Living a sustainable and green life can seem daunting. What products to choose, is organic better than fair trade, does eating locally produced foods really matter? These are all issues to consider and sometimes sources disagree on the level of sustainability or “greenness” of these choices. A good place to start is to understand the different labels that are on food products.
First, there is organic. According to the USDA National Organic Program, organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic produce is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified as well.
There is also Certified Naturally Grown products, which is an alternative program to the USDA organic certification. These products are free from synthetic ingredients and raised or produced without the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides. Certified Naturally Grown products also have strict limits on naturally derived pesticides, in some cases being even more restrictive than the USDA organic program. They are also required to be sustainably grown. The Certified Natually Grown program is most common with farms who sell directly to consumers. Many of these farms choose this route because there are less fees and paperwork involved when compared to the USDA organic program.
When dealing with imported products, Fair Trade certification is a great indicator to look for. Fair Trade labeled products are certified to adhere to standards regarding safe working conditions, fair wages for workers, environmental sustainability in production and support of social projects in the growing region. These labels are most common on products produced in poor, foreign countries, which helps struggling farmers who have less government protection from being exploited by large corporations and plantation owners.
On the other hand, local products are just what they seem, food that is grown in a region considered local to you. There are many variations to this; within 50 or 100 miles of your town, state or even your micro-climate. However, it seems that the most popular “definition” for local food is that it is grown within 100 miles of the place of sale. For a greener lifestyle this should be your first choice. Choosing these products cuts down on “food miles”, which are the average miles your food travels from the fields to a store near you. The average in a traditional grocery store is a whopping 1500 miles! Imagine the carbon emissions from this! Buying local food cuts down on the amount of food miles, meaning fresher products with less environmental impact. Choosing locally grown fruit, vegetables and meat reduces your carbon footprint greater than any other choice on the list and also provides you with fresher ingredients.
There are also many combinations of all of the choices; Organic and Fair Trade or locally grown and Certified Naturally Grown. Overall, purchasing goods with any of these labels helps support these programs and encourages sustainable and environmentally friendly growing practices.