The two, organic and local are neither the same nor mutually exclusive. As our food systems have become so complex we have been embarking on an effort the past thirty years to simplify them. The enormous presence of the Greenmarket in New York and it’s spreading influence speaks to the success. However consumers are as confused and unknowingly misinformed as ever. The fallacy of “natural” was exposed years ago (we’re still treating it like a new development though), but now we are grappling with the fact that organic might not mean what we want it to and the fact that local can range from our backyards to 400 miles away.

The organic of the present is far from the counterculture dreams of the 1970s. What was once small patches of attempts at organic produce and blocks of sprouted grain bread is now an industry not too far removed from the ones organic was supposed to battle. Organic is an industry now, available in nearly every supermarket in one form or another, a more morally responsible choice available at your local food purveyor.

The dictionary definition of organic is:

  1. of, relating to, or derived from living matter.

Which is about as arbitrary as “natural.” The difference between the two is that, organic is governed by a complex set of laws, making the certification for being organic a field of paperwork. This is often a burden to small farmers who are by default organic but would like to be approved as such because consumers want to see the organic label. “Organic” has been redefined to fit the food industry as an adjective to define food that has been produced under the jurisdiction of organic; with minimal synthetic input of chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, no genetic modification, and without any unapproved chemical food additives.  However, farmers can still use “organic pesticides” in junction with other organic farming practices to prevent disease and insects.

But just because something is organic doesn’t mean it didn’t travel 1,000 miles to get to your shopping basket, it doesn’t mean the animals live outside in a pasture and it doesn’t mean healthy soil not eroded by intensive agricultural practices. Organic carries a positive connotation with it, which it deserves, and which should shape consumer’s choices, but just because you may be at the farmers market and something isn’t labeled as organic doesn’t mean it wasn’t produced organically.

Many farmers supplying the farmers market are producing above and beyond organic expectations: employing composting, providing pastures for their animals, rotating their crops, and some even slaughtering chickens themselves. But you wouldn’t know this from walking past a stand. You have to talk to the farmer and few have elaborate labels on which they can advertise how meticulously most grow their produce/raise their animals. You can often find labels touting a product to be “gmo-free,” “pesticide and chemical-free,” “hormone-free” and “pasture-raised” – essentially organic without the label.

Organic farmers often charge more than farmers not labeled to be organic because people expect organic to be more expensive and they can get away with it, which is detrimental to other farmers whose product may be equal in quality but not certified through a complex legal process as thus. So just because something may not be labeled as organic, doesn’t mean it isn’t (obviously this doesn’tt apply to conventional supermarket produce) and just because it’s organic doesn’t mean that it will live up to the expectations of what organic is supposed to be.