The food movement defined

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Ryan Edwards

Edie Ware of Johnson’s Backyard Garden, a USDA certified organic farm in East Austin, restocks a carton of romain hearts Saturday morning at the Austin Farmer’s Market on 4th and Guadalupe. Better understanding the definition of key words like organic and sustainable can help individuals make better informed decisions about the food they choose to eat.

Brittany Smith

With the rapid rise of the health food movement, students are constantly barraged with prescriptions of what to eat: local food, sustainable food, organic food, chemical-free food. We are told to search labels for key words like “all-natural” and “farm raised.” We should avoid “processed” and “industrial” packaged foods at all costs.

But food is a complex issue and many of the terms used in the movement are simplifiers — they flatten the complexities of food and fail to take into account some serious issues that complicate the discussion.

Here’s an introduction to the key “buzzwords” often heard in the food movement as well as a list of complicating factors.

Local Food

Definition: The definition of local food is somewhat unclear, even amongst those embedded in the local food scene. It’s a geographic quantifier that means “in the general area.” According to the requirements that the Sustainable Food Center places upon farmers who sell through the SFC’s farmer’s markets, “local” means food that has been grown or raised within 150 miles of Austin.

Why: Locavores believe that eating food that’s grown and raised nearby is healthier, fresher and better for the environment. Buying locally is also said to provide transparency in the food system. National security and economic self-sufficiency are occasionally cited as reasons to “go local.”

Consider this…

1. Some parts of the country do not grow some foods well because of variances in climate, soil and access to water. Coffee, bananas, star anise and Kobe beef cannot be grown in the United States at all. Should we deprive ourselves of these foods because they are not local? Some would argue yes, but others cannot imagine their life without the morning cup of joe.

2. Many urbanized areas in the United States, like Las Vegas, are deserts, where local food is literally impossible to grow. By adopting a “local-only” philosophy, we’d be necessarily damning these cities that have come to thrive because of their dependence on outside food sources.

3. Surprisingly, it is the home consumption of food that costs the most energy in the food production chain, not transportation. It is the preparation and storage of food in the consumer’s home that absorbs 32 percent of the total energy in food production. Heating an oven, running a refrigerator and washing the dishes take energy. “Local food” may only be a part of a larger solution.

4. Small, local farms cannot achieve the economies of scale that large food producers can. Local food, then, is much more expensive than food found in H-E-B and other supermarkets and is often out of reach for lower income earners.

Organic Food

Definition: The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets standards that farmers must meet in order to be certified as an organic grower. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “organic farming systems rely on ecologically based practices such as cultural and biological pest management, exclusion of all synthetic chemicals, antibiotics and hormones in crop and livestock production.” Actually, the regulations do allow some synthetic inputs, including hydrogen peroxide and sulfurous acid. Genetically-modified crops cannot be considered organic.

Why: Many praise organically grown food for decreasing the pollution of soil and water, promoting crop diversity, bolstering healthy soil and producing better tasting and healthier food.

Consider this…

1. There is scientific debate as to whether organic food is actually healthier than conventionally grown food.

2. Organic food is still susceptible to contamination. Last week, Dartmouth researchers released a study finding high levels of arsenic in some organic products, including baby food.

3. USDA organic certification is expensive to acquire, so while many small farmers are growing according to (or surpassing) the government standards, they cannot obtain the official USDA stamp.

4. Large corporations have found it profitable to grow certified organic crops because of the increase in consumer demand. Consumers may be torn between supporting organic while simultaneously supporting the companies, like General Mills and Kellogg’s, that also sell highly processed, nutritionally deficient foods.

Sustainable Food

Definition: A sustainable food system, as defined by the American Public Health Association is, “one that provides healthy food to meet current food needs while maintaining healthy ecosystems that can also provide food for generations to come with minimal negative impact to the environment. A sustainable food system also encourages local production and distribution infrastructures and makes nutritious food available, accessible and affordable to all. Further, it is humane and just, protecting farmers and other workers, consumers and communities.”

Why: Sustainable practices are touted as a promise to provide for society’s current needs without compromising the food security of future generations.

Consider this…

1. Given the realities of population growth and urbanization, does “sustainable” food actually have the productive capacity to feed the world?

2. Because of the vagueness of the definition, it’s difficult for consumers to know what growing techniques are considered “sustainable” and which ones will not result in the long-term well-being of the economy, society and the environment.

3. A “sustainable” food system may actually result in an increase in land use because of the lower yields of organic,
local crops.

Food is an essential human need and the choices that students make regarding its consumption will have lasting effects on the system as a whole. It’s important to think critically about the issues — including the language of the movement — in order to fully understand the repercussions of our eating decisions.

Printed on Monday, February 20, 2012 as: food Buzzwords