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Is There a Downside to the Organic and Local Food Movements?

By Matt Brignall
September 24, 2011
File under: Diet, Natural Health, Nutrition, Sustainable Food

A provocative new article in the magazine Foreign Policy suggests that the local foods and organic movements are hurting the world’s poorest populations through their misplaced fetishes (his word, not mine).

The argument behind the controversial thesis is multifaceted, and lumps together discussions that probably have no business in the same conversation - transportation costs, GMOs, and seasonal eating are all important discussions, and deserve a longer discussion than a paragraph each before being cursorily swept aside. So, I guess as a nutrition educator, I’m not a huge fan of the article. But there were a couple of things about it that really caught my eye.

First, I think this is another sign of a growing backlash against the natural foods movement. I’ve seen this coming for a while, but it’s really gathered steam over the past year or two. At first, this felt like a sort of natural response to the evangelical excesses of portions of the health food community.

As the backlash grows, however, I am starting to see some real questions about whether commercial organic foods are any better than their conventionally grown counterparts. In a world where you can buy certified organic fruit leather (in a single serving plastic package), I think this conversation matters.

Second, and more importantly, this article chooses a couple telling examples of foods that are cheaper when produced far away from where they are consumed. The first is dairy, and the other is lamb. From there, the author goes on to state that it is cheaper to eat foods from a place where production is most efficient. The circuity of this argument almost completely obscures that this assertion is exactly what was behind the local foods and organics movements in the first place – if you eat stuff that is well suited to your locality, it will be easier, more efficient, and less expensive to produce.

But, of course, the examples that the author chooses are chosen on purpose to prove a point. It is hard to miss that they are both animal foods, and therefore create higher demand per calorie than many plant foods. In fact, if this author were truly concerned about ways to help the world’s poorest populations, he would probably be better served to talk about ways to maximize plant food calories rather than how to most cheaply deliver dairy and lamb to England.

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