Forget the foreign cars and name brands, you are now more likely to be judged by what is on your dinner table. Is that steak local, grass fed, animal welfare approved? Did you pair it with a side of local, organic, heirloom potatoes? While the string of labels becomes its own parody, it is indicative of our life in the information age. Transparency is a valuable trait that consumers are beginning to expect from companies, especially when it comes to food producers. In the race to lead the most socially, politically, and environmentally correct life possible, how does one ensure they are making the right choice?
The real challenge comes when determining which certification is the “best” and finding measurable data to back up these decisions. At the top of the debate is the local versus organic. Which is better? What is more important? How are they different and how are they similar? These are the types of questions that can paralyze you in the grocery store. Adding to this challenging endeavor is the reality that a lot of this is subjective. Everyone has their own set of values as well as financial and logistical constraints. What is the right choice for you and what you are able to source where you live?
Although the organic foods movement began in the 70s, the official National Organic Program was launched in 2002. Organic Certification is a process by which a food business must pass a third party inspection to verify that they have met organic standards, utilized specific production practices, and are not using prohibited substances. In South Carolina, Clemson University’s Public Service and Agriculture department is the Accredited Certification agency for the state that conducts these third party inspections. Ryan Merck is the Organic Program Coordinator with the program and has spent years on the ground in South Carolina conducting inspections on crops, livestock, and processing. He believes the strengths of the program are its ability to help provide accountability through third party verification and record keeping while also creating a minimum standard for how to farm with an “ecological component.”
The challenge for consumers in South Carolina is that currently there are only 53 certified farms, ranging from ¼ acre to 1,000 acres, leaving many gaps in supply. Charleston County only has three certified organic farms, Joseph Fields Farm, Middleton Place Organic Farm and Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center. Why are there so few farms getting certified in SC? Ryan believes it is in part due to misconceptions about the process being too expensive or having too much paperwork as well as a major deficit in farmer and consumer education. He noted that neighboring states are far ahead in numbers, with North Carolina home to 262 certified farms and Georgia up to 97 certified farms.
For Joseph and Helen Fields of Joseph Fields Farm, the choice to transition to organic began almost 14 years ago and this year they completed their 9th inspection. “The customers were asking for organic vegetables,” Helen Field reflects. As one of the first Certified Organic farms in the state, they had to spend a lot of time educating consumers when their prices increased. Although some fought the change, in the end Helen explained, “If someone is truly interested in organic, they buy it, regardless of the cost.”
While the Fields are seasoned veterans at the process, Joshua Adams just completed his first inspection as the Farm Manager at the Middleton Place Organic Farm. “It’s a lot of paperwork, but it’s really not as bad as I thought it was going to be,” he says. He realized that the process itself would help him develop positive habits in his first few years of farming. “As a farmer you need to keep good records and being certified organic helps you do that.” Yet Joshua is left feeling as though perhaps society has it wrong. “It’s kind of backward. As someone that is trying to grow healthier food, we have to have to go through so many hoops and other people can spray chemicals without even having to be labeled.”
Adams is not the only one that feels as though farmers practicing organic production should not have to go through a stringent process that eats into their already tight margins. Kenneth Melton, owner of Lowland Farms on Johns Island, has always grown using organic methods and attends a variety of trainings to learn more sustainable methods for his operation but is not certified. “I have kids and feed them from the farm. I don’t want to spray anything. I don’t want to import things onto my farm that I don’t have to”. As a farmer with direct to consumer and restaurant sales, he doesn’t see a reason to go through the process because he has great relationships with his customers and will answer any questions they have. “Once you have the relationship and they learn about how you are growing, organically, then they trust you,” he says. “People are more interested in where you are located.”
Lowland Farms is one of several local operations that sell regularly at farmers markets in the area, including the new market launching in West Ashley. Charleston is not the only city with an incredible demand for local food, as demonstrated in the continued growth of farmers markets nationwide from 1,755 in 1994 to 8,284 in 2014. Proponents of local foods are focused on the ability to have a relationship with their farmer, reduce their carbon footprint, access regionally specific products, support the local economy, and enjoy harvested-that-morning fresh produce.
Yet unlike organic, the food industry is having a harder time pinning down how exactly to define and enforce this. According to the USDA: “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” is less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the State in which it is produced.” In South Carolina, Growfood Carolina initially adopted the more stringent industry standard of 120 miles but recently expanded statewide to capture the range of growing seasons and products grown in the state. According to Sara Clow, the General Manager at Growfood, buyers are sourcing from them to access high quality produce that is sourced locally and are generally not as concerned with organic certification, “The chefs want what tastes best and is local.”
One of the challenges local is that distance is the only requirement. Local farmers can practice a broad range of production methods that may or may not reflect your own beliefs on health, social justice, animal welfare, or the environment. The benefit of location as a restriction is that because of their relationships in the communities in which they grow and live, farmers selling in direct markets locally have a great motivation to meet their consumer’s demands. If you have the ability to build a relationship with a farmer, you can ask about their practices and express your desire for certain types of certifications. Although this sounds like an ideal solution, the reality is the majority of Americans still buy their food at the grocery store – making food labels the primary tool for a customer can learn about a product. The current system relies heavily on certifications and language approved by the FDA (ie. words like “natural”) to help consumers make decisions because farmers are not in the store to answer questions. Marketing and packaging can be very confusing to customers and take advantage of loopholes in labeling restrictions. This weakness of the system is also its strength because it encourages consumers to actually learn about the food system and build relationships with those growing food in your community so they can be informed and savvy customers.
So what is better, local or organic? It is a question that only you can answer for yourself.
This article originally appeared in the Charleston City Paper.
Want to eat local? Make and check out resources from Lowcountry Local First, including this Map of Purveyors. They even have a phone app to help you track your progress. Not in Charleston? Check out Local Harvest.