Is buying Organic always the best choice?

It’s a sunny Saturday morning. You stroll through your local farmers market, buying tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, mixed lettuce, watermelon, corn, all the summery veg, grown without chemical inputs and using sustainable practices. You’ve seen how it’s grown on the farmers website or a social media post or the open day they held where you visited the farm and came to understand how your food was produced just a little better. You carry your market basket crammed with delicious fresh food, that’s been grown and made in your local area knowing that your consumer dollar has supported a producer who is a wonderful steward of the land he or she is farming. You get home, unload your haul and end up with not a single bit of plastic going into the bin, because you’ve been able to take your own reusable bags and jars. With everything settled away, you sit back and feel just a teensy bit smug with how good a job you are doing at supporting local business, eating fresh organic food and saving the planet from plastic packaging…

Is this you? Maybe not the smug bit, but the rest of it? It sure sounds pretty amazing. Organically grown (good for you and the environment) – tick. Local, engaged and sustainable producer – tick. Plastic free – tick. All wonderful things, and all things I strongly believe in…but what happens when you can’t have all of them at once, when you have to trade off one thing for another? When sometimes, organic isn’t best, or local or plastic free?

Let me explain.

I lived in a large regional center for a long time. It had a wonderful farmers market that was well patronised and weekly I would go to get the majority of our veg and meat there. I always felt really good about this decision and was very grateful for it. But at some point I started to feel a little funny. I came to realize that most of the stallholders grew conventionally, meaning they weren’t organic, or chemical free for the most part. Some also had their veg or meat only available pre packaged in small plastic netted bags or in cling wrap. They always offered you a plastic bag. Some veg were clearly out of season – the growing would have been done using a glasshouse. They were wonderful, and cheerful and engaging and their produce was delicious…but I started to wonder what was more important – local or organic? Organic or plastic free?

What’s a worthy trade off?

(Straight up, I want to make it really clear that I wholeheartedly support the organic food movement, including the certification process. It is a fantastic and necessary way to ensure that the general consumer has confidence in the product they are purchasing and for the producer to be paid fairly for their product. But like any system, there are different ways to do it within the guidelines, and it’s this variation that makes me stop and think).

I’ve long felt that being ‘certified organic’ was not the only, or even best, way to grow food that is healthy for the consumer and the environment. I’ve visited farms that are not certified organic and watched growers talk passionately about their growing process, how they work with the seasons and with nature to grow. How they return nutrients to the soil through compost made on site and rotate animals through their vegetable beds for weed and insect control, and nutrient addition. I’ve spoken to farmers who have let go of their organic certification after many years, because it no longer allowed them to practice within their principles of local and environmentally sustainable, with regulations requiring them to truck in feed from a thousand kms away. I’ve spoken to farmers who have ceased entire sections of their operation so they can satisfy both their moral need to keep it local and the organic certification process. I’ve also been to a certified organic farm that is running beautifully, stewarding the land, keeping it local and easily maintaining their organic status.

On the flip side, I’ve been to a certified organic farm that buys in pallets of fertiliser and relies on the use of approved chemicals to control pests (yes, you can use 'chemicals' on an organic farm – this seems to be a common misconception that people have about organic production. Those chemicals are generally a very last resort, and are certainly not the same as the chemicals freely used in a conventional system – they are deemed low impact, and safe for humans and the environment and their use is tightly monitored). This farm chose to truck in inputs from hundreds of kms away instead of recycling their own nutrients into compost. They also relied more on mechanical than human intervention for weed management, and while they also produced wonderful, healthy, delicious produce, it’s produce that has the same certification as an organic farm that does not rely on outside inputs and has an emphasis on the health of the soil and ecosystem...and a priority for me is a healthy soil and a healthy ecosystem just as much as delicious food.

So what to do when you can’t source organic, local food? Stay local, support the farmers market and buy conventionally grown produce that’s not as healthy for the environment (or me) as it could be? Go to the local greengrocer, where I can purchase the same produce from local suppliers, but avoid the prepackaging that seemed to be at the farmers market? Go to the local supermarket to buy organic fruit and veg and end up with a bin full of plastic, not to mention a huge bill at the checkout and complete dislocation about where that food is being grown, how and by whom? What about the local bulk wholefoods store? Local business, no packaging, good prices…but lots of products imported from other countries as well?

 

No wonder we are so confused about our food system.

 

If you live in an area that has a farmers market or greengrocer that supplies you with local organically grown (certified or otherwise) produce, that you can source using your own bags and jars, then be very, very grateful for that. You have hit jackpot there, my friend. But, if you are in a situation like I used to be and can’t have it all, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below – how do you get around it? Do you choose local, organic or plastic free? What’s your compromise?