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Organic Or Local Food – What Does It All Mean?

From time to time, I hear people ask which is more important to buy: organic or local food? I think a lot of people automatically think that buying local is better, but that’s not necessarily the case! Obviously, if you grow your own organic food in your garden or have an organic allotment locally, that’s brilliant. If you can buy food that’s grown locally that’s also great, but it is important that it’s organic.

Regarding food that isn’t locally grown, many people don’t realise that it’s largely transported by container ships and that these are a very efficient form of transport (it’s also the case that lots of people think that all food from abroad is air freighted). As always, the thing to consider is the carbon footprint of food (well, of everything). The transportation reality is that:

  • Air-freighted food accounts for 0.1% of food miles, but produces 13% of CO2 emissions from food transport.
  • Sea-freight emissions amount to less than one-eightieth of those produced by air-freight.
  • Road transport creates 7.6 times more emissions than sea freight!

…but back to organic food. Why is it important to eat it at this crucial time? Well, it’s because:

A) It doesn’t contain pesticides, and pesticides, by virtue of what they’re designed to do ie: kill things(!) are not in the planet’s (or our) best interest, plus, with so many species of every type of insect creature becoming extinct at an alarming rate, it’s common sense to move towards organic food.

B) Obviously, if you eat non-organic food, you’re ingesting those pesticides. Did you know, for example, that your “toxic load” will decrease cancer risk by about 25% after increasing organic food consumption? If you’re interested, some of the problems that have been linked to pesticide exposure include: lower cognitive scores, asthma, liver problems, reproductive and endocrine problems, attention and behavioural issues, and cancer.

C) Even the E.U. is now finally making moves towards large scale organic food production. I don’t know what you think about the above list of health conditions, but personally I find it rather scary and after all, we’re the ones who choose what to put into our mouths.

D) People often say that organic food is expensive – well, that’s only because not enough people buy organic food (although that’s been changing over the past few years) and, if you think about it, what’s more important – buying packets or crisps of biscuits, cakes, fizzy drinks, ready meals, cigarettes, alcohol etc or proper food that actually provides good quality nutritional value? It really is down to our choices again; our priorities.

I had to write an article on this very issue for the environmental charity WWF back in 2004 (organic vs. mainstream agriculture). At the time we still had the EU’s common agricultural policy which had resulted in farmers being paid not to grow food, while at the same time the surplus of food provided by others resulted in large food mountains and milk lakes, which even now I find hard to think about when half the world was starving (and still is!).

Instead of paying farmers to waste food, they could have gone organic more or less overnight and because growing organic food is more labour intensive, nobody would have been out of work– but that’s history now.

E) Organic food production is far better for our environment, which is in crisis, and the truth about what we’ve been doing to our soils (on which we depend for healthy crops) is now finally gaining acknowledgement, with the farming community being encouraged to restore the health of their soil by not loading it with pesticides or even manure (even some organic farmers use manure but hopefully over time this practice will diminish).

F) Organic food doesn’t contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms)

G) The taste of organic food is generally much better than food that’s grown with pesticides (although it’s probably not going to taste that different if you’ve bought it from a supermarket and it’s not only travelled a long distance but has then had to go to a supermarket depot somewhere before being transported to actual shops).

Another important thing to consider is how to know if what you’re buying is actually organic? Well, there’s a difference between food that’s been grown without using pesticides and certified organic food. It’s actually quite a lengthy process for food to be certified as organic and that’s because even if pesticides haven’t been used, it really depends on how long the soil has been pesticide free.

You can check for a certification code, but as there are nine certification bodies in the UK, it’s simpler to visit The Soil Association’s site www.soilassociation.org as they have an online checking facility. They also provide a small list of fraudulent companies on their website.

As for the legal requirements, the government categorisation of the process to become certified as organic is given on www.gov.uk and states that organic farming includes:

  • Avoiding artificial fertilisers and pesticides
  • Using crop rotation and other forms of husbandry to maintain soil fertility
  • Controlling weeds, pesticides and diseases using husbandry techniques and where necessary approved materials to control pests and diseases
  • Using a limited number of approved products and substances where necessary in the processing of organic food

Also, here’s information about the Soil Association’s own certification process. Usually it’ll take you 2 years to get certified as an organic producer. It might take shorter or longer depending on your situation, for example:

  • 3 years for established orchards of perennial soft, top and vine fruits.
  • 12 months for grass for pig and poultry grazing if no banned products have been applied to soil over the previous 12 months.
  • 2 years for land intended for ruminant grazing and annual crops.

Again, it’s about your priorities, for your health and the environment upon which we depend. It’s worth considering moving to organic food but do it gradually if you’re worried. As I’ve said above though, if you start dropping the foodstuffs that aren’t really providing nutrition and just have them as a treat, rather than as staple foods, you’ll save more money than you think.

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