Sunday, July 13, 2008

Organic vs Being Green - Which is Better?

As consumers in the United States we are being bombarded with terms like organic, sustainable, local, farmers markets, carbon footprint and others. After a while, it all begins to mesh together into one large cloud of vaguery, and we kind of just get lost in the whole process.
Sure, we all want to be healthy, and we also care about our environment. I mean, this is our planet, and we need to live here. Furthermore, this is my body, and it's the only one I've got, so I have to make sure I treat it like a temple. Two very important sentiments, that seemingly go hand-in-hand, right? However, we seem to be forced to have to strike a balance between "organic," "pesticide free," and "free-range" (we can't forget about the ethical treatment of our food-source), and concepts like "local farming," "sustainable farming," and "low-carbon-footprint" sources of sustenance. Just to throw a wrench into the equation, we all want to make sure that we can afford to maintain this delicate balance. I mean, organic products are not cheap! Wise Organic Pastures, a company that provides kosher organic poultry and beef, charges almost double the price per pound on their chickens than do some of the local non-organic purveyors of the same level of kashruth.
Sometimes, the local farmer providing you with your delicious apples and strawberries, also happen to be organic - GREAT! Two birds with one stone. Sure, it comes with a bit of a premium to buy orgnic, but you're doing great things for the environment by making sure you're buying from a farmer who didn't have to travel very far to make sure his consumers get the freshest and best of his offerings. This means lower gas consumption (ahh! the big one! at close to $5/gallon in NYC - this is REALLY important), and a lower carbon footprint.
But, and it's a big but - most consumers aren't really aware of what goes into the total calculation of a single item's carbon footprint. If one is to really try and be green, and they're serious about it - one must really do their due diligence in researching the products they're interested in buying.
Let's take apples just as an example. Say you have Great Apples Farm up in Hudson Valley, NY. Not very far from New York City - which means that the consumers are not buying apples from a state outside of their own (like California!! Talk about a waste of gas). Great, so we've lowered the carbon footprint of these apples because it's travelling less to get to the consumer. Well...let's take a step back and look at the larger picture. First of all, where did the apple seeds come from? What if the owner of Great Apples Farm bought his apple seeds from China or Chile? Well....that means that bags and bags of apple seeds were harvested from China or Chile (and we don't even know what kind of carbon emissions the harvesting emitted....and considering these are not first-world countries, it's probably pretty high), then shipped on some cargo boat all the way to some port in the United States - most likely somewhere in California, only to the be shipped all over the country by a distributor to get to the retailer - who may or may not even be in the same county as the farmer - then eventually shipped from the retailer to the farmer. Phew! That was a LONG trip....
Wait! There's more. Then we need to consider the farmer's planting and harvesting practices. Where is he getting his fertilizer, top-soil and all the other things he needs to effectively do his farming? And what about his watering system? Is that an efficient and effective, or greener method?
The list goes on, with each of these components contributing in varying degrees to the carbon footprint of that ONE apple. In the end, it is quite plausible that buying apples from your local supermarket (that apple may have come all the way from China) would have a lower carbon footprint than the local farmer's apple.
This whole concept was really brought to my attention by an article in The New Yorker back in February of 2008. The article, Big Foot, really puts into perspective what it takes to calculate the carbon footprint of our items - and not just food, our clothes, our furniture - everything!
In the end, what are we supposed to do? Is it better to go the organic route? Or the local,sustainable route? At this time, we may not even be prepared to answer that question, but in order to start being able to do that, we have to start here. As time progresses, I believe we'll be in a better position to be able to determine what the best route is. Until then, live well, live healthy, and be happy.

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