the “big three,” if you will, are organic, sustainable and local, which have been developed over the years in approximately that same chronological order, at least in the perceptions of consumers.

Very often, the big three attributes of food as represented here are uttered at the same moment, sometimes almost interchangeably, and they are indeed close bedfellows.  At most PASA events we promote organic, sustainable and local agriculture alongside each other as complimentary ideas, all resulting in food that is worthy of consumer interest and important to the future of our farms and quality of life.  We do this somewhat naively, however, because there are internal inconsistencies and even some potential contradictions implied by this convergence of ideas.

We became aware of the differences when, a few years ago, a major national news magazine implored its readers to forget about organic and choose local food instead.  But more subtly, and far more explosively, the concept of sustainable has become a flashpoint in the marketplace as corporations of all sizes have begun to frame their operations in terms of sustainability with varying degrees of success, leading us to the relatively new concept and reality of “greenwashing.”

So now consumers really do have good reasons to be confused.  Should they buy organic food that is shipped across the country, or even from other countries?  Should they look for sustainable certification, with its more nuanced and complicated set of standards?  Should they buy locally raised food as a top priority, regardless of whether it is certified organic, sustainable, fair, natural, humane, or blessed by any of the other efforts out there to assure its integrity? What about buying from a so-called “big box” store with a strong sustainability program and stocks of food, sometimes organic, purchased from regional farms?

Then into this picture comes the infusion of serious amounts of cash by big agribusinesses that delight in such lack of clarity, and wish to exploit it in order to put down the Good Food Movement across the board. This is no mere exercise in paranoia because it is a reality that is growing by the day, threatening to leave us arguing and fighting with each other while they take home the prize, as they have become so accustomed to doing.  There are already rivalries developing within this movement that could threaten our future progress, even without the outside utilization of corporate money to accelerate the process.

But this need not become the inevitable end of the story. The ideas of organic, sustainable and local agriculture may not be entirely consistent, but therein also is found their potential strength in working together. They are like different dimensions of the same comprehensive vision for the future of our food and farming systems.

Organic farming is the first dimension, the place where we began, with a deep understanding of the importance of soil health and an even deeper commitment to avoiding unnecessary contamination of the environment in which we live and grow our food. Sustainability brings in a broader view (i.e. another dimension), encompassing social factors, energy conservation and a keen interest in assuring farm profitability.  And the local food concept is the dimension in which it all comes together, inviting all consumers to “know your farmer” with an emphasis on rejuvenating communities, including other businesses only peripherally related to food.

The ideal may be that everyone, no matter where in the world, could have access to food that is locally, sustainably and organically produced, but that will obviously not be possible for many decades to come, if ever.  However, the achievement that could be just around the corner – particularly if we work together – is to develop a reliable system of metrics that would allow us to evaluate our food and farms in a reliable and holistic manner, including consideration of all three factors.  In a day when a smartphone can tell us just about everything we might want to know about food based on a QR code, how far can we be from getting a total score from a gadget based on everything from the way the food is raised and handled to the current GPS coordinates of the person making the purchase?

I’m not idealistic regarding the potential positive effects of electronics or complicated mathematical equations on the quality of human life generally speaking.  But I am absolutely rabid about the idea of transforming the world (and thereby human life) as a result of the things we can achieve with diversified farms and farm advocates who espouse the virtues of local, sustainable and organic food and farming systems working together.

I also know, beyond a shadow of any doubt, that with the challenges we now face, and the odds so long, if we do not work together, the Good Food Movement will end up as only a footnote to history, perhaps a faint hope that once thrived, but died at the hands of its own internal divisions and self-righteousness. O

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