Local vs. Organic

I put up a post under this title for a few minutes yesterday, but thought better of it since I really didn’t have time to form any coherent thoughts. I still don’t, but even given ample time, I’m rarely coherent. That of course has never stopped me.

My core question is this: in an age of mass-produced, industrialized organic food, does the word “organic” really have any meaning anymore? For certainly the term was originally meant to describe a lot more than pesticide and/or fertilizer-free food. “Organic” means a system, something that resembles an organism: balanced, harmonious, natural. Food was just the most conspicuous result of a much broader philosophy of living vis-à-vis the Earth.

As originally conceived, “organic” encompassed farming techniques free of so-called “inputs”, i.e. artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Biodiversity was also an important pillar of organic thought, which is to say, farms on which more than a single monolithic crop are grown. Next, a return to pre-mechanized farm management techniques (hand sowing and harvesting). Minimal handling and/or processing was of course critical, as was a distribution system that circumvented the modern mass production/supermarket system (co-ops).

We’re obviously a lonnnnng way from the sixties nowadays. As far as I can ascertain, today’s mass-produced organic produce and foods only meet the first of these many criteria. Which makes me wonder increasingly what all the hubbub is about. It can’t really be the chemical residues, since all it takes is one good strong cup of Starbuck’s to put back all the carcinogens you avoid in a year of organic eating. It can’t be the taste either, since once a strawberry is shipped in from Argentina or an apple is made into a microwavable cobbler, it’s all pretty much the same. And large organic enterprises are every bit as mechanized and unwieldy as their conventional counterparts.

So what is it then? Whatever it is, I can’t get interested it. I’ll tell you what does get me excited though: locally produced foods, the best of which can be had at farmers’ markets. Depending on where you live, the majority of what you find there may not may not be technically “organic”. But then who really needs a set of arbitrary guidelines when the grower is standing right there to tell you all about it?

The way I see it, organic, at least as it was originally intended, is dead. The utopia it set out to create never materialized. Its philosophy has disintegrated into a set of government additive standards and marketing slogans. Yet while it lasted it indisputably re-energized grass-roots agriculture: small produce farmers and meat producers who now seek to preserve the quality and tradition that began to wane with the dawn of industrial farming in the 1920’s. So what if it never took over the world? In the most meaningful senses, the organic movement achieved what it set out to accomplish.

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