Organic and Locally Grown Foods

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Organic and Locally Grown Foods


Organic foods are produced without using antibiotics in animal feed, genetically engineered organisms, chemical preservatives, radiation, or artificial pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Organic farming must also preserve the soil and treat livestock humanely. Local food is less strictly defined. It may or may not be organic, but is always purchased relatively near its place of production (usually, within 250 mi [400 km]). Although once seen as the concern of the eco-fringe, organic and local foods have been changing the U.S., European, and global food markets rapidly over the last two decades. Since the early 1990s, the market for organic food has grown at about 20% per year, a rapid rate in any business. U.S. sales of organics were about $12 billion in 2005, as compared to about $500 billion for the U.S. food industry as a whole. Worldwide, sales of organics were at about $40 billion in 2006. In the United States, about 1% of land was farmed organically as of 2008; in Europe, it was about 4% (counting only cropped fields, not grazing land).

Organic and local foods are generally more expensive than similar foods grown by conventional means. Consumers, therefore, are motivated to buy them because of certain values or convictions, such as the concept that one’s food should be produced by sustainable methods, or the assumption that organic foods are healthier.

Critics of organic food argue that there is no scientific evidence that most organics are healthier to eat. However, advocates of organic and local foods hope for several benefits. First, there is the wish to be part of an agricultural system that cares for the long-term wellbeing of the natural world rather than exploiting it for short-term profit. Conventional large-scale agriculture is one of the most polluting industries and is causing rapid loss of soil in many parts of the world; organic agriculture causes less pollution, slows soil loss, and increases local biodiversity. Second, organic and local-food advocates hope to reinforce local communities and economies, funneling consumer dollars to small farmers—many of whom struggle to survive financially. Third, many shoppers seeking fresher foods choose locally grown foods with less transit time to market. Moreover, there is some scientific evidence that eating organic foods may, in fact, be healthier because such foods contain fewer hazardous chemicals (such as pesticide residues) and more nutrients.

The point of view underlying the organic and local-foods movement might be summed up in a phrase from Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry: “Eating is an agricultural act.”

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The organic-food movement began in the early twentieth century as a conscious reaction to the trend, then just beginning, toward larger farms and dependence on machinery, artificial fertilizer, and pest-killing chemicals. In chemistry, the term “organic” refers to compounds containing carbon, but in agriculture it refers to the quality of resembling an organism—that is, a living system in which a number of parts cooperate to the benefit of all. The organic movement remained obscure until the 1960s, when environmental concerns began to spread in the popular culture. A 1962 best-selling book by Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, criticized the use of DDT and other pesticides as being hazardous to both human beings and wild plants and animals, and helped turn public opinion against pesticides. Throughout the 1970s, individuals wrote books and founded organizations around the world to promote organic farming as a nondestructive, healthier alternative to industrialized agriculture.


BIODIVERSITY: Literally, “life diversity”: the wide range of plants and animals that exist within any given geographical region.

HERBICIDE: A chemical substance used to destroy or inhibit plant growth.

IONIZING RADIATION: Any electromagnetic or particulate radiation capable of direct or indirect ion production in its passage through matter. In general use: Radiation that can cause tissue damage or death.

ORGANIC FARMING: Farming that uses no artificial chemicals or genetically engineered plants or animals.

PESTICIDE: Substances used to reduce the abundance of pests or any living thing that causes injury or disease to crops.

SUSTAINABILITY: Practices that preserve the balance between human needs and the environment, as well as between current and future human requirements.

Despite receiving almost no government funding and little scientific attention, organic farming became steadily more popular. In 1979, California passed the California Organic Food Act, establishing a legal definition of what could be sold to consumers as “organic” and what could not. In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act as part of that year’s Farm Bill. The 1990 act required the federal government to commence a National Organic Program that would define and eventually enforce standards for the creation and handling of “organic” products. In 1995, the U.S. National Organic Standards Board (controlling body of the National Organic Program) made official the following definition of organic farming: “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that pro-motes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.” U.S. federal rules governing organic products took effect in February 2001, after a decade of often controversial development. The European Union and many other countries have also established legal definitions of the term organic.

