Local versus organic

What's for dinner: Greenhouse gas emissions from organic flood flown around the globe or pesticides and synthetic fertilizers from "conventional" food grown by a local farmer? Is that the only choice?

When you can't get a local organic English cucumber, what's your next choice?

An organic one from Israel or a conventionally farmed one from Maitland, Nova Scotia?

It's an important question in the quest for reducing our food's impact on the environment: What does more harm---the greenhouse gas emissions from long-distance hauling by air or on land, or synthetic pesticides and fertilizers? When you can't get the gold standard---local and organic---do you choose local or do you choose organic? But, hey, wait! Are you even thinking about this in the first place?

Maybe you already do go for organic local produce whenever you can (and yes, the assumption here is that local and organic is the best environmental food choice. It's the jumping-off point for our investigation).

Or maybe you're one of those shoppers blithely plucking produce off the grocery displays, your concern for cucumbers limited to the question: How many do I need to make enough cucumber-curl garnishes for the tuna salad sandwich platter for the picnic tomorrow?

And, why does it matter, really, anyway?

There's so much to think about when we shop for food---ingredients, brands, freshness, price, customer service, do they have a candy-free check-out?, what is that spiky thing and how would I eat it if I brought one home?---it's easy to get overwhelmed. But more and more people are stopping and asking: How was this grown, and where?

The how question we can attribute to the gushing-over of support for organic and its vault from hippie chow to must-have. And the where part? Well, I'm sitting here staring at a story I ripped out of the Globe and Mail in October 2005---the paper's first coverage of BC natives Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon's 100-mile diet experiment, where the couple vowed for one year to only eat food grown within 100 miles of their Kitsilano, BC, home.

The Globe piece focuses on the popularity of Smith and MacKinnon's blog and the story hangs off the sweet quirkiness of the plan, which saw the couple swear off staples such as coffee and sugar and lose 15 pounds each in the first six weeks (it was spring, before a big chunk of the local produce really got going). Briefly, though, there is mention of the cost to the environment from the jackpot of food Canadians welcome onto their plates every day.

The Halifax Farmers' Market was founded in 1750 and is North America's oldest. Yet I can't help but think hearing about Smith and MacKinnon's 100-mile diet journey was---even for die-hard market regulars in Halifax---a light-bulb moment in linking greenhouse gas emissions and food.

In Canada in 2006, agriculture accounted for 62 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. (The "equivalent" part is confusing, but here's the gist: Every greenhouse gas has different potential to contribute to warming. Carbon dioxide is bad, but methane, for example, is worse because a single tonne can do more damage. In terms of harm, it's like comparing apples to oranges. So scientists have given each gas its own number, a Global Warming Potential---GWP---number, which they can add up and use as a means of fairly comparing combinations of gases. Carbon dioxide is the baseline gas: Its value is set at one. Methane, because its effects are potentially more damaging, counts for 21. All the gases added up this way are expressed as "carbon dioxide equivalent" and their totals are comparable. Apples to oranges becomes apples to apples. Awful, human-made, earth-changing apples.)

While agriculture's got nothing on the carbon dioxide equivalency numbers for energy and transportation (don't forget agriculture accounts for part of that heating and cooling and driving and delivering and there are serious ways the calculation of the gas emissions from far-away foods are lacking in the accuracy department) agriculture's contribution to global warming continues to rise---we're fogging up the atmosphere with 25 percent more greenhouse gas emissions in producing food than we were in 1990. And that's a part of keeping us almost 30 percent over our Kyoto targets (such as they are under the Harper government).

But back to veggies---and fruit, for that matter, which, as it happens, is the technical classification of the cucumber. If that best-case scenario local and organic English cuke isn't on hand, is the next best its conventional local cousin, or an organic one from away?

So, first, some questions.

Just how far away is "away," anyway?

Maine is 550 kilometres from Halifax; New Mexico is 4,700. A pint of cherry tomatoes sitting on the grocery store shelf can be from either place and still the only labelling enlightenment will likely be "Product of the USA."

That's vague, but sometimes it tells you even less than you think, as you may know from our own federal government's spring introduction of legislation to tighten labelling on Canadian products. Until recently, a "Product of Canada" tag on apple juice could have meant the fruit was processed in Etobicoke but grown as far away as China.

