Organic is a word that is by now so commonly used that no one could hear it without thinking of a place like Whole Foods. When we hear organic we think of a pastoral scene of endless pastures, chickens or cows roaming around and eating to their content, and long rows of plump fruits and vegetables. The organic food industry is so big that it has become what it originally sought to undo, an industry.
As with anything that gets more into the mainstream, people quickly started to realize the demand and potential of organic farming. In the 70’s several alternative organic farms like Cascade Farms in Washington State and Earthbound Farms in California were becoming very successful due to the growing counterculture movement and interest in organic food. These farms were the start of something huge, the organic food industry.
What farmers and suppliers quickly realized was that to try and scale a traditional farm that grows a variety of crops and animals seasonally was not possible. The market rewards and depends on numbers that grow or remain steady. Traditional farming methods of not using pesticides and grazing rotation resulted in food that might be different from season to season, both in taste and type of food. Consumers don’t want to wait until spring for their asparagus, we want it in the dead of Winter. We don’t want to wait until summer for the lettuce to grow, we need it in February! This need to have everything when we want it is what spawned industrial agriculture, both organic and conventional. It has resulted in higher carbon footprints and longer distances traveled for our food.
Is Organic Worth It?
While I might disparage the organic industry, it is miles ahead of the industrial agriculture and animal farming in basically every way. Organic farming is much easier on the soil. Not using pesticides or only using organic ones allows the soil to retain much of its nutrients. Organic plants are protected not with chemical fertilizers and pesticides but with plant-derived compounds like rotenone, pyrethrum, and nicotine sulfate. Beneficial insects are also introduced to crops, like lacewings. Instead of using weed killers, industrial organic growers often till the fields several times over the course of the growing season. While this may get rid of weeds without chemicals it destroys the nutritional integrity of the soil nonetheless.
Industrial organic farming of animals is not nearly as pastoral and peaceful as we may think. Those organic chickens in whole foods are provided only marginally better living conditions than the conventional one. While organic chickens are fed organic feed and not given antibiotics or growth hormone, most industrial operations still pack up to 20,000 chickens in warehouses. They are labeled “free-range” because they are not in cages. Organic chickens must have access to outdoors so often after they are five weeks old a door the size of one chicken is opened up to give access to some bare ground outside of the holding facility. Not the rolling plane pictured on the chicken packaging is it?
Although industrial organic farming is still not ideal, conventional industrial farming would have less impact on our health and the environment if it took a page from its organic relative. I would not hesitate to buy the food that is organic over conventionally grown or raised food.
Why Local Is Always Best
Local food, even if not certified organic, will always be superior to organic. This is because of a few different things that separate traditional farming from industrial.
Local Is Nutritional Superior
Lets look at the cow as an example of this. You have probably heard the term “grass-fed”. This means that at some point the cow was raised on pasture eating what it was meant to eat, grass. What is more important is that the cow was “grass-finished”, meaning it was not taken to a feedlot the last last part of its life and fattened on grain before slaughter. Cows are not meant to be fattened on grain, they are meant to eat grass their entire life.
A cows diet directly affects the quality of the protein and fat it produces. When we eat a grain fed cow, even an organic one, we are eating an animal that gained an abnormal amount of fat due to its diet. Grass-fed cows are lower in overall fat. The quality of their fat is much greater than that of a grain fed. When cows are eating rapidly growing green grasses they convert that into nutrients that are concentrated in the fat. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in much higher concentrations in grass fed meat, along with CLA, and the all important vitamin K2. I’ve written extensively on the importance of K2 here. It is a vitamin that we simply do not get anymore, except from animals which have been raised on pasture. Grain fed meat contains much higher ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 fats, contributing to the highly inflammatory nature of the SAD (Standard American Diet).
While there are brands that mass produce grass fed and finished beef, pastured chicken, and heritage pork, you would do well to buy from the local farmer. Go see how the animals are raised. If you are already springing the cash for a larger brands meat, the local stuff will not be much more expensive. You can rest easy knowing the animals were raised properly so that they are contributing to your health, not subtracting from it.
The Environmental Impact Is Significantly Lessened
I would go so far as to say that if you buy from local farmers who are raising pastured animals, that food choice has a near zero impact environmental. This is because animal husbandry is necessary for a well balanced ecosystem and clean environment. Grazing animals are necessary for the maintenance of grasslands, thereby the maintenance of carbon filtration from the atmosphere. In nature animals instinctually practice what is called rotational grazing. Herds of animals keep close and graze a section of grass down, fertilize the soil with their manure, and when they come back a robust and healthy layer of new grass has grown. Prairies cannot grow other crops on them, and the grass is an important one to keep healthy.
Many local farmers raising livestock practice these sorts of grazing patters with their animals. When your food dollars support sustainable farming, we keep these practices alive and thriving.
When you buy local you are lowering the distance that food has to travel to get to your plate. This distance is on average 1500 miles. That doesn’t change if its organic! Those organic asparagus in January have to come from somewhere (Mexico). You can only imagine the steps that food takes when embarking on a road trip like that. Look at lettuce. The lettuce has to be picked in California, stored in temperature controlled warehouses, packed into climate controlled transportation, driven many miles, stored in another facility, put into the store, and finally put onto your plate. Compare this to the beauty and simplicity of that same food being grown on a farm 10 miles from your house. The carbon footprint of a meal consisting of local fare is countless times less.
Next time you are shopping for food, consider checking out your local farms and see what options are available. Im a huge advocate for subscribing to farm shares or CSA’s, weekly boxes of seasonal vegetables. Consider going in on a “cow share”, splitting a whole animal with some other folks. The up front cost is more, but savings over the course of consumption will absolutely rival the steepest supermarket steak specials.
Thats it for this week folks. Do you prioritize eating locally? Comment below! Don’t forget to sign up for our Wednesday Newsletter for the lates things happening at Steele Back Your Health, as well as a free copy of our ebook, 3 Elements To Lifelong Health.
Elliot Steele is a Primal Health Coach based in Chelan WA. He strives to empower those looking to regain their health after a lifetime of misinformed practices. This is the essence of Steele Back Your Health, to truly learn how to be healthy with sustainable habits. Check out the coaching and blog page for more info!