As you may have noticed, I’m no knee-jerk promoter of organic farming (I’ll explain why, in a moment), but organic strawberries are worth the extra dollar. The reason is methyl bromide, a potent stratospheric ozone destroyer, which is applied most heavily to strawberry fields. Its use is actually increasing in the US, because of a loophole in the Montreal Protocol, as the New York Timesreported Friday.
The problem with organic farming is that it’s a one-dimensional approach to sustainability. Unlike, say, the Food Alliance’s system for certifying responsible growers, the strictures of organic production ban synthetic compounds but not excessive energy use, wasteful packaging, abusive labor conditions, or intercontinental transport. (And a few synthetic compounds may be more sustainable than the natural, but environmentally burdensome, alternatives!)
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There are, of course, many organic farmers-the old guard, the heroes of the movement-who do things sustainably and locally. They deserve our political support and our business.
But there are a growing number of larger, commercial growers who don’t. Case in point: we live in Cascadia, the apple basket of the continent. And last time I stopped at the upscale grocer Trader Joe’s, I saw organic apples from New Zealand packed four to a box in plastic clamshells. To me, that’s as emblematic of an unsustainable way of life as a Hummer.
The outsourcing of organic production is, of course, part of the globalization of agriculture generally. The distance our food travels has been increasing, as the Midwest’s Leopold Center has showed (pdf).
Taxing energy, fertilizers, and pesticides at their full ecological cost, while untaxing farmers’ income, is one good way to steer farming toward sustainability. And, in the meantime, at the grocery store, we can weigh “local” as heavily as “organic.” Except, when choosing strawberries, put a finger on the “organic” side of the scale as a favor to the ozone layer.
P.S. Environmental Working Group has a handy guide to pesticides in produce. The dirty dozen are apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and-you guessed it-strawberries. Still, this guide tells you what recent research found in the food, not what happened on the farm or en route to your mouth.