The plain fact is, we can't define "away," even if you're nagging the produce manager at the grocery store. What I can tell you is this: A 2005 study undertaken in Waterloo, Ontario, found that 58 food items---all of which could be grown easily in southwestern Ontario---travelled an average 4,500 kilometres from source to plate. In October, the Ecology Action Centre (EAC) and the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture will release their own research tallying up the average distance travelled by 50 commonly eaten foods in Nova Scotia. The report, says the EAC's Marla MacLeod, will examine the "social, economic and environmental impacts of a primarily imported diet, which," she says, "is what we have now."

Now what about "conventionally farmed?" What the devil does that mean?

Conventional is a catch-all, really. It can be used to label the efforts of a five-acre subsistence farm that employs common synthetic pesticides and antibiotics, as readily as it stands for a massive chemical-dependent monoculture operation or factory farm. (Funny: "conventional" implies that it's the norm---which it is---but it refers to a chemical farming approach that's new, historically speaking). Anyway, people use "conventional farming" less to define something concrete and more to describe what they're not talking about---specifically: organic.

Shoppers can shine a little light on conventional food if we only dig a little deeper, says Jennifer Scott of the EAC's Food Action Committee. To that end, Scott asks this of her cucumber: Was it grown on a community-based farm or an industrial one?

In the community-based model, Scott says, "the resources that are used to grow the food on that farm come from the local area. People from the local area are employed, the money stays in the community, and resources are recycled within the farm. For example, animals are grown and the manure goes back on the fields."

And industrial? "Inputs into the farm from all over the damn place and there's this huge amount of stuff that is being produced and it's going out all over the place. So, long distance in, long distance out and not a lot of connection with the place where the farm is."

Is this a dead end? How can we know the model of the farms supplying our eggs and lamb and cucumbers, if, as I've said, we can't even tell where our food is from by looking at the labels and the grocery store signs?

The only answer, perhaps, is this, from Jennifer Scott: "It's way easier to find out if you're buying from someone local."

OK. So. We've touched on the near hopelessness of calculating distance when it comes to come-from-away products. We've flirted with the confusion that can lie in trying to define conventional farming. But we've got a bigger obstacle to tackle if we're trying to find the right English cucumber to buy: What the hell is organic?

Organic is the biggest name in food since Atkins, soy or pro-biotics.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency reports that Canada's organic industry has been growing by 15 to 20 percent every year for the past decade. The Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada, a research and education centre based in Truro, says its "conservative estimate" of retail sales of certified organic products in 2006 was $1 billion.

And that's just little old Canada.

In the US, the Organic Trade Association (a manufacturing-sector biz) reports 2006 retail sales of $17 billion.

And that goes a way toward explaining the existence of organic Tostitos.

They're part of the "Natural" line from Frito-Lay, known best as the maker of Doritos, the world's most ungodly coloured chips. The Frito-Lay Natural line also includes Cheetos Natural White Cheddar Puffs, Lay's Natural Country BBQ Potato Chips and Natural Reduced Fat Ruffles Chips.

Organic---and the label natural, which reads in shoppers' minds as organic, or at least something close to it---is hot. Organic is the go-to brand adjective. People see it on a label and equate it with good, pure, better. Organic is worth the money. Organic is what people are looking for. Organic, above all, is valuable. Fortunemagazine reported in 2006 that Wal-Mart had become the biggest seller of organic milk and organic cotton in the world.

But when you buy Tostitos Tortilla Chips made with Organic Yellow Corn---at Wal-Mart or anywhere else---how organic is organic?


Seventy percent.

Frito-Lay, see, follows the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) standardization rules for organic product labels. And in the world of the USDA, levels of organicness are determined strictly by numbers. Tostitos Tortilla Chips made with Organic Yellow Corn fall into the USDA's "Made with Organic" category.

The "Made with Organic" classification means at least 70 percent of content (in this case the corn, and only the corn) is organic, with organic defined by a short list of USDA criteria, including no use of irradiation, sewage sludge or genetically modified organisms.

