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Organic or Local?

Cal-Organic Farms, along with Earthbound, dominates the organic produce section in the supermarket. Cal-Organic is a big grower of organic vegetables in the San Joaquin Valley. As part of the consolidation of the organic industry, the company was acquired by Grimmway Farms, which already enjoyed a virtual monopoly in organic carrots. Unlike Earthbound, neither Grimmway or Cal-Organic has ever been part of the organic movement. Both companies were started by conventional growers looking for a more profitable niche and worried that the state might ban certain key pesticides. “I’m not necessarily a fan of organic,” a spokesman for Grimmway recently told an interviewer. “Right now I don’t see that conventional farming does harm. Whether we stay with organic for the long haul depends on profitability.

Philosophy, in other words has nothing to do with it.”

– Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
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For the last several years Mr Chiots and I have been focusing on eating locally and organically. When I have the option, I like to buy local organic. When I don’t have that option, I chose local over organic. I could buy certified organic apples from Chile in the supermarket to eat instead of my non-certified semi-organic apples from a local orchard, and they’d probably be cheaper. Why do I choose a local product that probably has a few chemicals & pesticides on it? Because it’s important for me to know where our food is coming from. I know exactly what is on that apple because I can talk to the guy that grew it. I can visit his orchard and see what he does. I can’t visit the orchard in Chile, so how can I be sure it’s actually “organic”?
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I’ve had a few great conversations with our local dairy/beef/chicken/egg farmers about this topic. They used to be certified organic and it got too expensive and too constrictive to keep up their certification. They had trouble finding good quality organic hay to feed the cows in the winter. Someone they knew had good quality hay that wasn’t certified organic, but since it’s wasn’t certified they couldn’t use it. They finally decided to drop their certification. Now they label themselves as “Voluntarily Organic”. Personally, I don’t mind that they don’t have the government seal, I’m glad they’re putting the health of their cows ahead of a label.
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I’m guessing some of you have heard of the 4-year study conducted in Europe that concluded that organic food (including vegetables, fruit and milk) contained up to 40% more antioxidants than conventional food and were more nutritious (the percentage were up to 60% more antioxidants for organic milk). I wonder how the raw milk from the farm would stack up to conventional milk? I’m pretty sure it would be way better than 60%.
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The problem with studies like this is that it’s hard to know what kind of organic products they used in testing. Did they use big-box organic, or small organic? Did they use produce that had been grown, picked, processed in another country and was flown halfway around the world, then sat on a grocery store shelf for a couple days before heading to your home. Did they leave it in the fridge for a few days before testing to make the study more authentic? I try not to put too much credibility in studies like these, even if they support my viewpoint. Studies can be done in such a way to get the desired outcome (sometimes looking at the funding will give you a good idea of what the outcome will be). I try not to get caught up in the hype about what’s “healthy” what’s not, what’s the “in” vegetable, fruit, nutrient, vitamin at the moment. It’s really too much to keep up with. We now try to focus on eating real whole food. Our diet would probably not be considered healthy by some because we eat lots of butter, drink whole milk, eat lots of animal fat. Bacon anyone?
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The search for good quality real whole food is main reason I started to grow some of our food. I know exactly what’s in it, I know how it was grown. What I grow in my garden is the healthiest food available to me. It’s as organic and local as it gets. We’ve developed a hierarchy of food for ourselves.
Homegrown
Local Organic
Local
Organic from local health food store
Organic from big chain grocery
Conventional
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I still buy food from far away, mangoes and plantains will never be local for me, and they’ll never be out of my diet. Coffee is a big NEED in this household as is good chocolate, local sources for those are not feasible either. I’m not striving to make my diet to be 100% local, but I want eat local when I can! I don’t want to rule out delicious food from far away, but I don’t want to eat only long distance food either. I really appreciate some of the things that local eating had taught me, we’re enjoying a much wider variety of food now. I also appreciate that organic is gaining popularity because I am able to find an organic option for just about everything I want. It seems like in our lives we’re finally achieving that balance between local, organic, and exotic.

Which do you focus on Local, Organic or a patchwork of both?

