“Local” and “organic” aren’t necessarily the best choices for us or the environment

It is a chilly Saturday morning in the middle of December, but as soon as I step into the WISE Hall on Adanac Street, I immediately feel warmed by the festive atmosphere.

Lots of people are busy buying garlic, squash, jam, cheese and dried apples from farmers who have travelled from Abbotsford, Naramata or Cawston to sell Vancouverites their products to the sound of live music.

This is my first visit to the Winter Farmers Market, and as I walk around with my yellow cloth shopping bag that proudly says “You are what you eat; prepare to meet your maker,” I realize this place is less about buying food than about meeting people and building social capital.

A farmer from Pemberton tells me everything about Russian Blue potatoes, a variety that I have never seen before and looks more like beet than potato. I taste Capri Bianca goat cheese while looking at pictures of the farm’s happy goats and learning from the vendor that his brother once forgot to put blue in the Blue Capri cheese and gave birth to the new Capri Bianca variety that I am munching on now.
 

When I am ready to leave the market, my bag is full of the romantic stories all the farmers told me about the great products they grow in B.C., and I feel good about having learned so much about the land where I live. I feel more connected to my local community.

Meeting the farmers, hearing the personal stories, and getting their advice on how to prepare the veggies almost made me forget everything about how I typically buy food in a grocery store. I usually look at labels for guidance on how to buy food that’s good for me and doesn’t harm the environment.

Sure, there are various signs at the Farmers Market: “Certified Organic,” “Naturally Grown,” “Wild” and “No Spray.” I am not sure what all these terms really mean, but here, at the market,
it’s as if labels don’t matter in the face of trust and a good handshake with your local farmer. It almost seems impolite to look at labels.


 

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Consumers often turn to labels when it comes to buying sustainable food. It’s easy to assume that organically grown food products are the best choices from an environmental perspective, so you’d think that organic labels would make purchasing decisions easy. However, in Canada organic products are certified by various regional organizations that don’t follow
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And as consumers try to decipher organic labels and which ones are legitimate, they soon realize that there are many more environmental impacts to consider, such as how far food products travel, how they are packaged, and whether they were produced under fair labour conditions. The “eat local” movement attempts to address some of these environmental concerns, but again it is not clear that buying locally produced food is always the best way to support sustainability.

Michael Klaus, a 33-year-old computer contractor who lives in the West End, has a passion for buying local food and loves shopping at farmers’ markets. When it comes to organic labelling, he doesn’t care so much. “When I go to the farmers’ market, I usually don’t look for certification,” he explains. “I believe that anyone who is locally growing and derives their livelihood from selling directly to you and me has a vested interest in growing their food in a way that allows them to grow it next year as well.”

Organic certification labels may simply be a shortcut for those who do not have the time to meet their farmers face to face. However, without labels, customers are on their own to figure out the authenticity of the products they are buying. Kevin and Annamarie Klippenstein own a farm in Cawston, and they are also selling their produce at the Farmers Market. But their operation, Klippers Organic Acres, is certified organic. To them, being certified is a matter of credibility to the consumer. “You go to the market and you see farmers that have big signs up saying they don’t spray. The consumer reads the sign and thinks the product they buy is organic,” explains Annamarie, 33. “But there are things that you are allowed to spray as an organic farmer. ‘No spray’ doesn’t mean anything.”

It might be better to ask farmers what they use for fertilizers to determine if chemicals are involved, but not every consumer is able or willing to learn about these subtleties when it comes to buying organic products. That’s why organic certification helps. It also ensures that certified farmers are aware of the standards and regulations that define organic practices. “Everybody wants to say their stuff is organic, but they don’t even know what the standards are for being organic,” says Kevin Klippenstein, 32.
 

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In Canada, organic products are certified by a variety of accredited regional bodies overseeing voluntary standards. Quebec and B.C. are the only two provinces to regulate organic items. However, as of December 2008, a new Canada Organic label will hit the stores across the country. The logo – a maple leaf rising above two hilltops – is the result of a new federal regulation overseen by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The regulation will ensure that organic items meet mandatory Canadian standards governing production methods, and will control the use of certain substances. It was enacted partly because the European Union had threatened to prohibit import of Canadian organics if Canada did not have a unified regulation in place.

Only organic products sold internationally and inter-provincially will fall under the new federal regime. Items sold locally remain under provincial jurisdiction. In B.C., the Certified Organic Associations of B.C. oversees the provincial certified organic program. Products are identified by the B.C. Certified Organic checkmark logo.

