So, the Stanford “debunking organic produce” study was all over the news last week. (Mother Jones is skeptical about the methodology.) Per the NYTimes:
… Like many people who are seeking better-tasting, healthier food, Ms. Todd had heard about a recent study on organic food from Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy.
Based on data from 237 previously conducted studies, the Stanford report concluded that when it comes to certain nutrients, there is not much difference between organic and conventionally grown food.
But it also found that organic foods have 31 percent lower levels of pesticides, fewer food-borne pathogens and more phenols, a substance believed to help fight cancer….
People have moved beyond organics, those on the forefront of the local food movement say. Over the last couple of decades, food has become a platform for social issues and environmental causes, a rallying point for improving schools and a marker of cultural status. Farmers’ markets are seen as an indicator of community revitalization, and visiting them is a regular weekend activity for families. The Department of Agriculture has counted 7,864 of them this year, an increase of 174 percent from 2000…
…[I]ncreasingly, small-scale farmers like Greg Brown, who for six years has been growing okra, green beans and other vegetables on a few acres in Barnesville, Ga., are opting not to apply for federal organic certification.
He thought about going for an organic label, but the packet of requirements was more than an inch thick and the cost to get certified too high in proportion to his profit. Instead he farms under the less expensive certified naturally grown label, a national program that has sprung up as an alternative to the federal organic program and that has nearly 800 farms as members.
The program, which relies on farmers to inspect one another’s farms, does not certify processed foods like cereal. It requires that farmers use most of the same techniques as the federal organic program, but without the paperwork….
At the most local, “micro” level, we all want, like Nicholas Kristof, to eat from a place “where cows are happy and food is healthy“:
… Let me introduce Bob Bansen, a high school buddy of mine who is a third-generation dairyman raising Jersey cows on lovely green pastures here in Oregon beside the Yamhill River. Bob, 53, a lanky, self-deprecating man with an easy laugh, is an example of a farmer who has figured out how to make a good living running a farm that is efficient but also has soul….
For Bob, a crucial step came when he switched to organic production eight years ago… Bob’s big worry in switching to organic production was whether cows would stay healthy without routine use of antibiotics because pharmaceutical salesmen were always pushing them as essential. Indeed, about 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States go to farm animals — leading to the risk of more antibiotic-resistant microbes, which already cause infections that kill some 100,000 Americans annually.
Bob nervously began to experiment by withholding antibiotics. To his astonishment, the cows didn’t get infections; on the contrary, their health improved. He realized that by inserting antibiotics, he may have been introducing pathogens into the udder. As long as cows are kept clean and are given pasture rather than cooped up in filthy barns, there’s no need to shower them with antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, he says…
Granted, such a humane attitude may be easier to apply to dairying than to poultry. It’s tough for cage-free poultry farms to compete economically with huge industrial operations that raise millions of birds jammed into cages, and healthy food that is good for humans and animals in some cases will cost more.
Moreover, we’re never going to revert to the kind of agriculture that existed a century ago. Bob’s 600 acres used to be farmed by five different families, and that consolidation won’t be undone. But neither is it inevitable that consolidation will continue indefinitely so that America’s farms end up as vast, industrial, soulless food factories…
It’s getting from my-neighbor-the-farmer to where-can-I-buy-tonight’s-dinner that will take both thought and effort. Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, explains “Why Local Food Belongs on Grocery Shelves“:
Several years ago, South Carolina dairyman Tom Trantham presented me with a conundrum. “We grow great peaches here,” he said, “some of the best in the country. But once they’re picked, they disappear – at least for a little while.” After harvest, the South Carolina peaches were shipped to California, where they were repacked and sold wholesale to companies that supply the nation’s major grocers. “And then those peaches get put on another truck and shipped right back to South Carolina, where they end up on our store shelves,” Tom said. “Can you explain how that makes any sense?”…
…[T]here are tremendous untapped opportunities for producers to sell their products locally, further fueling the U.S. economy and expanding agriculture’s impact. When South Carolina peaches are sold directly to South Carolinians, there are uniquely local economic benefits. When the farmer, the packer, the wholesaler, and the retailer all prosper in the same region, it creates opportunity for home-grown jobs, draws more people into agriculture, and fosters relationships between the people who buy food and the people who grow it.
This is happening in places like Charlottesville, Virginia, where Local Food Hub aggregates products from more than 70 farms in the state, markets them to institutions, restaurants and grocers, and distributes them to more than 150 locations in the region, including the cafeteria at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The “food hub” model is gaining traction nationwide as a vehicle to help small and midsized farms supply buyers they cannot reach on their own, and for these buyers to access large volumes of local product…
I think one of the economic benefits of local farming should be better known by economists worried by the dearth of dependable career opportunities for young people:
A second reason why regional food systems are on the USDA’s agenda is because they can offer important opportunities for young and beginning farmers. The average age of an American farmer today is 57; for every farm operator under the age of 35, we have six over 65. Unless a young person inherits land and equipment, it is unlikely that he or she will have any chance at getting into – let alone surviving in – the global marketplace. On the other hand, with a relatively small plot of land, new farmers can build a profitable business selling high-value crops like produce directly to consumers. I see tremendous energy among young and beginning farmers for entering farming through local and regional sales….