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I posted this on my blog a week or two ago and a few people wanted me to post it here as well.

Last year I started paying particular attention the seeds I ordered. I have been trying to buy heirloom seeds from small seed houses that aren’t tied to Monsanto. With the introduction of a new GM eggplant earlier this year and questions by a lot of readers I thought we could talk a little about genetically modified seeds.

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One hundred fifty years ago the United States didn’t have a commercial seed industry; today we have the world’s largest. Whichever catalog you order from (of the big companies), you’re probably getting the same seed as people who order from the other companies. Virtually every large mail-order garden company in the United States uses a seed broker to supply them with seeds. These broker’s find seeds at a low price then they contract with competing umbrella corporations, selling the same seed to everyone.

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With the purchase of Seminis in 1995, Monsanto is now estimated to control between 85-90% of the U.S. nursery market (this includes pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers). By buying up the competition and lobbying the government to make saving seeds illegal, Monsanto has slowly been taking over all of the seeds. I don’t know about you, but from what I’ve heard about how Monsanto terrorized farmers I don’t really want them controlling all the seeds, especially the ones for the things I’d like to grow in my backyard!

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It is estimated that Seminis controls 40 percent of the U.S. vegetable seed market and 20 percent of the world market—supplying the genetics for 55 percent of the lettuce on U.S. supermarket shelves, 75 percent of the tomatoes, and 85 percent of the peppers, with strong holdings in beans, cucumbers, squash, melons, broccoli, cabbage, spinach and peas. The company’s biggest revenue source comes from tomato and peppers seeds, followed by cucumbers and beans.

In large part, these numbers reflect usage of Seminis varieties within large industrial production geared towards supermarkets, but Seminis seeds are also widely used by regional conventional and organic farmers as well as market and home gardeners. Johnny’s, Territorial, Fedco, Nichol’s, Rupp, Osborne, Snow, and Stokes are among the dozens of commercial and garden seed catalogs that carry the more than 3,500 varieties that comprise Seminis’ offerings. This includes dozens of All-American Selections and an increasing number of varieties licensed to third parties for certified organic seed production.

The brand-name companies under Seminis (such as Petoseed) have developed, released, produced and distributed varieties common to the market farmer and even home gardener. These include Big Beef, Sweet Baby Girl and Early Girl Tomatoes; Simpsons Elite and Red Sails Lettuces; Red Knight and King Arthur Peppers; Gold Rush and Blackjack Zucchinis; Stars & Stripes Melon; and Bush Delicata and Early Butternut squashes. (Rodale Institute)

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What does this mean for us as gardeners and consumers? This means we’re losing our choices of what we want to buy and grow. Thousands of varieties are disappearing. In 1981 there were approximately 5,000 varieties of vegetable seeds to choose from in U.S. catalogs, today there are less than 500. For someone like me that’s very sad. I love to grow the weird interesting things that are difficult to find.

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So what are we supposed to do? Just because you buy seeds from places that offer non-GMO seeds, this doesn’t mean that Monsanto doesn’t own the rights to some of the seeds they sell. Buying organic doesn’t help you in this situation either. Here are a few of the varieties they own:

Beans: EZ Gold, Eureka, Goldrush, Kentucky King, Lynx, Bush Blue Lake 94

Carrot: Nutri-Red, Sweet Sunshine, Karina, Chantenay #1, Chantilly, Lariat

Cucumber: Dasher II, Daytona, Turbo, Speedway, Sweet Slice, Yellow Submarine, Sweeter Yet

Lettuce:
Esmeralda, Lolla Rossa (and derivatives), Red Sails, Red Tide, Blackjack, Summer time, Monet, Baby Star, Red Butterworth

Melons: Alaska, Bush Whopper, Casablanca, Dixie Jumbo, Early Crisp

Onion: Arsenal, Hamlet, Red Zeppelin, Mars, Superstar, Candy

Peppers: Valencia, Camelot, King Arthur, Red Knight, Aristotle, Northstar, Biscane, Caribbean Red, Serrano del Sol, Early Sunsation, Fat and Sassy