The "Made with Organic" label is the third of four descendingly stringent organic categories allowed by the USDA. (The two better-ups being "100 percent Organic," which is organic start to finish according to the criteria check list, and, simply, "Organic," which means 95 percent of ingredients by weight (excluding salt and water) are organic. The least stringent category covers anything with less than 70 percent organic ingredients, which a company can't boast as "Organic" on the label, but can when it comes to individual ingredients on the ingredients list.)

Canada has been adapting its own version of this organic-by-numbers classification system, too.

While USDA organic regulations have been in place nationally since 1990, our government only just crossed the Ts and dotted the Is on federal Organic Products Regulations in December 2006; the feds will complete the phase-in portion of these regulations this December.

In an organic nutshell, regulations will allow a Canada Organic logo---one logo; no more-organic or less-organic categories---to go on foods that meet a set of organic production and growth standards and, in the case of processed foods, contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. (Produce---duh---would have to be 100 percent: How do you grow an 80 percent organic eggplant?)

While there are no logo levels of organicness here, the Canadian organic standards aren't unlike the USDA's---growers must stay away from a Canadian Food Inspection Agency-devised list of the officially verboten, including genetically modified materials, synthetic pesticides, irradiation and the horrible-sounding, though seemingly popular because here it comes again...sewage sludge.

As of December, certified organic foods sold across provincial and national borders must meet the CFIA's production and ingredient standards. Or they can't be labelled organic.

These regulations are not about consumer food safety (the way similarly organized federal regulations on the slaughter and handling of animals are designed to keep people safe). "Organics," spokesman Marc Richard from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency told me, "from a regulated point of view, is in the fraud part of the mandate."

The thing is, none of this, not the logos or regulations or standards or inspections or the simple absence of---gulp---sewage sludge, truly defines being organic. Not, that is, if you're talking to Norbert Kungl.

Norbert Kungl is legend in organic farming in Nova Scotia.

He's been working his land for 23 years and selling organic produce at the Halifax Farmers' Market for 17. He's currently the president of the market board.

Kungl's tall---six-feet two-inches---and he's got a crop of dark brown hair (with one grey streak) sprouting from his head like the heartiest highbush cranberry. You might see this mane as a sign of his physical fortitude, or owe it to the fact that this Saturday, like every other at the crest of the summer growing season, he'll get up from his bed at 2:30am to load veggies from cooler to truck and drive an hour and a half into the city. Who's got time to find a comb?

Kungl, 52, farms 30 acres of vegetables on his 165 acres on the Minas Basin, where, on a misty July morning, he says, "Picture this: I go out to the fields and I'm driving through wafts of mist with the sun piercing through. Out on the Minas Basin, there's a white halo coming off the water...But ask me in February---there's no shelter from the wind coming off the Basin. It gets friggin' cold." It's called Selwood Green.

Selwood Green is in the hamlet of Bramber, Nova Scotia, in the Annapolis Valley ("The village of Bramber, up until about 100 years ago was called Selwood. So I'm just trying to honour that.") If Bramber's not on the map you're looking at, try for the next village south, Cheverie, or the next largest north, Walton.

Through the March-to-December growing season (Kungl's wife, Minga, who works the Wolfville Farmers' Market while Norbert's in the city, grows sprouts for those three months where there are no fresh greens) the fields burst with asparagus, lettuce, green onions, cucumbers, kohlrabi, leeks, beans, peas, cabbages, chard, beets, potatoes...and that's just for starters.

While crops may change (maybe he'll try peanuts next year, he says) Kungl has always stuck to organic farming. He's certified, yes. But ask Kungl, if you catch him before he's off from the market to do his Saturday delivery tour, and he'll tell you organic is about an evolving way of life, not a checklist.

"Organic started as a genuine philosophy to not mistreat the land, the people that work it and the animals that live on it," he says.

Organic, at this point in our story, becomes a measure more wiggly in its definition. It's partly still a checklist--- "no issue," Kungl says, "because we follow them"---but it's much more. And that much more---the shunning of corporate farming strategies and support for short-haul food distribution, for starters---is what makes Kungl's definition of organic different.

At its bedrock, this organic is about "good agricultural practices"---the ones large-scale organic operations don't necessarily consider.

