Just when you thought you had the "organic" thing down, new food terms are popping up everywhere; sustainable, local, transitional, Fair Trade. What do they mean? Isn't organic good enough? What should we be looking for as consumers?
What has happened is that when large corporations entered the organic market, things changed. As little as 10 years ago we could be sure that organic food offered wholesome nutrition, a safer growing environment and a smaller carbon footprint. We assume that every company using the "certified organic" label adheres to the same standards. Not true. While some organic farmers follow the same traditional principals of organic farming they always have, others meet the bare minimum required to use the organic label. Some food is actually more organic than others and many farmers are seeking alternatives to big-business organics. The following is a list and explanation of the new terms we see popping up.
Sustainable: Sustainable agriculture refers to the ability of a farm to produce food indefinitely, without causing severe or irreversible damage to the ecosystem. They incorporate ways of farming that will not deplete or permanently damage their resources, thereby sustaining them. Sustainable practices include raising a mixture of animals and plants. Plants are rotated among fields to help enrich the soil, prevent disease and minimize insects. The grazing, rooting, or pecking behaviors of the animals acts as natural tilling and provides for a more natural diet, generating more nutrient rich foods.
Local: The local food movement encourages consumers (or Locavores) to buy food that is grown within 100 miles of their home. Buying local is an extremely environmentally friendly way to shop. The transportion of our food makes up an extremely large percentage of fossil fuel usage in this country, not to mention pollution. The average item in the grocery store has traveled 1500 miles to get to your shopping cart! Although is can be quite challenging to eat primarily local, visit your local farmer's markets as much as possible. Every bit helps.
Transitional: This term simply refers to a farmer that is using organic methods but hasn't reached the 3 year requirement to use the "certified organic" label.
Fair Trade: You will often see this label on imported foods such as handicrafts, coffee, cocoa, tea, chocolate, and bananas. This is a social movement and market based approach to empowering developing country producers and promoting sustainablity. Often times farmers depend upon a middle man to move their products through the chain to reach industrialized nations. The middle men receive much of the profit, leaving little for the farmer. The strategy of the Fair Trade movement is to work with marginalized producers and workers to help them move from a position of vulnerability to security an self sufficiency.
Burke, Cindy. To Buy or Not to Buy Organic. New York, 2007