Deciding between organic or locally grown food
An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but does it matter where the apple is from or how it is grown? As awareness of the negative health effects of the pesticides and synthetic fertilizers used in conventional agriculture has increased, consumers have turned to organic foods produced through sustainable agriculture.
By Crystal Hsing
Originally published in DailyBruin
However, a new factor has emerged in the sustainability debate: buying organic food versus buying locally grown food.
The term “organic” is a certification provided by the United States Department of Agriculture for food that meets certain regulations. In order for a food item to be certified as organic, the agricultural processes involved in growing the food cannot include pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, growth hormones or other artificial ingredients such as antibiotics.
The rise of organic agriculture is largely due to research that links the use of additives and pesticides in conventional cultivation to serious environmental and health consequences, said Nurit Katz, UCLA sustainability coordinator.
“It’s about knowing what you’re putting into your body,” she said.
On the other hand, locally grown foods are defined as those grown within a 150-mile radius of the consumer. Advantages include the freshness of the produce, since an apple grown in California is guaranteed to be fresher than any apple transported from out-of-state, and supporting a more self-sufficient local economy, Katz said.
“Buying food from local farmers means you know where your food comes from,” Katz said. “In terms of sustainability, buying locally grown means that not many resources were used in transporting the food.”
The distance food is transported from where it is grown to where it is consumed is known as food miles. This plays a large part in determining the food’s sustainability. The more food miles, the more energy used for transport and the greater the carbon footprint, said Robert Gilbert, sustainability coordinator of the UCLA Housing and Hospitality Services.
“Assuming it takes the same amount of resources to grow an apple somewhere locally than somewhere else, then you have to pay for the energy to transport it,” Gilbert said.
However, a locally grown product is not necessarily more sustainable than an organically, or even a conventionally, grown food. The benefits of producing food locally can be outweighed if a particular food item can be better produced elsewhere.
For instance, buying sugar grown in a desert climate would not be a sustainable choice since sugar is such a water-intensive crop, Gilbert said.
“You would have to expend a lot of energy providing that water,” Gilbert said. “If you’re looking to reduce resource use, it wouldn’t make sense to buy that sugar locally.”
The debate between buying organic or buying local is an issue of different aspects of sustainability: Buying organic has many health benefits and also supports sustainable agriculture, while buying local means reduced emissions and benefits for the local businesses, Gilbert said.
“It’s not that one is better than the other but that both are beneficial, just in different ways,” he said.
Choosing one or the other is therefore a complex question to which there is no simple answer, Katz said.
“The answer depends on a lot of factors and trade-offs that we face in making these sustainable choices,” Katz said. “You may want to try to maximize a lot of different parts of sustainability, but sometimes you have to strike a balance and make a choice.”
For Rebecca Miller, chair of E3: Ecology, Economy, Equity at UCLA, a student organization committed to ecological sustainability, the balance between organic and local depends on what is available. Miller, who has been a vegetarian for six years, buys most of her produce from nearby farmers’ markets such as the one held every Wednesday on Broxton Avenue, she said.
“At farmers’ markets, I know the produce is in season and locally grown, but a lot of it is not necessarily organically certified,” Miller said. “Those are questions you can ask the vendors up front though, whether they use synthetic fertilizers or growth hormones.”
Whether local or organic, the benefit of knowing where her food comes from and how it is produced is more than just an environmental or health issue, Miller said.
“Having a more intimate knowledge of where our food comes from makes it a richer experience for us to eat,” she said. “When we know more about how it was produced and more about the people who produced it, I think it’s a more fulfilling experience to eat.”
Published: Monday, June 28, 2010