According to by-the-numbers organic, Kungl says, "you could employ slave labour and do it organically, technically. The social conditions your workers live in---say it's on a large farm where people live right on the farm---could be substandard and it would not affect the legal status of it being certified organic if all of the production rules and regulations are adhered to.

"That," he says, "is absolutely not the historic intent of organic."

Intent, in Kungl's mind, has a lot to do with organic. And it becomes central to the definition of the word when you consider the possible ends organic, in its disparate forms, can achieve.

Is being organic cultivating thoughtful farming practices and aiming to mess as little as possible with ecosystems? Or is organic just a niche market, a boutique-brand used to secure regulated markets for global corporations, governed by standards to prevent labelling fraud?

Norbert Kungl would say true organic is the former. So let's call his definition the philosophical version of organic, where there's more to making organic tomatoes organic than simply ticking off a checklist to ensure they weren't sprouted from genetically modified seeds, didn't flourish from a chemical fertilizer boost and weren't shielded from the gnawing of blister beetles by synthetic pesticide dusting.

This philosophical approach to organic agriculture is about the belief system behind the growth of the crops and the production of the food. That's a set of criteria that's not so easy for the government to line up and standardize, even if, as the CFIA's Marc Richard points out, organic grower organizations and stakeholders were brought together for the federal Organic Product Regulation consultations. "It would be consistent with the philosophies of organic production," he says. "We didn't make it up."

And just to toss in some more confusion...

Even as committed to philosophical organic farming as Kungl is, he struggles with the outright rejection of big-name organic. Though large-scale farming practices, corporate efficiency strategies like monoculture and long-haul food transportation systems are the antithesis of Kungl's organic ideal, he still finds redemption in what many call "McOrganic."

"It matters to me," he says, "that in California 10,000 acres are farmed organically. That's better in my books than only 2,000 acres...with the other 8,000 acres being sprayed and treated conventionally."

Still, as business interests control more and more acres (Kraft owns soy burger company Boca, Heinz has an organic wing, the Mars candy company owns organic seed retailer Seeds of Change, Kellogg's owns Kashi) and farms become less profitable (the Ecology Action Centre's Marla MacLeod says in 1991, 10.1 cents of every dollar spent on food returned to Nova Scotia farmers; by 2006, it was only 7.2 cents), Kungl says "hardcore philosophically in-line kind of organic growers are moving on to a different level."

What that different level entails (or even what the movement will be called: "One of our leaders out in Portland, Maine, he calls it 'authentic food'") is perhaps as individual as organic and just as amazingly thorny to try to define.

That leads us to another question and it brings us conveniently back to our present cucumber quandary: If big organic can be hurtful, can conventional local be helpful?

Or, put another way:
Can organic be bad and pesticides be good?

Jennifer Scott believes conventionally grown food can bend the lines and fit into the philosophy of organic growing and eating. That's why she says conventional local is her next-best cucumber pick over the organic one from Israel.

"It's important to support our local producers," she says. "And if they're not organic then, well, get to know them...quite a number of Nova Scotia growers may be conventional but are still quite ecological."

Norbert Kungl says of our fictional conventional cucumber, which I imagined grown in a greenhouse over winter, "Yes, it is hydroponic, but they may not have spray on them, because in an atmosphere like a greenhouse, you can control pests in a much way. You can use beneficial insects; you can use climate control for fungal diseases."

Even if it were sprayed, or its farmer made use of non-organic growth aids, Kungl says in the scope of this discussion, "I think eating food that is grown with synthetic fertilizers is one of the lesser compromises."

This mirrors the attitude of Joel Salatin, the self-described "beyond organic" Virginia farmer featured in Michael Pollan's tome on ethical eating, The Omnivore's Dilemma.

In the book, Salatin tells Pollan, "If I said I was organic, people would fuss at me for getting feed corn from a neighbor who might be using atrazine. Well I would much rather use my money to keep my neighborhood productive and healthy than to export my dollars five hundred miles away to get 'pure product' that's really coated in diesel fuel. There are a whole lot more variables in making the right decision than does the chicken feed have chemicals or not."