According to Michel Saumur, national manager of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Canada Organic Office, the new federal regulation will increase consumers’ confidence in what they are buying. Certification bodies now have different definitions of “organic,” and it’s difficult to take any action against false organic claims under the current voluntary standards system. “Many people want to produce, manufacture and distribute true organic products, while others don’t have the same principles and sell products based on different practices and the use of all kinds of substances. There was not a level playing field out there,” explains Saumur.


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With these rules in place, it should be easy for consumers to buy organic food. Further, anyone concerned about environmental impacts should feel that buying organic products is best because organic, chemical-free production is supposed to protect the environment, minimize soil degradation, decrease pollution, maintain biological diversity, and ensure better treatment for livestock.

In reality, many have come to distrust organic labels and feel that the integrity of organic products and certification programs has been compromised to suit industrial large-scale producers. Synthetic pesticides are simply replaced by approved organic pesticides, and large organic farms have evolved to become monocultures that do little for biodiversity. With the industrialization of the organic sector, standards are coming under increasing pressure, a trend that Saumur acknowledges. “More people get involved, their main focus is on trade and there is a danger that they might dilute the organic requirements,” he says.

“The word ‘organic’ doesn’t mean that much to me,” says Jeff Van Geest, executive chef at Vancouver’s Aurora Bistro. The restaurant, which serves local, seasonal, organic dishes, works with a variety of organic suppliers. Some of them are not certified. What matters is not what is on the label, but how farmers take care of the soil and maintain biodiversity. “I know a lot of people that do a lot of good things and are not certified, but are still growing the same food, and it is still organic,” Van Geest explains. “There is so much more available to you other than what’s certified organic.”
 

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And the statistics confirm Van Geest’s view that the organic world in B.C. goes beyond certification programs. According to the 2006 census, there are 452 certified organic farmers in B.C., which represents a little over two per cent of total farms in the province. On the other hand, the census shows that close to 2,800 farms reported uncertified organic products in 2006. This may be partly due to the fact that some of the farmers who call themselves organic do not necessarily understand what organic truly means. Other small-scale farmers don’t bother to become certified because they feel that the process is costly and time-consuming. Some of them have also become disenchanted with a system they believe mostly serves the interests of larger organic producers at the expense of small farmers.

Michael Welsh of the Fruit Guy Farms in Naramata used to be certified organic, but dropped out in 2007. “There are more rules, more bureaucracy, more forms, more attention to audit trails and less attention to farming practices,” he says. “When you are farming, there is very little time; it is hard enough covering the basics and then you start having to pay attention to all these absurd details.”

The “Organic” designation alone doesn’t sufficiently address the complex question of our food’s environmental impacts. Other criteria need to be considered in our quest for sustainable food. On a Sunday afternoon, I go on a shopping tour at Drive Organics, a grocery store on Commercial Drive that specializes in organic products. Robin Jane Roff, a PhD candidate in geography at SFU who is studying issues related to genetically modified organisms, walks me through the basics of shopping in a sustainable manner. As we contemplate organic apples from New Zealand, Robin introduces me to another factor to
consider in addition to organic: local food. About 85 per cent of all organic products sold in Canada are imported, mostly from the United States. So if you want to buy organic, you will have to go the extra mile to get it. Or more accurately, a few thousand extra miles.

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University found that fresh produce in the upper Midwest travels an average distance of 1,500 miles. Food that has travelled long distances uses more fuel, and it does not seem to make much sense when it comes to saving the planet. Even if it is organic.

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Many people now throw “local” into the mix as the right thing to do to reduce your carbon footprint. Initiatives such as Get Local seek to promote the benefits of eating locally and encourage Vancouver residents to take up the 100-mile-diet challenge. Not only is eating local food better for the environment, but it also supports local farmers. “Shortening the food chain is not just about reducing the carbon dioxide or the number of trucks that we have on the road; it is about creating trading networks that can allow smaller and more diverse operators to participate,” explains Roff, who would rather not buy organic apples if they came from New Zealand.

Favouring food that is locally produced carries the extra benefit of rebuilding a cultural relationship between consumers and the source of their food. Aurora Bistro’s Jeff Van Geest stresses the importance of knowing where the food comes from. “I can talk to my customers in the restaurant and tell them about where the beets come from, tell them about the farmer that grows them and how crazy he is. There is always a story,” he says.

Story-telling sells, and a large distributor such as Whole Foods Market has understood that it has to deliver more than certified organic labels. In the West Vancouver store, large signs profiling local farmers are prominently placed in the produce section. The beautiful colour photos put smiling faces on the labels and celebrate the mystique of buying local.

