Every autumn for the past five years, I have rustled up a handful of friends to join me picking crab apples, either in Kew Gardens or Woodbine Park. You may have seen us there! I enjoy talking with curious passersby about these little fruits, which I typically process into apple jelly and apple sauce.
Not only are these wild apples, pears, and other tree fruits delicious, they grow within a mile of where I live. It doesn’t get any more local or organic than that!
The whole “organic food” and “buy local” nomenclature and labelling can be a mystery. What does it really mean for food to be organic? And which is better: organically grown, no matter from how far away, or local but not organic? There isn’t one clear answer; it depends.
First, a look at the terminology. Organic food is ‘food produced using environmentally and animal friendly farming methods on organic farms’ (Source: Soil Association). That means produce grown in soil free of chemicals, which has not been sprayed with pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and has not been treated with chemicals after harvesting. For animal products, it means animals have been fed with species-appropriate foods free of any chemicals, are treated humanely, and have not been given antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic products in packages are those made from various organic ingredients without the addition of any man-made additives, like artificial colours, flavour enhancers, or preservatives.
The word organic may only be used if the produce has been certified by a local accredited certification body. For products, only those with organic content equal to or greater than 95 per cent may be labelled “organic” and use the Canada Organic logo (Source: Canadian Food Inspection Agency).
The official certification and labelling, however, can be a point of contention. When I spoke with several farmers at a market outside Barrie some time ago, they told me many farms did not bother taking the labourious route of official certification because it was an immense amount of paperwork, and a challenge to arrange and wait for visits by official representatives; basically, too much bureaucracy. And yet they assured me that many farms without official accreditation practise 100 per cent organic farming methods. Unfortunately, this leaves a grey zone for consumers.
Nevertheless, at the last census in 2009, Ontario had 716 certified organic farms, a slight increase from the previous census. Across Canada, the number has also been increasing steadily since 1992 (Source: Ministry of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada).
Local food, on the other hand is, according to the Ministry, classified as food produced in the province or territory in which it is sold, or food sold across provincial borders within 50 km of the originating province or territory. So while organic fruit from California may be better for you in general health terms, one might then counter that it generates up to 35 times more carbon dioxide and other emissions from transportation (this is an estimate), which then affects more people and our planet on a larger scale.
A commonly used number for the average “food mile,” i.e. the distance your food travels from farm to plate, is 1,500 km. Californian organic produce, though, adds 3,500 km in food ‘miles’ to its environmental footprint, whereas local and seasonal produce from Holland Marsh north of Newmarket is less than 100 km, or within 200-300 km from other Ontario farming regions. This is also why eating locally seasonal produce is important.
And still, sometimes long-distance food imports can be more sustainable than buying local. A detailed report by New Zealand’s Lincoln University compared the production, energy, and carbon dioxide emissions for lamb production in the UK and New Zealand and showed it was four times more energy efficient for Brits to buy NZ lamb than that raised in their own country! Despite the meat being shipped halfway around the world, the country’s milder climate and better grazing conditions resulted in considerably lower direct energy inputs per tonne of meat (Source: Research Report No. 285, July 2006, Lincoln University, Christchurch, NZ).
But we’re not all researchers who know such information, so what is a foodie to do? You can chose to buy local organic. Local stores increasingly offer local and local-organic produce. In the east end we also boast at least six weekly farmers’ markets, some of them year-round, which sell fruits and vegetables, baked goods, meats, honey, and more. Our nearest markets are at Evergreen Brick Works, East York Civic Centre, East Lynn Park, Withrow Park, Jonathan Ashbridge Park, and the latest addition at Fairmount Park. Each was started by passionate and energetic residents to bring local and organic foods closer to home and support the efforts of Ontario’s farmers.
That is exactly why Eleanor Nielsen shops at three of the local markets. “I believe in supporting our farmers. They get up at 2 a.m. or so to pick fresh produce, and then drive it into the city to sell at the markets.”
While she is less concerned about her food being organic and she recognizes that it is often more expensive, Eleanor does find that, “the produce is almost always better and fresher than from the grocery store.”
Whichever anyone’s reasons are for buying organic or simply locally grown foods, it is – as always – a personal preference. We are just lucky we actually have so many choices.
Martina Rowley is an environmental communicator