Indeed, when there's a planet of organic available---from Jerusalem or Mexico or British Columbia or Maine---and any city dweller can choose organic at all costs, who does the choice to toss it into the cart profit?

To some, the environmental benefits of by-the-numbers organic foods that travel great distances are considered a wash when they're compared to the greenhouse gases produced in their transport. The UK Soil Association, which oversees most organic certification in the UK, last year proposed a complete ban on air-transported organics (air travel produces more greenhouse gas emissions than trucks, and trucks put out more than rail or ship). In March 2008, the association announced air-delivered organics will be acceptable for import but only if they meet the Fairtrade Foundation's ethical trade standards; implementation consultations continue.

Jennifer Scott says, too, that supporting conventional local farmers gives them more room to explore organic options and gives us more chances of finding that best-choice local and organic cucumber. "If consumers are talking with farmers and say: Hey, I'll pay more if you do this organically, that really helps. The farmer feels supported, not criticized. I think these kinds of alliances will help to move everything in a more ecological direction, and that's what we want."

OK, so, getting that kind of feedback lets farmers know what consumers want. But then what?

Then comes Alan Grant.

Alan Grant is a smiling bear of a man with great paws for hands.

He joins me at a Halifax coffee shop, in the city from his Truro office for meetings.

"I have something for you," he says. It's a bumper sticker: I Buy Local First.

So I guess you know right off where his allegiances lie. Sorry to kill the suspense.

Grant looks like a farmer but he works for the provincial government. For more than 20 years he's been helping farming families with business management.

Shall I tell you what his business card says?

He's manager of the Business Development and Economics Division of the Industry Development and Business Services Branch of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

But that snafu of a title belies an intriguing fact. Alan Grant totally gets it.

He understands the issues of local and organic and the economics of imported food and he wants to work with people to help them unravel the confusion and make their farming businesses more profitable. Nuance? Complexity? He's all over that.

"My group is not just about selling locally," Grant says (bumper sticker aside, apparently), "but it is about looking at those linkages, looking at the market, and looking at what the market values. Does the market value organic more than local? Because maybe if I'm a local producer, maybe I'm better off trying to produce a really good quality product that's not necessarily organic, but that meets the quality expectations of consumers."

Grant lauds the efforts of the Select Nova Scotia campaign, a provincial public relations drive launched last July.

The signature event for this year's campaign is the Select Nova Scotia Incredible Picnic series, a "celebration of local food and community in Nova Scotia," taking place August 24 at 10 locations stretching across the province. The picnics will be open-air parties where folks can bring their own local food or buy from farmers and food vendors on site. Part of the fete will be the presentation of the first annual Spirit Nova Scotia Local Food Awards, giving props to local food activists.

Local food activists?

The notion would have been preposterous 60 years ago, just like the idea that the 100-mile diet was worthy of coverage in a national newspaper.

Before the 1950s and the explosion of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, the growth in travel and the cultural shift to quicker, more convenient food, our cucumber question wouldn't have made sense either. Local or organic? There was pretty much no other way to eat besides local and organic. Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore's Dilemma, says local and organic---what farmers' market fanatics get up before dawn and, in Halifax, squirrel their way through cramped quarters to find---was seen as the lifestyle "tyranny" of the pre-Second World War era.

And all this leads---inevitably, frustratingly, deliciously---to a third consideration for our cucumber when local organic isn't available. Seasonal availability.

It's an alternative Alan Grant introduced in an email to me shortly after I contacted him for the first time with my local conventional versus from-away organic cucumber query.

It's not necessarily one or the other, says Grant. It's not necessarily "choose the input." Maybe the better question is: "whether you really do need to eat fresh tomatoes or lettuce in February?"

Baby steps, Alan Grant. Baby steps.

Support The Coast

At a time when the city needs local coverage more than ever, we’re asking for your help to support independent journalism. We are committed as always to providing free access to readers, particularly as we confront the impact of COVID-19 in Halifax and beyond.

Read more about the work we do here, or consider making a donation. Thank you for your support!

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Get more Halifax

The Coast Daily email newsletter is your extra dose of the city Monday through Friday. Sign up and go deep on Halifax.

Recent Comments