Tracking food miles to make the best choices

Tractor trailer
Courtesy morguefile

By George and Melanie DeVault

"Is organic farming becoming the victim of its own success?"  So begins one of many recent news articles about the rush of large food companies to meet the exploding consumer demand for organic foods.

While the conventional food industry grows by only two to three percent a year, annual growth in organic food sales has averaged about 20 percent a year for the past decade, report industry experts. Annual sales are expected to top $32 billion by 2009. Such wild growth and profits—the food industry is second only to the pharmaceutical industry in profits—has attracted the attention of corporate giants from Wal-Mart to Monsanto.

Organic food is becoming such big business that China now reportedly has about 750,000 acres of organic fields and is becoming a major supplier of organic ingredients to Europe. And therein lies the rub: Food from China may be certified organic, but with today's rising energy costs is that sustainable? A 2003 consumer survey by Whole Foods supermarkets showed that 57 percent of organic consumers believe that organic foods are produced on small, family farms.

"Today's organic food market bears little resemblance to its roots in small natural foods stores and co-ops. Organic products now are marketed nationwide in the major supermarkets, even Wal-Mart, and are available in almost every category of food and beverage," organic industry columnist Elaine Lipson writes in a new industry report.  "The mass-marketing of organic foods in supermarkets—which accounted for 37 percent of organic sales in 2003—and expansion by mainstream food companies into the organic market are spurring more growth."

Despite—or some say because of—the adoption in the United States of federal organic standards in October, 2002, agribusiness corporations and mass retailers appear pitted against those traditionally concerned about subsidized water, animal welfare, fair labor standards, and rising energy use. Federal standards, critics say, are biased in favor of large corporations and industrial-scale farms.

"It's a question of whether organic is a way of life or a means to an end," Elizabeth Weise reported in USA Today in March of this year.

Many farmers and food buyers are turning away from the certified organic label in favor of locally grown foodstuffs. Catering giant Bon Appetit Management Co. serves 1 million meals a week at more than 150 corporate dining rooms in 26 states. It recently asked each of its chefs to begin using as much locally grown fruit, vegetables, and drug-and hormone-free meat as possible.

While organic food may treat the environment kindly, buying locally grown food, even  if it is sprayed with chemical pesticides, is likely more earth-friendly than buying organic, maintains a new study by the University of Essex published recently in the journal Food Policy.

Consuming only locally grown food would save the United Kingdom $4 billion a year in environmental and transport costs, according to the study. Growing all of that food organically would save another $2.1 billion, researchers say. That's why they insist food labels should begin listing "food miles" traveled, rather than just the fact that something was grown organically. Organic and local? Now thats sustainable!

George and Melanie DeVault have raised organic produce for more than 20 years on their preserved farm near Emmaus, PA. George is a Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy Fellow and a PASA board member.

Published May 2005