Gone are the days when the only decision you had to make when buying an apple was, “Should I buy red or green?” Today’s consumer has the option of purchasing an apple at the supermarket that is “organic” or maybe a “locally grown” apple from the farmers’ market. What do “organic” and “local” really mean and which is the more “sustainable” choice?
Produce today is grown in a variety of methods and at Bon Appétit Management Company, we think of these agricultural practices on a spectrum based on how we view their degree of sustainability.
Certified Sustainable and Organic
Food that is double-certified as “sustainable” and “organic” ranks the highest on our sustainability spectrum. This is the “best of both worlds” in the sense that it adheres to both the USDA National Organic Program criteria, which mainly address environmental issues of agriculture, and the Certified Sustainable guidelines, which also requires socially responsible food growing practices. However, we also understand that this double certification is not realistic for many small farmers and operations because the certification process is costly and labor-intensive.
Guidelines for sustainable certification include environmentally and socially responsible agricultural practices. Typically there is a very strict set of criteria that ranges from using natural pest controls to providing safe and fair working conditions for farm laborers. There are a few agencies that certify farmers who produce sustainable food.
Food Alliance, a nonprofit organization that supports sustainable agriculture, is one of the main third-party sustainable certifying agencies in North America. Their certification not only recognizes farmers and ranchers but manufacturers, processors and distributors as well.
Protected Harvest is another nonprofit organization that certifies sustainable farms. Their mission is to “advance and certify the use of environmentally and economically sustainable agriculture through the development of stringent, transparent and quantifiable standards, incentive-based eco-labeling and public education.”
The Certified Sustainable Products Alliance is a network of agricultural and forestry operations, nongovernmental organizations, international companies and is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Coordinated by the Rainforest Alliance, this coalition works to strengthen the competitiveness and improve the social and environmental impacts of forestry operations and coffee and banana farms.
Unlike “organic,” the term “local” does not have an official legal definition. In other words, farmers don’t have to meet certain production guidelines to call their products “local.”
Although there is no official certification process for local, the philosophy and practice of the local foods movement often goes above and beyond organic. Buying local allows the consumer to build a relationship with the farmer and ask specific questions about growing practices. That way you can truly know what goes into your food and how it’s grown. In addition to connecting the farmer and consumer, buying locally grown food also economically supports the community because a greater percentage of the food dollar goes to the farmer. The organic certification guidelines primarily focus on the environmental impacts of agriculture methods. The local food movement takes it a step further and addresses not only environmental issues but social and ethical aspects of food production.
Ethical and social issues addressed by local agriculture include the preservation of flavor, the ability to feed ourselves, the economic viability of rural community and the preservation of American agricultural traditions. For example, local farmers often work to preserve heirloom varietals and traditional flavors by growing and harvesting crops seasonally. Additionally, buying food directly from the farmer reinvests in the local community. Overall, the general philosophy behind local food embraces sustainability.
Local and sustainable food is at the crux of Bon Appétit’s philosophy as noted by our Farm to Fork program. Visit our Community section for more information about local food and what you can find in your area.
In the early 1900s, the introduction of gasoline-fueled farm machinery, hybrid plant seeds and various pesticides and herbicides drastically changed traditional farming practices. As a backlash to these new industrialized agricultural methods, the “organic movement” emerged in the 1940s. Organic farmers embraced an ecologically-friendly approach to agriculture by balancing the interactions of the soil, plants and animals. Having started out as a holistic farming philosophy practiced in personal gardens and small farms, “organic” is now defined by specific criteria set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 officially defines the word “organic” as it pertains to agriculture and the food system. According to this legislation, organic food means it is grown “by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.” Organic produce is grown without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, genetically modified ingredients or radiation.
In order for a food to be officially labeled organic, it must not only adhere to specific production guidelines but it must also be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agency. When applying for certification, a producer needs to submit an organic system plan that describes in detail how the food is grown, what substances are used, how the records are kept and how the producer prevents the mixing of organic and non-organic products.
It is important to note that many farmers had been growing produce organically or without pesticides decades before the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990. This legislation created a specific legal definition for food labeling standards. Some farmers are in transition to organic while some farmers consider the certification process too labor intensive and costly. Undoubtedly, though, the organic certification has played a significant role in increasing consumer awareness about how food is grown and continues to influence current agricultural practices.
Integrated Pest Management
The goal of the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program is to manage pest damage using the most economical means with the least possible hazard to people, property and the environment. It promotes the prudent usage of insecticides in crop production combined with “traditional” pest control methods. These “traditional” preventive methods are based on information about the pests’ life cycles and their interactions with the environment and focus on prevention. Some examples include crop rotation and planting pest-free rootstock near the crops.
IPM is a complex process that varies from crop to crop, so it is difficult to create certification criteria. Currently, there is no IPM certification program and foods that are grown using IPM methods are not identified in the marketplace.
Industrial farming refers to agricultural methods that focus on maximizing efficiency. With the boom of “agribusiness,” farms have become larger and fewer in number, and as a result, the U.S. now has one of the cheapest and most abundant food systems in the world.
However, this type of farming relies heavily on mono-cropping, the process of planting the same crop on the same land year after year. Because this severely depletes the soil of its nutrients and leads to soil erosion, mono-cropping requires the use of chemical fertilizers to replenish the soil. These chemicals, in turn, destroy the existing natural nutrients in the soil, leading to a greater dependency on chemical fertilizers, and the vicious cycle continues. In addition to chemical fertilizers, various insecticides are sprayed on the crops in order to prevent outbreaks of disease. Continuous chemical use can eventually lead to resistance in these plants, requiring farmers to use more and more pesticides. As with fertilizers, farms often become dependent on chemical inputs to maximize crop production.