Interest in local foods first became widespread and organized in the 1990s. Persons interested in buying local are usually in favor of organic farming as well, but not uncritically so: They may, for example, choose conventionally raised but local raspberries over organic strawberries flown by jet from the far side of the planet. The local-food or “localvore” movement is inspired by an interest in the social and economic results of shoppin choices as well as the environmental impact of the industrial food system. In the United States, the average vegetable is transported about 1,500 mi (2,400 km) to the store where it is sold: This entails the burning of large amounts of fuel, which contribute to air pollution and global warming.

Impacts and Issues

Since the early 1990s, there has been vigorous debate about the detailed definition of “organic,” especially in U.S. federal law. Industry groups such as the Organic Trade Association, which represents large growers, seek a broader definition that will allow cheaper production and the use of certain artificial ingredients. Consumer groups such as the Organic Consumers Association have resisted any dilution or weakening, as they see it, of the organic concept. For example, in the 1990s, during the development of U.S. federal standards for organics, there was an attempt to allow irradiation of food (sterilization using high levels of ionizing radiation) into the definition of “organic.”

In the early 2000s, debate swirled (sometimes in court) around when milk from a cow is organic and when it is not; the National Organic Standards Board was trying to get the U.S. Department of Agriculture to agree that “organic” milk must be produced by cows that are pastured for at least 120 days a year, excluding milk from cows kept in crowded corrals and fed mostly grain. Almost all conventionally produced milk comes from cows that are housed in confined quarters and fed grain-rich diets laced with antibiotics to maximize their milk output; the debate over cow milk thus turned to the question of whether feeding cows organically grown grain and not giving them antibiotics is enough to make their milk “organic.” Such debates are ultimately about values, not about facts that can be scientifically examined, but that does not make them any less real.

Debates have simmered not only over the values but the science of organic food. In particular, the questions of whether organic farming really benefits the environment, and whether organic foods are actually healthier to eat, have been increasingly examined. In the early 2000s, evidence began to accumulate that organic farming does indeed benefit the environment and that organic foods may be at least marginally healthier than conventional foods. A study published in Science in 2002 reported that organic farms, compared to conventional farms, enhance soil fertility and biodiversity while using less energy to produce each unit of food. A 2006 study found that switching children to organic food reduced levels of organosphosphorus pesticides in their urine to undetectable levels, and that returning them to conventional foods restored urine pesticide levels. A 2008 survey of scientific papers since 2003 found that in the majority of studies, organic foods contained higher levels of 11 nutrients than identical quantities of conventionally grown foods. However, the main thrust of the organic and local-foods movements, independent of the question of enhanced personal health, is stewardship of Earth.

Primary Source Connection

The following news article identifies the growing trend of restaurants to become environmentally savvy through such actions as using local meats and vegetables from small local farmers, filtering local water, recycling, composting, and using renewable energy. The Green Restaurant Association is one organization helping to promote the green movement in restaurants by certifying restaurants who take the green initiative in their philosophies of food, materials, and energy.


One course at a time, David Siegel consumes five gourmet dishes remarkable for their flavor and also for where the ingredients came from: sardines and sand dabs from Monterey Bay, Calif, squab and veal from the state’scentral coast, and strawberries from Oxnard, Calif.

“Ordinarily, I would be gun-shy and run the other way when I hear the word ‘sardine,’ says Mr. Siegel. But “because they didn’t have to preserve it in salt, this had a freshness and nonfishy taste I’ve never experienced. It was delightful.”

The comment is music to the ears of Neal Fraser, chef of the well-known Grace Restaurant here, who designed a “Close to Home” menu where 90 percent of the ingredients are sourced within 400 miles. Advancing a so-called “socially and environmentally responsible” agenda throughout his restaurant—which includes serving filtered local tap water rather than bottled water from afar and fueling his own car with leftover vegetable oil—Mr. Fraser is part of a growing nationwide restaurant movement to go “green.” The ideas are not new, say experts, but they are gaining fresh currency because of the burgeoning global environmental movement and new generations of youth with budding enthusiasm for long-established notions of sustainability, ecological health, and food safety.

