IN THE PAST several years, the amount of information that is available about our food has exploded. As a chef, I appreciate how much easier it is to get reliable data about where our food is from, how it was grown and even how many hands it passed though before it landed in my kitchen.
While this increase of information is most welcome, it also forces us to make difficult choices as we integrate this information into our daily lives. The decision to buy local vs. organic is one of these new choices.
For many years, buying organic food was the primary option available to consumers in the supermarket. However, people are increasingly choosing local products as they become more available. This choice is not only made at the personal level, but is also debated at all levels of our food system. This was particularly evident at a two-day Sustainable Foods Institute recently hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Yountville, honored as the Chef of the Year during the Sustainable Foods Institute, says, "For me, as I went through my career, as I came to understand where our product came from and where the best products came from, the term 'local' changed for me. It wasn't about a geographical location, it was about quality of the product.
"If we could get great lobsters from Maine every day at my back door, then for me that was a local product," even if those lobsters were shipped overnight from across the country.
Keller acknowledges that many people might think "Well, this guy's crazy" for calling a food shipped cross-country "local." And what about organic? Does Keller, arguably one of the most exclusive chefs in the world, buy organic food for his restaurants?
"I don't really subscribe to organic or not organic ... because we now know the organic level doesn't always come from an ideal situation."
On this point, Helene York is in complete agreement with Keller. The director of Strategic Initiatives with Bon Appétit Management Company, York helps to oversee the creation of many thousands of meals yearly at corporate cafeterias and universities around the country.
"We will buy organic if it's local, and we do," says York, but she parts company with Keller on the issue of buying local. Buying from local, regional suppliers is their first rule, the opposite of Keller's stance. "The rationale," says York, "has been that organic principally comes from large farms, many of them from very far away." And, she adds, many environmental and social costs arise from that distance.
The conversation gets even more complicated, it turns out, when you add more voices to the mix.
Myra Goodman, co-founder of Earthbound Farm in Carmel Valley, begins by saying "I don't want to sound like I'm against local. For example, there are heirloom vegetable varieties that simply cannot be shipped. And I'm not defending the negative parts of our nationalized food chain." However, "The difference to the environment and to people's health with organic vs. conventional foods is really worlds apart."
Goodman lists of a variety of advantages that organic foods have: they avoid the application of agrochemicals that are fossil fuel dependent; organic soil has more organic matter that retains more water; the water and soils aren't poisoned by pesticides and toxins.
The bottom line, unfortunately, is that these choices really aren't as simple as they first may appear.
Regardless of your decision, economist Jeff Rubin thinks that our international food chain soon may be a thing of the past and that local food may be our future. In his new book "Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller," Rubin writes, "In the global economy, no one thinks about distance in miles — they think in dollars. If oil is cheap, it really doesn't matter how far ... a farmer's field (is) from a supermarket." But this will all change, he says, if oil prices rise as they did last year. Something, he continues, that's sure to happen when our current recession is over.
He suggests that the most important question isn't "organic vs. local," but rather "What types of food choices can I make to reduce my overall impact on the environment?"
Undoubtedly, this decision will include both organic and local foods. But it also could take into account how much processed vs. fresh foods you consume, or what kinds of proteins, meats and fish you prefer. The sum of your diet, not one individual choice, makes all the difference.
Ecologist Aaron French is chef at the Sunny Side Cafe in Albany. He can be reached at email@example.com.