Organic or Local? I Say Transparent

by guest blogger Alberto Gonzalez, founder and CEO of GustOrganics.

For most people who think about what goes into the foods they buy, there is a question that constantly arises: Is it better to buy organic or local?

In America, the word “organic” is owned by the government, which means that in order to label a product “organic,” it must be certified as such by an authorized third party. The United States Department of Agriculture/National Organic Program (USDA/NOP) has some of the strictest standards in the world, and when the USDA Organic logo is present, it means that a third party has audited the operation and the product meets all national requirements.

Organic food by definition cannot contain any chemicals, artificial substances, synthetic hormones, antibiotics, or GMOs (genetically modified organisms), also known as GE (genetically engineered). The program’s thorough audits verify that organic integrity is maintained throughout the distribution chain—from the farm to the consumer. Today, less than 1 percent of the farmland in America is certified organic and organic food represents about 3 to 4 percent of the national food sales.

Local is a term used to describe proximity between a food’s production and its consumption. Some people consider food local if it was grown within 50 miles of where they live. Others put the distance at 100 miles or 500 miles. And still others consider food to be “local” if it was produced within the U.S. On average, the food in America (even some organic foods) travels 2,000 miles. And freezing fruits and vegetables for long trips can deteriorate their nutritional value. So, being able to find food that is produced closer to home has advantages in terms of freshness. But the advantage of consuming local food goes way beyond freshness.

Carbon footprint is a major issue in our food system. It’s estimated that 10 percent of the energy used in the United States every year is consumed by the food industry and it requires 7 to 10 calories of energy to produce and ship 1 calorie of food—not a very efficient system. Factory farms, which unfortunately, account for 98 percent of our agriculture, are extremely dependent on fossil fuel (oil). And the biggest culprit for fossil fuel use on farms isn’t from transportation, it’s from the artificial fertilizers and pesticides they use: 40 percent of the energy used to produce food on a factory farm comes from producing chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It’s estimated that cultivating one acre of factory-farmed land requires 5.5 gallons of fossil fuels.

Organic food generally has a smaller carbon footprint than conventional food because organic farmers aren’t using those chemicals. Still, even organic food is often shipped long distances, which increases its footprint. And, in order to have some organics on the shelves when they are not in season, they are often grown on land that requires intensive irrigation, which is not a very sustainable model. Small family farms need much less oil per acre to operate properly, which contributes to their smaller carbon footprint. And buying local is a great way to learn to eat with the seasons. However, as I always say, “terrible things can be done around the corner from our house.” Unless we really know the farmer, it’s hard to tell how much a local farmer is spraying chemicals or using heavy fertilizers to increase productivity, at the expense of our health. Local doesn’t necessarily mean healthier—you have to know your farmer.

So, back to our question of organic or local? You have to ask yourself this: Do you know your local farmer? Do you know whether or not he or she uses a lot of chemicals? If you’re not sure, then you have to decide what’s more important, knowing that your food does not contain any artificial or chemical substances (certified organic) or being able to eat seasonal, fresh food harvested close to home with a smaller carbon footprint (local)?

I have three children, two of them are almost babies, and I am a firm believer that the chemicals, synthetic hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs used in growing conventional foods are very dangerous for them. So when we do not know the local farmer, we tend to go for organic. But the ideal situation is to be able to find food that’s not only organic and local, but TRANSPARENT. It’s the perfect marriage for a healthier and sustainable lifestyle. So, even though “local” and “organic” are words used to describe healthier food options right now, I think that “transparent” would be a more appropriate word to describe the food we want to buy. Transparency is important because it allows us to see more clearly the farmer’s practices, values, and products so we can make more informed purchases.

Here’s to transparency in our food system in 2012!

Alberto Gonzalez is the founder and CEO of GustOrganics, the world’s first certified-organic restaurant using 100% organic ingredients, and one of the greenest and most progressive restaurants on the planet,


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7 Responses to Organic or Local? I Say Transparent

  1. Bobby Jones January 5, 2012 at 11:35 am #

    Great post – good information, well written – do you mind if I link to this article on my food blog?
    Bobby Jones, aka Chef Snausy

  2. Alberto January 6, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    Hi Bobby, thanks! Please feel free to link it to your food blog. We need as much people as possible understanding more about our food options.

  3. Patty Amburgey January 12, 2012 at 10:58 pm #

    Your magazine is inspiring. I want to do local farmers markets this summer. I’m hoping that it will be worth while. Money is tight but I think the markets are more popular and we are the small type farm that you wrote about. We use organic practices. Our pigs are feed from local businsse’s refuge. They’re not organic. I’d love any ideas or solgans that would make us sound good. Thank you. Patty Amburgey

  4. Roxanne January 16, 2012 at 10:02 pm #

    Just wonderful, a restaurant with sourced foods.
    It is getting so you don’t know where to buy or what to eat. I look at food and wonder, where did this come from, what is in it, how has it been treated , etc- and I am looking at raw food!
    I have sought out locally raised, grass fed beef from the Roseda Beef Farm in Maryland, locally grown apples from the York county Farms in PA, and Maryland , non frozen seafood from my local seafood business.
    Always adding to my list of sources!
    Your project is amazing, keep going and know that your customers appreciate your dedication. I wish I was nearby!

    In my business, I have added a new definition for my freshmade skin care and food receipes- we call it “natural sources”, which means we research how the natural, raw ingredients have been processed, or collected or extracted, to keep the integrity of the ingredient intact, with a goal of avoiding any processing with chemicals, excess heat, etc.

  5. Matt Liotta January 22, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    “Organic food by definition cannot contain any chemicals, artificial substances, synthetic hormones, antibiotics, or GMOs.”

    Actually, that is not the case at all. Many certified organic products do in fact container synthetic chemicals as a result of the processing done post harvest. For example, the organic lettuce you see that was “tripled washed” was done so in a solution that uses synthetic chemicals like chlorine. You don’t find these industrial processes with your local farmers.

  6. Sandy February 11, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

    You say that in order to be called “organic,” the farm growing it must be certified as organic. Now, I’d understand that if you want to call your produce “certified organic,” it has better be officially certified. And if you are cooking-and-packaging something to be distributed other than locally, ditto.
    Does this actually mean that if you are a small farmer/market gardener, selling at the local farmers’ market or as a CSA, you cannot legally inform your customers that you use all-organic practices, unless/until you have gone thru the certification process? That would be ridiculous, really.

  7. Brian Tuor August 20, 2013 at 8:41 pm #

    As I understand it, you cannot say your food is “organic”, however you can tell your customers how it is grown, harvested, etc. In other words you can say , that you don’t use pesticides, “artificial” fertilizer, or what ever it is you do, you just cannot call it ” organic” without being certified organic. And there is a lot of the USDuh certified organic that is not nearly as “clean and green” as we think. Go for it.

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