Tag Archives: Organic

Rethinking Local

Recently, I’ve run into some interesting articles going against the “buy local” mantra, mostly via @cblatts. In particular, I read an article on the book industry and one on food – and while neither were groundbreaking, they did make me stop and think about what really helps the community – whether that community is where I live or a more abstract community like authors or farmers. This is stuff I’m not well-versed in and I definitely have some reading to do, but this is just a small part of me trying to clarify my opinion – and I’m taking you along for the ride.

The first piece I read was this Slate article explaining that Amazon was better than local bookstores. The author spends most of his time explaining why Amazon is better for the customer and for “literary culture”  because it can afford to lower prices, effectively allowing people to buy and read more books. I do a share of shopping on Amazon, but I also love book stores. I always enjoyed wandering the aisles in Borders and I got coupons for 30-50% off an item, which brought the prices down enough to be comparable. I love the stuffy, crowded atmosphere of Old Town Books in Tempe, and there’s even a cat that lives there. But I’m not delusional about the role bookstores play in the industry – or the role Amazon plays. I think the article is right in pointing to Amazon not as the killer of literary culture but its savior.

The second piece I read was a short note from Ben Casnocha about buying food locally versus globally. Buying local (and organic) is definitely become a trend for the suburban hipsters among us. I visit the ASU Farmers Market every once in a while for some good tamales, but I’ve never gone full-local for my produce. But what I never thought of was what buying local does to the global – the farm workers in poorer countries that aren’t benefiting from the trend. Casnocha later put up quotes from Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist:

This is what it would take to feed nine billion people in 2050: at least a doubling of agricultural production driven by huge increase in fertiliser use in Africa, the adoption of drop irrigation in Asia and America, the spread of double cropping to many tropical countries, the use of GM crops all across the world to improve yields and reduce pollution, a further shift from feeding cattle with grain to feeding them with soybeans, a continuing relative expansion of fish, chicken and pig farming at the expense of beef and sheep (chickens and fish convert grain into meat three times as efficiently as cattle; pigs are in between)

As people continue to buy into the whole organic lifestyle, it inevitably bleeds into more than just your neighborhood farmer’s market. But that quote is (in my opinion) an important thing to remember – rural farmers in developing countries have been selling organic and local for years because they have to. The best way for them to increase their revenue is by increasing their inventory or by expanding their customer base. When you barely make enough to cover expenses and survive, it’s difficult to invest. When not abused, things like pesticides and international barges can help tremendously. While many suburbanites with the time and money continue to choose to buy local, it’s important to remember that not everything that’s good for your community can (nor should) be extrapolated to the global level.

Ethical Eating, Or How I Tried to Continue Eating Everything Without Remorse

When it comes to types of diet, I have always been firmly in the omnivore bracket. I have had plenty of friends that run the spectrum of vegetarianism for a variety of health and ethical reasons, but I haven’t really changed much. Taste-wise, I like meat too much and vegetables too little. Health-wise, I still have a hearty metabolism and I keep semi-fit. Ethics-wise, it gets a little fuzzy. I’ll get to a point soon, I promise, but for years I have been aware of the lack of humane treatment of livestock in the farming industry. Kim and I have had plenty of conversations about how meat is made and what kind of food we should actually eat.

I don’t think I’m very close to becoming a vegetarian, but if I had the option I would definitely become an ethical omnivore. This would mean, of course, that I only supported the ethical treatment and humane slaughter of animals. If you raise your cows living in their own waste and you cram chickens into poorly ventilated barn houses, you wouldn’t be seeing my money. If you let your livestock roam freely and killed them humanely, I’d be a consumer. While some think that this doesn’t mean much because I’m still eating a murdered animal, I’ve been a firm believer of nature’s gracing of humans with the means to be omnivores and I know that plants strive to survive just as much as animals even if they don’t have faces. What I’m not a firm believer in is mistreating animals just because you can or just because you’re going to eat them anyways. And so I look to more ethical eating and I find relatively little satisfaction because free range, come to find, means little.

A rigid search for the standards for free-range is relatively fruitless. The term, historically at least, refers to ranchers who allowed their herds to wander without fences – freely. As far as the food industry is concerned, it used to mean farms that kept livestock outside and able to move and perform natural acts – like perching, dust bathing, the like – until it was time for slaughter. But when it comes to the food I eat, what does free-range mean? According to the USDA, it doesn’t really mean much. Evidence A is a pdf with the specifics of a law pertaining to animal welfare:

§ 205.239 Livestock living conditions.

(a) The producer of an organic livestock operation must establish and maintain livestock living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals, including: (1) Access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate, and the environment;

Concerning the National Organic Standards, the USDA had faced the problem of defining what it meant to have “access to the outdoors,” and in a memo in 2002 [PDF] tried and failed to give it an adequate definition:

Access to the outdoors simply means that a producer must provide livestock with an opportunity to exit any barn or other enclosed structure. Access to the outdoors does not require a producer to comply with a specific space or stocking rate requirement. Neither does the requirement mandate that an entire herd or flock have access to the outdoors at any one time nor does the requirement supercede the producer’s responsibility for providing living conditions that accommodate livestock health, safety or well-being.

In other words, “access to the outdoors” means leaving a door open. For some farms, this means a barn house with poor ventilation and no light and packed with chickens wandering in their own filth might have a minuscule enclosed patio with a little bit of sun. And so I continued my search and finally found the words “free-range.” I was exhilarated! It was exactly what I had been looking for all along: the Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms page. That must have a thorough definition of what it means when I buy something that has a “free-range” sticker on it!

FREE RANGE or FREE ROAMING:
Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.

Thanks, Government.