The Produce Riddle Part 1: Organic VS Local

In a capitalist economy, your purchases and buying habits can have the same weight as how you vote. Treehugger is committed to raising consumer's awareness of how those purchases can play into the bigger world environmental picture. And out of all the things we buy, what we buy the most often is our food. The food we buy influences quality of life, usage of gasoline and petroleum resources, and toxic chemicals worldwide. So, in this two-part series, we'll look at how you can use your produce purchases to vote for a sustainable future. To start with, you need to know that organic produce may not always be the enviro-conscious picnic it's cracked up to be...The BBC has an interesting piece about a UK study which found that in Great Britain, the total environmental cost of organic produce could be higher than that of non-organic local produce, because of the potentially long distances it had to travel to get to the market. As is often the case with trend-driven products, like organic produce, the idea that it is "organic" commands higher prices, which, in turn, allow more money to be spent in producing the same crops.

This increased spending allows growers to be located much further away from the point of sale, since now, more money can be spent on transportation and refrigeration. Now spending more money is fine, but the real cost of all that shipping fruits and vegetables around is in oil usage. Ships, planes, trucking networks, and refrigeration systems all run on oil energy. And all that oil contributes carbon output to a system which could be nearly closed-loop as far as CO2 emissions are concerned.

The BBC article focuses on Great Britain, but in the United States and Canada, the problem is even more severe. Tomatoes and peppers are routinely brought north as far Chicago, New York, and Montreal from southern Mexico and Central America. In the past when tariffs kept imported fruits and vegetables priced relatively high, apples might actually have been a fall fruit only; now in major cities, you can find as many as 5 varieties year round, from as far away as New Zealand and Chile. With these kinds of long haul travel, even organically grown produce can use as much oil and chemicals as the most fertilized locally grown stuff.

It's no trick realizing that this is a problem for those of us concerned about excessive oil usage. The real tricky problem is figuring out ways of buying produce that doesn't fall into this trap. Tomorrow in part two of our story, we'll look into some simple things you can do to try to reverse this trend. :: The Organic Dilema at the BBC [by DM]