As exemplified by Grace Restaurant, one key idea is to leave less of a carbon footprint wherever possible—choosing local meats, vegetables, fish, and fruit over those shipped from thousands of miles away. Another push is to support smaller local ranchers and farmers who avoid the kinds of animal diets and pesticides that are typically used for produce and meat and are often served in the nation’s 1 million restaurants.

There is a laundry list of other strategies to reduce global warming: from recycling and composting waste to conserving water and lights, using nontoxic cleaners, tapping wind or other “green”power, and designing minimal-impact buildings. Like Grace, many restaurants are moving away from bottled water because of environ-

mental concerns about bottle waste, refrigeration needed, transportation costs, and shipping containers.

“I just began to think about the future of the planet that my daughters would be inheriting and their children and so forth,” says Fraser, who decided it was time to change after seeing the movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” starring Al Gore.

Supporters report more interest by owners and diners than at any time since such notions began coalescing in the late 1960s. “The movement today is really huge and the debate is getting a far broader audience now,” says Wynnie Stein, co-owner of Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y., considered one of the national pioneers of locally sourced organic farming. “It’s everybody from restaurants to colleges to food-service directors in schools, hospitals. People are very concerned about the environment for themselves and future generations and there is a new urgency to dramatically expand on ideas that have been around for years.”

One measure of the interest is the growth of the Green Restaurant Association, which certifies restaurants coast to coast and encourages them to take four new steps to help the environment each year. Founded in 1990 in San Diego, the association has seen the number of its certified restaurants skyrocket from 60 to 300 in the past two years. The group is also negotiating with major restaurant chains, which could rapidly boost membership to 5,000.

“In the last year we have gotten more interest than in the previous 16 years combined,” says founder and director Michael Oshman. “It’s beginning to build exponentially from interest of previous decades.”

Such restaurants are also drawing attention to the plight of smaller farms, ranches, and suppliers whose practices fit the model but are in danger of being lost.

“Government policies are making it very hard for the smaller, independent, family-run businesses, which operate with higher environmental standards,” says Mike Antoci, who runs Superior Anhausner Foods, a Los Angeles distributor. “Restaurants like Fraser’s are starting to raise public consciousness about what is at stake.”

The new spotlight is creating a domino effect, say observers, in which restaurant customers begin to ask more questions about the local-food movement.

“We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who value the availability of food produced right in their own community,” says Linda Halley, who runs Fairview Gardens, a nonprofit organic farm and education center in Goleta, Calif.

Some observers question some of the claims of the local-food movement. They say it’s entirely possible that food grown locally could have a considerably larger carbon footprint than food flown halfway around the world because transportation represents only a tiny fraction—some experts say as little as 2 percent—of the energy required to grow, store, process, and package the food.

Supporters say that the movement is raising questions that society needs to ask. Mr. Oshman notes that Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, with 200 stores nationwide, was the first large chain to be certified green last year and this year has announced it will run its stores on windpower exclusively. “If larger chains like this can do it, it shows this is not a fringe thing anymore.”

Daniel B. Wood


See Also Agricultural Practice Impacts; Herbicides; Silent Spring



Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977.


Lu, Chensheng, et al. “Organic Diets Significantly Lower Children’s Dietary Exposure to Organophosphorus Pesticides.” Environmental Health Perspectives 114 (2006): 260-263.

Mader, Paul, et al. “Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming.” Science 296 (2002): 694-1697

Stokstad, Erik. “Organic Farms Reap Many Benefits.” Science. 296 (2002): 1589.

Warner, Melanie. “What Is Organic? Powerful Players Want a Say.” New York Times (November 1, 2005).

Web Sites

The Organic Center. “New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-Based Organic Foods.” (accessed March 29, 2008).

Larry Gilman

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Organic and Locally Grown Foods

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