There is a general consensus that buying local organic food when possible is the ideal choice, but eating local has gained such recognition that when faced with the ­dilemma of buying local conventional food versus imported organic food, local converts would pick local first at the expense of organic. It’s a controversial choice that Laura Telford, the executive director of Canadian Organic Growers, disapproves of with a passion. “The reason I choose imported organic is ­because there will be huge environmental and economic benefits to somebody. It might not happen in your neighbourhood. It might not be your environment, but somewhere in the world someone will benefit from this because they are growing in a better way,” she says. “People think that because the farmer is in their backyard, they are not using chemicals. They’d be wrong! Local pesticides give you local cancer.”

In the same way as the term “organic” needs to be re­defined, so does “local,” which means different things to different people. David Van Seters, the president of the grocery home-delivery service Small Potatoes Urban Delivery (SPUD) has drawn the line and defines “local” within an area of 800 kilometres. “While we really love the philosophy of the 100-mile diet, we find it is too restrictive,” he explains. “If you choose an area of 800 kilometres, you have a good chance to encompass a number of different growing zones that allow a consumer to buy almost all their products within that range.”

SPUD publishes the distance that every product travels from the place it is produced to the warehouse, so that customers can see how well they are doing on the local front on their
invoices. But it is up to the consumer to make the final choice. “When you are growing organically, you are protecting the soil and the water, but when you are buying locally, you are protecting the air because it was shipped much less of a distance. It is hard for us to say what is more important: air, water, or soil,” says Van Seters.


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Measuring food miles is difficult because the data are not always available, particularly when dealing with multinational companies that produce foods in more than one location and move the production around without notice. Calculations for multi-ingredient products can also be problematic. For example, SPUD calculates the distance travelled from the last place where the product was value-added. Coffee beans come from distant places, but if they are roasted on Salt Spring Island, the food miles counter starts there. “It is difficult in some situations to get accurate information, but we feel it is way more accurate than not providing the information at all,” says Van Seters.

Feeling invigorated by the concept of buying local, I am ready to pick up a few BC Hot House tomatoes at Drive Organics. Surely that is the right thing to do. To my surprise, Robin Jane Roff tells me that BC Hot House tomatoes are actually grown in Mexico in the winter. Even worse, Robin explains that these tomatoes are grown in greenhouses, which are very energy intensive and therefore not a good choice from an environmental perspective. Don’t I know that winter is not the season for tomatoes in B.C.?

I suddenly realize that making environmentally responsible choices when buying food
is not just about organic or local, certified or not. There are many more complex factors to consider. Food miles are not necessarily the best indicator of environmental impacts, as they do not take into account the mode of transport, the methods of production or the way products are packaged. All of these have their own distinct impact on carbon emissions. Consider Idaho potatoes travelling by train, and Washington potatoes transported by truck. Train is usually a more energy-efficient mode of transportation, so lower food miles might not be better.

Also consider the carbon impact of shoppers themselves who are passionate about buying local. A 2006 assessment of B.C. farmers’ markets conducted by the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets and the University of Northern B.C. found that shoppers spend an average of $18 at the market. “We can’t just say buy local across the board. If you are driving your SUV to the farmers’ market to get a couple of apples and drive back, you erase the good things you’ve done by going to the farmers’ market,” says Gail Feenstra, a food systems analyst with the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program at the University of California, Davis.

Feenstra proposes a different approach to decipher our food systems. She uses a life-cycle assessment methodology to assess the multiple environmental impacts incurred in the production, processing, and distribution of food products on their journey from farm to fork. Her research is in the early stages, but Feenstra eventually hopes to develop guidelines that will help consumers go on a “low-carbon diet.”

Whether you look at food miles, carbon footprint labels, or sustainability indexes that consider
environmental, social, and economic factors, all these various dimensions remain somewhat subjective. “It depends on your frame of reference,” explains Rich Pirog, associate director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. “If your frame of reference is global warming, you need to look at carbon emissions. But if you are concerned about the pollution of lakes and streams, then you have to look at other indicators.”

The subjectivity is particularly evident in the current air-miles debate in the U.K. about the carbon footprint created by food shipped via air freight and the development of a new airplane label on air-freighted goods. Opponents have called for the replacement of food miles by “fair miles,” a concept that considers the social and economic benefits of food trade, especially from developing countries.

So tomatoes can be looked at from many angles, and consumers have a lot on their plate. Maybe a first environmentally responsible step is to simply forget about tomatoes in the winter. “Seasonality creates opportunities for exploring new kinds of foods,” says Feenstra. Van Geest agrees and puts his creative mind to it. “People want to see a tomato on lettuce on their sand­wiches, but you start thinking about different things you might put on your sandwiches,” he says.

Hang on little tomato: soon it will be summer in Vancouver, and soon you’ll be divine.