What Does A Sustainable Food System Look Like? — The Problem With The Term “Organic”

What if I told you there was a single word that could encapsulate the entire production method of a product?

This word was so descriptive and ironclad in its definition that a product, once graced with its letters, would immediately be elevated to a more optimal choice.

What’s better — this term could be applied to products that were made not only in your community or region, but all over the country and even the world, by big companies and tiny mom & pop shops, mass produced and artisanally created.

Essentially, this term would tell you that a product made by your local shop AND by a Fortune 500 company were equally valuable and worthy of your purchase.

Think that’s possible?

Probably not.

Why? Because the manner in which a product is produced matters. And it’s incredibly complex.

How a Fortune 500 company — let’s say Target — makes a shirt, will be vastly different than a shirt you might find at your local farmers market. The former might use methods and labor that you would find appalling. The latter likely crafted their product themselves with care.

Now I am not saying either product is better than the other, I am simply trying to point out that in both cases the shirt-maker has the right to use a particular term that is quite popular these days: organic.

If Target used organic cotton, they get to use that label, even if they used cheap foreign labor to produce it. Likewise, your local shirtmaker can use the term organic too if they used an organically grown textile to make the shirt.

Two wildly different processes, same exact term.

Does organic sufficiently describe the value of the good, then, in this case?

The same holds true for food.

Organic food sales are booming across the country. And while there may certainly be some merits to some of the practices used by these farms, it is equally true that not every organic farm uses every best practice or sustainable method.

Some organic farms are simply behemoths — giant corporate run industrial farms that can use the term organic because they fit the label.

But those giant farms resemble a conventional farm more than they do the image you have in your head when you think “organic.” They’re typically not your small, local, diversified farm run by a nice family with a dog.

They are monocultures.

Organic is just a word, and it tells you very little about the type of system in which your food was grown.


Ok so maybe local food is the answer.

The benefit of local food is that it is produced in your community, typically speaking. The actual definition of local food can vary depending on who you ask.

Here in D.C. we have a “local” grocery store that attempts to only carry locally grown or produced products. They define local as anything grown or produced in the states of the Chesapeake watershed.

In practice this means something grown as far away as Massena, NY (529 miles from D.C.) can be sold at their store as a “local” product. Half a thousand miles doesn’t feel too local…

Now I’m not at all knocking their definition of local food — I am simply pointing out that this term, like “organic,” is a bit loosely defined. Local does not necessarily mean the farm 30 miles down the road that you can visit on the weekend. It may be much further away than you think.

Similarly to the word “organic,” something labeled as “local” doesn’t actually tell you anything about the production methods. The only thing it tells you (and this is even debatable) is that the product likely didn’t travel as far to get to you, compared to other products in the store.

That’s it.

It doesn’t tell you anything about how the food was produced. In a post from several years ago I joked about the fact that if you happened to live in a town with a Coca Cola bottling plant that you could sit back and enjoy a “local Coke.”

Including where ingredients were assembled in the definition of “local food” is a bit dubious. At best, the benefit is keeping money in the local economy. “At least Martha down the street is getting my chocolate chip cookie money instead of Nabisco!”

Is that a benefit? Absolutely. But was the cacao in the chocolate chips grown locally? Unless you live in the tropics, probably not. So assembling products from around the planet down the block is hardly a local food, in my opinion.

The point of all of this is not to disparage “organic” and “local” food. It is more to point out that both of these terms probably mean a bit less than you realize.

I think the hope is that each of these words are synonymous with “sustainable.” But when corporate mega-farms can technically use both of these words without issue, I think we’ve elevated them a bit more than they deserve.

What should we eat, then?

It’s at least partially due to these issues that I’ve firmly planted my flag in the vegan and plant-based movement. If we want to work toward a more sustainable food system we have to take the 30,000 foot view.

Sure organic and local food have their place and their benefits. But the far bigger line must be drawn between plant foods and animal foods.

It is simply a law of thermodynamics that growing plant foods for human consumption will ALWAYS be more efficient than raising animals for food.

We can either go

Plants -> Humans, or

Plants -> Animals -> Humans.

When we insert animals into the middle of our food chains we lose A TON of energy in the process. That is inefficiency. That is the reason animal agriculture currently uses more than 50% of ALL land in the contiguous United States. That is the reason you can feed a vegan for a year on just 1/16th of an acre of land while a meat-eater needs 18 times as much land. That is the reason the carbon footprint of a vegan is half that of an omnivore. And that is the reason for 91% of Amazon deforestation — clearing land to feed animals and then us, instead of us directly.

Organic and Local may have their place in a sustainable food system. I am not here to say they are worthless terms. But make no mistake about it — if you want to make a real, measurable impact on the planet and create a new sustainable food system for the future, EAT MORE PLANTS (and less meat).

That’s where the clearest line must be drawn.

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