Human language is in constant evolution. New technologies give us words like “ringtone” and changing interests give us words like “agritourism” and “locavore” to add to our lexicon. Occasionally we have words where agreement on meaning is difficult, like when we talk about “local” and “organic” food.
Farmers markets have seen tremendous growth in recent years as people have sought fresh, locally grown foods. Markets and sometimes cities have set up rules for what can be sold, most often defined by the distance it took to drive there. New York-based grocery delivery service FreshDirect sources 350 products from 30 farms within 300 miles of the city and delivers them within 48 hours. A stretch from what most farmers’ markets would allow. A Safeway store in Washington tried to stretch it even further by promoting a “farmers-market-style” display to capitalize on this trend, but without any true connection to local farms. Perhaps they misinterpreted one of the suggestions from my 2008 Produce News article.
The bending of definitions has lead to actions like that of, Maryland’s governor, who authorized its agriculture department to define “local” in its state. Currently only one state defines what is “locally grown”, Vermont. There, only state-grown food, or anything grown within 30 miles of the point of sale can receive this distinction. In a state 80 miles wide and 160 miles long, you could come across two apples, one grown 31 miles away and another grown five times further. If you lived in Newport, VT, the latter could be called “locally grown” and the former might even be labeled as imported (Maryland is 101 miles wide and 249 miles in length). A law that includes all state grown produce as local in California, could result in “locally grown fruit” traveling up to 770 miles. States have long had initiatives to promote state produce. The Jersey Fresh program has led to a series of similar initiatives to successfully promote state-grown produce in and out of the state. These laws to define “locally grown” based on arbitrary lines, however, can be viewed as a limit to fair interstate competition and will eventually demand federal legislation to define the term to be consistently applied.
The word “organic” means different things to different people. Some mistakenly believe it means the product is healthier, fresher or has a smaller impact on the environment. Recent studies have disproved the health myth, and simple math can tell you that organic fruit from 1000 miles away is not fresher than your local conventional farm. The impact on the environment can also be questioned, even after looking at the antiquated term “food miles” and viewing the overall “carbon footprint.” China has thrown a wrench in the whole trust of organic labeling, and even bringing into question one of the organic movement’s leading brands, Whole Foods. The USDA recently announced the ban of a leading organic certification company and a thorough review of practices in China in an effort to reassure the public in the authority of its organic label. Whole Foods Markets has packaged up to 30 organic items from China under its private label for years, but will cut that back to only frozen edamame by the end of the 2010. As organic food gains in popularity and demands a premium price, the label will continue to be abused. Again, for a meaningful definition to take shape, consistent standards must be applied.
A U.S. definition is a good start, however, global agreement for all foods is needed in today’s marketplace. The U.S. government has established Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) requirements, and Louisiana went a step further with Farm of Origin Labeling requirements for strawberries, though the acronym FOOL may not be as well received. The Global Harmonization Initiative is moving forward on definitions for food safety and good agricultural practices to level the playing field and increase the efficiency of certification for the industry. Maybe defining local isn’t a task they could, or even want to tackle, but it makes sense for an agreed upon standard for organic food. Let’s just hope that if the U.S. does develop a definition for “locally grown”, it goes beyond “everything grown in the country or within 30 miles” as a standard.
Image by Getty Images/Darren Wamboldt.