There’s a big push to eat locally sourced organic food in most cities these days, but does it really matter what kind of food you eat? Yes, it matters. A lot. What you put on your plate impacts the world around you.
What exactly does organic mean? According to the Organic Foods Production Act, organic means food that is grown without using most pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or ionizing radiation. For animals that produce food or milk, it means that they are not exposed to antibiotics or growth hormones. There are different organic classifications, which can be tricky when you’re shopping for your home. Products labeled “100% organic” are both organic and GMO-free. Products labeled as “organic” contain at least 95% organic ingredients. Foods with this label aren’t supposed to have GMOs, but there are loopholes in the law so it’s possible that foods you buy with this label could contain GMOs. Products labeled as “made with organic ingredients” contain at least 70% organic ingredients, but can’t have the USDA organic seal on them.
There is a process that occurs before a farm or product can be certified organic. Erin Flynn, Executive Director of New Farm Institute, which is the nonprofit educational organization of Green Gate Farms in Austin, says that being certified organic is not the same thing as saying you’re organic. According to Flynn, the organic seal means that every part of growing food – the type of seed used, where the seed was bought, how the seed was put in the field, how the field was treated, and the end point of sale – was verified by an independent party and the consumer can have confidence that the products and processes meet a certain standard.
Buying local is also important, says Flynn, because it helps farmers stay in business. There’s a misperception that organic farming is a lucrative business. In truth, organic farmers don’t make a lot of money because it’s very costly to meet USDA organic standards and because grocery stores charge a large fee for selling food in their stores. As for farmers’ markets, profit is dependent on the weather. If it rains, a farmer makes less money.
When you think about where to buy your food from, think about farmland preservation. Conventional farmers receive funding to grow certain foods. They must spray their food a certain number of times and then show those records to funders in order to receive money. If they don’t spray their crops a certain number of times, they lose their funding. Many of these conventional farmers have large loans or have mortgaged their farms to pay for their equipment and so they can’t afford to lose funding.
According to Flynn, it’s easy to over apply nitrogen to farm fields. If a conventional farmer is located in the Midwest and he over applies nitrogen to his fields, the excess nitrogen runs off into the Colorado River and causes water problems in Texas. So if farmers in the Midwest didn’t have an economic incentive to farm the way that they do, we’d have cleaner water in Texas. Says Flynn, “the choices that people make about what they put on their plate affects our environment.”
Who we buy our food from also shows us what our values are. In Austin, a top priority is building homes so there is less land for local farmers. That means that we have to ship our food in from the Midwest or elsewhere. That makes us even more reliant on conventional farms and the methods they use to grow their crops.
So how can you get involved? There are a number of ways to help support local farmers and improve your food quality. The Sustainable Food Policy Board meets monthly and anyone can go. You can give and listen to suggestions on how to improve access to food such as growing community gardens and helping schools grow their own food. Volunteer at a local farm where you can learn more about how to grow organic food and support your local farmer. Support an indoor farmers’ market, which allows local farmers to make money despite inclement weather.
What you eat has an impact on the community around you. There are many things you can do to ensure that the food you eat is good for your body and also supports your local economy.