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Let's clear up one issue: There is no such thing as local vs. organic. When it comes to consumer choice, we should be buying local and organic, though for mostly different reasons.Why We Should Buy Local
Local is really important as a deep investment into your local economy and developing a relationship with the person who produces your food. Not only do local businesses generate more local income, jobs, and tax receipts, but they also tend to utilize advertizing, banks, and services in the local community. In fact, a dollar spent at a local business turns over seven times in that community; while the same dollar spent at a box store or chain only turns over 2.5 times. Buying locally builds a healthy community on many levels. (For case studies on the economic, social, and environmental impacts of buying local visit the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies). Not only can you support the economic health of your community and offer security to your hardworking neighbors, but you can eliminate the uncertainties of agribusiness by talking to your farmer and seeing first-hand how your food is produced. It is also helpful in being able to purchase food that is often fresher. What's more is buying local can create local food security, which may become more and more important in the near future. We at Rodale Institute couldn't be more enthusiastic about local.
Considering the Carbon Footprint of Food
In this conversation, food carbon footprint often arises. However, the most carbon intensive portion of food production and consumption, outside of driving to the store and putting the food in your refrigerator, is the farming methods. The amount of carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere varies widely with regard to the manner in which the food is grown. Because the manufacture of chemical fertilizers and other conventional farming inputs are reliant upon vast amounts of fossil fuel, the food you eat (local or not) can account for huge levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) releases. According to a recent New York Times article about Tropicana orange juice, fertilizers alone contribute to nearly 60% of the CO2 emitted in production. Conventional chemical-based agriculture is a net emitter of CO2 and by some estimates contributes between 9 - 20% of our total greenhouse gases in the U.S.
On the other hand, non-chemical organic farming will pull carbon dioxide right out of the atmosphere and hold it in the soil for decades. As a matter of fact, research at Rodale Institute that has now been replicated at several land grant universities, shows that over 3.5 tons of CO2 can be sequestered on well-managed organic soils using compost and no chemical inputs. Synthetic fertilizers and many pesticides used in conventional farming inhibit the biological factors that build soil carbon, which adds to the long-term destruction of soils.
Why We Should Buy Organic
If we converted all tillable acres globally to organic practices, we could sequester up to 40% of all the world's carbon emissions. This is the single largest strategy for mitigating carbon dioxide. There is nothing more significant to help us in our crisis with climate. In the U.S. alone, it would be equivalent to taking 216,000,000 automobiles off the road, or 25% of our country's CO2 emissions. This is most hopeful news out there.
Some might recoil at the organic or even farmer's market prices that are often asked for these products, but remember when we buy organic we are paying the grower for the full price of our food. This true price reflects our power as consumers to support our farmers, who sequester our own personal carbon emission excesses, such as those from our commutes, air-conditioning, and other "necessary" purchases that have been shipped in from off-shore, with sustainable farming practices. And in the production of organic food, unlike conventional chemical agriculture, there are no long-term ecological costs that are yet to be paid for by us or by our descendants.
Buy organic always, and encourage and buy local. Doing so is a direct investment in one of our very few, possible futures.
Guest contributor Tim LaSalle is CEO of Rodale Institute, which is dedicated to researching and educating farmers and consumers about sustainable agriculture.
More on Local Food
Eating Local Food: The Movement, Locavores, and More
More on Organic Food and Organic Solutions
How Organic Food Works
Organic Consumers Association
How To Stop Global Warming and Hunger At the Same Time
Use Organic Agriculture to Fight Climate Change, EU Official Says
The Rodale Institute