Felix Salmon

Globalization datapoint of the day: Organic isn’t locavore

By Felix Salmon
November 9, 2011

Organic World has a series of charts about organic agriculture, from which these two stand out:



Clearly there’s a huge disconnect here — there’s basically no overlap at all between the countries producing the most organic food, on the one hand, and the countries consuming the most organic food, on the other.

What that means, in turn, is a real dilemma for the kind of people who want to eat local and organic. I’ve certainly noticed this at my local Whole Foods: you can eat local, or you can eat organic, but it’s very hard to do both. (And when you do, you pay through the nose for the privilege.)

I do wonder how this state of affairs came about — you’d think that demand for organic products would be felt locally, in the first instance. But I guess global agriculture is so global now that demand shows up first in places like Australia and Argentina, where land is cheap — even when domestic demand for organic food in those markets is very small.

And I also wonder how many of the restaurants who proudly source their produce from named farms are getting vegetables which are organic and local. My guess is that it’s not as many as you might think.

10 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

When I was in high school I worked at an organic farm that mostly supplies produce for restaurants, they weren’t paying farm stand prices, but it was still quite a lot. Around Boston when you go out rt. 2 past the inner suburbs you have a pretty wide variety of farms that supply to a mix of consumer and restaurant clients that depending on the demands either are or aren’t organically certified. The one I worked at was, and one of the better known chefs in the area (Ana Sortun) partners with an organic farm, but some of the other farms that are listed on menus aren’t organically certified. Verrill Farm for instance is on a ton of menus at top end restaurants in the area (Blue Ginger, Craigie on Main…) but aren’t organic certified. I think the local demand actually outstripped the organic demand here pretty significantly, and if you can put the name of the farm on the menu it satisfies consumers of the integrity without using the organic certification.

Posted by tuckerm | Report as abusive

I believe a large part of the land classified as organic in Australia is low productivity land in central Australia that has historically received very little in the way of artificial inputs. That is, it has never been economically feasible to apply fertiliser or herbicides.
In other words the land has always been organic, but because of economic necessity rather than as a result of market demand.

Perhaps the situation is similar in Argentina??

Posted by sam76 | Report as abusive

It’s funny that none of those charts look at organic production or organic sales. Looks like someone got a convenient database of organic acreage and threw some graphs together. No one eats organic acreage, but that’s what they had available to make graphs. “If you lost your keys over there, why are you looking under the streetlamp?”

Posted by KJMClark | Report as abusive

Actually, it’s funnier than that. If you click on the tables for the 2011 report (hoping to find data on organic production in a table), you get sent to the “statistics” area of their website, where you find a bunch of – statistics on acreage.

Maybe we’re all doing this eating thing the wrong way – we should be eating the land after all!

Posted by KJMClark | Report as abusive

Basically, you can eat local-organic fairly easily in the SF Bay Area. And that’s it.

Posted by Auros | Report as abusive

Isn’t all beef production in Australia and Argentina organic by legal mandate? That is, I believe it’s illegal to give beef cows hormones, antibiotics, etc. (or even to feed them corn). I’m guessing that cattle ranching is land-intensive, particularly in dry areas, so the numbers are probably skewed. But maybe pasturage isn’t counted in “agricultural land.”

Posted by minderbender | Report as abusive

Hrrrmmmm, seems I was wrong – I can’t find anything that indicates that hormones and antibiotics aren’t used in Australia and Argentina, and I have found that some beef cows in both countries are grain-fed. Still, acreage seems like a crude measure, since land varies widely in yield per acre. An organic acre in Holland may be worth 10 or 100 in Australia.

Posted by minderbender | Report as abusive

I live in the Bay Area and can easily buy local (California) organic everything.

Posted by nyet | Report as abusive

tuckerm: There are a few farms out there, but they are mostly boutique operations limited to the Massachusetts growing season and crops. When the press is around everyone talks about “Yes, of course, this 20 acre farm supplies dozens of Boston-area restaurants that serve organic, local cuisine to thousands of customers.” Until some of the acreage gets converted back from office parks and subdivisions to farms and someone opens a restaurant which serves apples, turnips and potatoes from November to May, the “organic local restaurant” concept is mostly window-dressing. Sure you will have a nice special on strawberry desserts for a few weeks, you can run an asparagus menu in the spring, the mushroom man may come through for you from time to time, but day-in and day-out the restaurant is going to be sourcing imported tomatoes and fish like everyone else. Most people don’t want to wait 11 months to eat their favorite dish at the peak of flavor, especially when they live in a place that is buried under snow for months of the year.

Posted by najdorf | Report as abusive

“I do wonder how this state of affairs came about — you’d think that demand for organic products would be felt locally, in the first instance. But I guess global agriculture is so global now that demand shows up first in places like Australia and Argentina, where land is cheap ”

Well, yes, you would expect a land hungry process like organic farming to go where land is cheap really.

Posted by TimWorstall | Report as abusive

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