October 3, 2007

Conventional? Organic? Sustainable?

Words can obviously be important touchstones for change. As I think about the future of the aspects of the institutional food system, where colleagues and I can hopefully have some influence, it’s clear that a concise and clear message is needed. Supporting the clarity needed is the understanding of what the terms conventional, organic, and sustainable mean when applied to the foods an institution purchases. What’s the priority? And what about local?

I will describe these terms in my own words. These descriptions may not fit any “official” definitions out there.

“Local” can be however far you need to go in a particular growing season to get what you want. Some define it as food grown within 150 miles. Kaiser Permanente has to provide 6000 meals per day for it’s inpatients in Northern California alone. Many patients still like pineapple or melons in the dead of winter. We can try to buy locally much of the year, but some fruits and vegetables we use will inevitably be globally sourced.

“Conventional” agriculture brings to mind farms of 100,000 acres that use pesticides and chemical fertilizers in production. Of course, that’s not the whole picture. Many small family farmers grow crops using pesticides and fertilizers, and they may live and farm around the corner protecting open space from yet another tract home development.

“Organic” means that the food is grown meeting strict standards on land that has been pesticide-free for a number of years. It may conjure up images of a pastoral setting of wide open pastures and happy cows wandering in to provide organic milk as they please. However, there are now big industrial organic operations, in addition to the small organic farmers. As the demand for organic products grows, big producers will follow the money. Realistically, they may well be needed, just to keep up with the demand. So what’s better -- eating foods laden with pesticides from a local grower rather than organic food from a big industrial organic operation? Tough question. It depends on where you end up on the value scale. I don’t think that there is necessarily a right answer.

"Sustainably farmed" foods are those that are raised pesticide free but not necessarily certified organic, raised with respect for the well-being of the farm workers, and with overall respect for the health of the planet. These foods are grown in a way that looks to the long term future.

Personally, I try to purchase locally grown organic fruits and vegetables when they are available, particularly those that are high on the list of fruits and vegetables known to have high pesticide residues if grown conventionally. As a reminder, you can consult " Food News" to see a list of the most commonly used fruits and vegetables and the pesticide residues found. As schools, universities, and other large institutions continue to examine and change their food supply chains, the demand for pesticide-free foods may likely outstrip the supply as it takes significant time and resources to become organic "certified." The inclusion of sustainably farmed foods in the chain is also good for people who grow the food, and for the people who eat it.

With all that said, any institutional food system can only take incremental steps as it has to serve many people. It takes many incremental steps, but they can collectively make up a big step.