Unravelling the labeling of our food

It seems with each passing day the food debate over the terms organic, local and sustainable becomes more complicated and more difficult to unravel. Can something that’s organic but grown miles away actually be sustainable? Do organic and local go hand in hand? At Rochester Greenovation our services and our ecological ethos is based around the ideas of reusing, upcycling or recycling all we can – never letting something go to landfill if it can be reused. Along with this many of those who support us are telling us that the way food is produced is becoming increasingly important to them.

How can this greener living ethos be applied then to the food debate? We take a look at some of the arguments and views surrounding food labeling and production - and try to work out which is truly best from a green, sustainable viewpoint.

Organic sales increase year on year

Many sectors of the food industry are still struggling because of the effects of the recession; the organic industry has however been bucking this trend and is reporting greater sales and increased usage. The US is thought to be the largest consumer of organic products; sales are up year on year around 13% to $11.2 billion with many purchasers saying the reason that they buy organic is what it’s not got in it rather than any perceived potential health benefits. People want to avoid the herbicides, fungicides and pesticides (among other things) that are pumped into produce through the conventional farming methods. There is also a belief that because the produce is lacking some additional interventions that the food is actually better and more nutritious for you and your family. Those that support the organic industry also think there are many other benefits of purchasing and eating organic food as well as outlined in this article from Licensed Prescriptions. Arguments against organic farming have always tended to be centered on cost, the actual (versus the perceived ones) health benefits and sustainability – proponents argue though that the cost of organic farming is thought to be a true reflection on how much it costs to grow food in today’s world.

Organic produce, its sustainability and local sourcing

Entwined in the organic argument is the sustainability and locally sourced produce debate. According to some statistics around a third of the agricultural land and over 80% of production of organic food is in emerging markets or developing countries. This means that for us to buy many of the products they are potentially being flown many thousands of miles in order to be sold in our stores. Add to this that if the products are being grown/produced in developing or emerging countries are the people working there being paid a fair wage and are they working in decent conditions? Is this an important strand in the organic debate? Many would argue it is.

In this light the arguments that organic food is truly sustainable perhaps begins to falter. Other relatively new terms such as locally produced or sourced have also gained more popularity but as yet there has been little regulation over what this actually means. Locally for some producers could mean within 20 km whilst for others it could be several hundred. Until this section of the industry is better regulated it is difficult to warrant the validity of the claims made by many producers.

Conventional economies versus organic production

One of the most difficult elements to grasp in the debate is the efficiencies of conventional farming versus organic production. As technology and farming methods have improved less land is needed to produce more crops leaving the land for other uses or in the cases of woodland and countryside to remain as it is - protecting natural plant species and wildlife. However in order to create a larger output on a smaller piece of land a number of fertilizers and pesticides must be used to great the maximum output. In comparison organic produce takes greater time and more land – which is better?

Following your own values

One thing is for sure; the debate surrounding food labeling is a contentious one, it’s certainly hard work getting to the bottom of any one food term and being able to offer a definitive view on its green credentials. Whilst we have only touched the surface of the different sides to this debate it would appear, as like so many things in this world, you can’t actually have it all – somewhere along the line there is always a disconnect.

Perhaps the only way to be truly green in your food consumption is to grow your own and become a small scale farmer – and for most of us that’s not a particularly economical let alone practical option! So the better conclusion is probably to do the best that you can in the ways you think are most relevant to the personal values and morals that you hold dear to you. Organic is great as long as it’s also local and sustainable, and for some people that’s just not possible.

Posted in Food