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Local vs. Organic

Posted 8/22/2011 7:27pm by Don Lareau & Daphne Yannakakis.

One could write a dissertation on this topic.  So instead I will write down some thoughts I have been having regarding this idea that local is more important than organic.  There are still those that believe that both are equally important, but it seems that in the popular mindset there is a shift toward ‘local’, which is usurping the place that has been held by organic for the past couple of decades.  So let’s compare a product most of us consume on a regular basis, milk.  

Local conventional milk is a great place to start as there are still local dairies in many parts of the country.  There are also many national brands that contain milk from more local dairies.  None of what I am about to write knowingly pertains to our local dairies as I have no first hand knowledge of how they run their operations.  However there are many things that dairies have in common.  They rely on having lots of animals in a small area.  These animals are feed a lot of grains to supply the nutrition a cow needs to produce a lot of milk.  This system makes a lot of milk that is locally produced, but requires all the inputs this type of farming requires.  So you go to your local grocer and buy this milk.  

But does the money actually stay local?  Some of it goes to the people who transport it, pasteurize it, bottle it, and ship it.  A fraction of the money paid by the consumer goes to the producer.  So assuming that the other people live in the locality some of the other money may stay in the local economy.  But when you look deeper how much money are these people really making?  Ask any dairyman and you will likely hear the old adage, if you want to make a little money at dairying, start with a lot.  

None of these people in this chain really make much money, as they owe all of that money to the people who produce, gas, electricity, rubber, antibiotics, plastics, GMO corn, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, bailing twine, you get the idea, this money is not staying local.  Now I will not guess how much money of a “local” bottle of milk actually stays local, but I would think the proponents of local would be surprised that very little actually winds up flowing through the local economy.  Basically what is made by those working in the industry, and some profits if there are any?  But at what cost to the environment?  

Really the only difference in an organic dairy is that you take out the expenses for all of the antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, although an organic producer usually has many of these cost but they are just from a natural source and therefore not harmful for the environment.  The other factor is that the producer is paid more for their milk; most organic dairymen are surviving quite well in the face of rising corn prices that are squeezing out their conventional counterparts.   

So the trade-off when you decide to buy organic milk instead of local conventional milk at your local grocer is that of supporting a producer who is making a living while not spending the money you give them on polluting, cancer causing chemicals sold by huge multinational corporations.  Versus giving a little money back to the local economy, despite watching most of it go to those corporations whose product is actually a detriment to your local environment.  This is not a simple black and white issue at all.  

Now there are many different products we can look at such as vegetables, fruit, etc, and the dynamic changes a bit but I believe that the milk example at least speaks to truth yet to be confronted by local food advocates.  Personally I am always looking for the best of both worlds, local and organic!   Luckily there are so many options here so check out the new VOGA directory which has hit the stands, so check it out for you local and organic options. 

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