Genetically Engineered Crops
Most Americans consume GE foods without even knowing it. Over 70 percent of all processed foods in the U.S. contain ingredients from genetically engineered (GE) plants and they are not required to be labeled (1). How will this affect people’s health long-term and what will this mean for other agricultural crops?
Since the discovery of DNA in the 1970s, scientists have been able to transfer genes from one organism to another, even across the animal and plant kingdom divide. This is different than traditional cross-breeding or pollination techniques that usually occur with like species (e.g., dogs breeding with dogs or crossing one fruit with another like a plum and apricot to get a pluot).
The first GE crops emerged in the 1990s and included various fruits and vegetables with altered characteristics. For example, the Flavr Savr tomato, a genetically modified organism (GMO) introduced in 1994, was genetically manipulated to suppress the enzyme that causes ripening; it was eventually pulled from the market due to production problems (2). Today, most crops are genetically modified to be herbicide resistant so that they can withstand weed killers sprayed in the field (1). In 2006, 89 percent of planted acres of soybeans and 61 percent of corn in the U.S. were genetically modified varieties (3). Genetic engineering isn’t just restricted to plants; scientists are developing more then 35 species of genetically engineered fish that will grow faster than normal fish (4).
GMOs, particularly in our food supply, have been and continue to be a topic of heated debate. Some of the arguments for and against GE crops regarding health, environmental and socio-economic factors are summarized below.
For: GE crops can be nutritionally enhanced.
Golden Rice is genetically modified rice that produces higher levels of vitamin A than conventional rice. This can help reduce vitamin A deficiency (which can lead to blindness) in many populations. Adding nutritional benefits to staple crops such as rice and wheat can help reduce preventable diseases such as vitamin and nutrient deficiencies worldwide (5).
Against: GE foods may lead to more allergic reactions and antibiotic resistance
Allergenic genes in certain foods (such as soybeans and nuts) may be accidentally transferred to other species, which could cause severe reactions in people with allergies. Given that food allergies have become increasingly prevalent, these “hidden” allergenic genes can have significant effects. Also, many GE foods contain antibiotic resistance genes that indicate whether or not a gene was successfully transferred. There are concerns that frequent consumption of GE foods can increase antibiotic resistance (link to antibiotics page) in humans and thus, weaken the effects of certain medicines (6,7).
For: GE crops can reduce the impact of industrial food production
One of the main arguments for GE crops is that they are made to be highly resistant to pests and this could greatly reduce the use of chemicals needed for crop production. In addition, plants can be genetically modified to withstand various soil conditions (e.g., saline cropland due to poor irrigation) so land previously thought to be infertile can be utilized (5).
Against: “Gene pollution” cannot be reversed
Concerns of widespread GE crops include the possibility of gene transfers from GMOs to other wild species. For example, weeds accidentally receiving the herbicide-resistant genes from GE crops would cause serious problems for farmers. For organic farmers, in particular, “genetic contamination” is a major issue since organic products must be (by legal definition) free of any genetically modified material. Additionally, the potential risks of GE plants to other species such as birds and insects are unknown (6).
For: Genetically engineered crops can lead to increased agricultural productivity.
Because GE crops can be made to be more resistant to pest outbreaks and severe weather conditions, they can survive in harsher climates. For people, particularly in developing countries, whose livelihoods depend on agriculture, reducing the risk of crop failure is significant. In addition, proponents also claim that GMOs will result in higher crop yield, producing more food from less land (5).
Against: Large biotech companies may dominate the agricultural sector.
Biotechnology research for GE crops is predominantly conducted by the private sector so the potential for market dominance by several large companies is high. This could negatively impact the livelihood of small-scale farmers worldwide who would have to buy seeds from companies holding patents for certain genetic material (6).There have also been instances when biotech firms sue farmers for patent infringement when GE seeds drift into neighboring fields.
In the European Union and Japan, genetically modified foods are required to be labeled; in the U.S. and many other countries, they are not. Several European countries have strictly banned GMOs altogether and organizations such as Californians for GE-Free Agriculture have created “GM-free zones” around the world (8). Whether or not genetically engineered food products should be labeled in the U.S. is of current debate.
1. California Department of Food and Agriculture. A Food Foresight Analysis of Agricultural Biotechnology; – January 2003. Accessed August 2007. http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/exec/pdfs/ag_biotech_report_03.pdf
2. FDA Consumer Letter: First Biotech Tomato Marketed; – September 1994. http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~lrd/biotech.html
3. USDA ERS. Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S.; – July 2006. Accessed August 2007. http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/biotechcrops/
4. Center for Food Safety. Genetically Engineered Fish. http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/geneticall3.cfm Accessed August 2007.
5. UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Weighing the GMO arguments: for; – March 2003. Accessed August 2007. http://www.fao.org/english/newsroom/focus/2003/gmo7.htm
6. UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Weighing the GMO arguments: against; – March 2003. Accessed August 2007. http://www.fao.org/english/newsroom/focus/2003/gmo8.htm
7. Center for Food Safety. The Hidden Health Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods. Food Safety Review, Spring 2000. Accessed August 2007.
8. Schmidt CW. Genetically Modified Foods: Breeding Uncertainty. Enviro Health Persp (113)8:A526-533.