Spinach: Melody, Unipack 151Spinach, Bolero, Cypress

Squash: Autumn Delight, Bush Delicata (producer-vendor), Really Big Butternut, Early Butternut, Buckskin Pumpkin (AAS), Seneca Autumn, Table ace

Tomato: Big Beef, Beefmaster, First Lady I and II, Early Girl, Pink Girl, Golden Girl, Sunguard, Sun Chief Sweet, Baby Girl, Sweet Million

Watermelon: Royal Flush, Royal Star (pet), Stargazer, Starbright, Stars and Stripes, Yellow doll, Tiger

Zucchini/Summer Squash: Blackjack, Daisy, Fancycrook, Sunny Delight, Lolita, Sungreen

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So what do we do if we don’t want to grow GM vebetables, or support Monsanto and their bullying? We can buy open pollinated heirloom seeds from places like Freedom Seeds, Seed Savers, Sustainable Seed Company and Baker Creek (along with other places, if you have good seed houses make sure you list them in the comments and I’ll start a resources section that lists them all). Some small seed houses offer both kinds of seeds. I was chatting with Renee of Renee’s Garden and she explained to me why they still carry some seeds owned by Monsanto:

There are many excellent hybrids that were bred in the 60s and 70s that many organic farmers and small-scale farmers use routinely…. (for example it’s hard to beat Early Girl and Big Beef for wide adaptability all over the country, good flavor and, very importantly for gardeners in the hot and humid areas, excellent disease resistance ) Unfortunately, with all this controversy floating about, sometimes home gardeners don’t realize that hybrids has nothing at all to do with genetic engineering, which is a very different thing.

For my seed company, I pay the most attention to what does best in home gardens; so I sell many open pollinated varieties, lots of heirlooms, and also some excellent hybrids. A lot of the hybrids I sell are from Europe where flavor and wide adaptability are important considerations. We trial our varieties for several seasons before I introduce them and I
write my own packet backs based on our growing experience and we have also trial gardens in Vermont Seattle in Florida so we can be assured things will grow well all over before we introduce them.

I think she raises a great point, hybrids aren’t genetically engineered. Some hybrids are very valuable for commercial organic growing and can be very benficial for home gardeners, especially if you struggle with a specific pest or disease. You may need to grow a hybrid if you want to grow a specific vegetable in your climate.

traded_seeds

I’m not necessarily against growing hybrids, although I think they’re a symptom of the loss of regional seeds. Long ago people grew seeds and traded with neighbors. Each area had seeds that did well in their climate and could fight off diseases and pests specific to their area of the country. Sadly, we’ve lost the treasure of regional seeds and with them a lot of regional gardening wisdom. We no longer have neighbors we can get local seeds from or talk to about which kind of cucumber does best in our climate. We’re left to guess by what looks good in the seed catalogs, sometimes they work beautifully, sometimes they fail miserably. Occasionally, we stumble upon an old timer that still grows old varieties and can tell us about them (check your local farmer’s markets).

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This is one of those areas I haven’t fully made up my mind about yet. On one hand I can see the benefits of hybrids, on the other I really hate supporting Monsanto in any way at all, even if it is by only buying 1-2 packets of their seeds. I’m sure with enough trial and error I could find a viable open pollinated option for just about any vegetable I grow. I’ll keep using up the hybrid seeds that I have, but I’ll slowly phase them out. I really want to grow only seeds open pollinated seeds that I can save seeds from if I’d like to. Since I am in the place where I don’t “need” to grow my own food, I am able to experiment with varieties and experience loss. I realize some market gardeners and growers aren’t in this position. I also want to support open pollinated seeds because I want to ensure their survival. Sure, I don’t want ‘Early Girl’ tomatoes to be lost for all those that love them, but my ‘Cold Set’ performed beautifully for me here in my cold climate and I’ll keep growing them instead.

What about you, where do you stand on this issue? Do you have any great recommendations for small seed houses that aren’t owned/operated by large companies? Any great companies that specialize in open pollinated heirloom varieties?

A few good articles for more reading on this topic:

  • Civil Eats: Why Seed Consolidation Matters by Paula Crossfield
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