What's Better, Local or Organic?

A panel at National Products Expo West explored what the term "locavore" actually means—and should mean.

March 11, 2011

They may be local, but that's not the end of the story.

RODALE NEWS, ANAHEIM, CA—Natural Products Expo West, the largest trade show in the country showcasing natural and organic food and products, kicked off in Anaheim Thursday with a focus on farms and locally grown food. Although the show features many healthy, ecofriendly nonedibles, such as reusable shopping bags and plastic-free water bottles, food is clearly a dominant theme of the show.

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What went on at Natural Products Expo West? Check out Rodale.com's NPEW Blog for an inside look!

Philippe Cousteau, environmental activist and grandson of legendary explorer Jacques Cousteau, addressed the Organic Farming Research Foundation's "Think Spring!" luncheon. Also on Thursday, Mark Smallwood, executive director of the Rodale Institute, an experimental organic farm in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, participated in an Expo panel that discussed what the food-trendy term "locavore" really means, and the impact that label for locally grown has on organics. About 100 attendees sat in on the locavore session and joined the spirited conversation.

THE DETAILS: As the locavore and organic movements continue to grow in the United States, so do the numbers attending Natural Products Expo West. Organizers held the first show in 1981, where 3,000 members of the natural products industry combed through 234 booths. Compare that to last year's numbers, where 55,960 members (mostly buyers who decide what will show up on store shelves in the coming months) perused more than 3,000 booths. And organic is going global: In 2010, 97 countries were represented at Expo West.

WHAT IT MEANS: Businesses ranging from large corporations to small mom-and-pop start-ups from all over the world convene at Expo West in hopes of expanding into new markets. As organic goes global, though, consumers continue to consider their local food options. Smallwood's panel focused on the locavore movement, and how interest in locally grown food affects the rising interest in organic agriculture. Locavore means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, it might entail eating only foods grown or raised within 100 miles of home. For others, it could mean buying whatever's at a local farmer's market, regardless of whether the food is sprayed with harmful chemicals or grown using organic methods. But trying to eat locally grown food raises questions. Should you support local farmers who grow meat or other goods for huge corporations, even if the methods involve harmful chemicals, antibiotics, and animal cruelty?

Smallwood said one woman participating in the session came up with a compelling definition of locavore: "The closest user that we can do business with that sustains us both."

That may be 10 miles or 400 miles away. The point, Smallwood said, is to find growers as close as possible who don't use a chemical crutch to grow food for our families.

"My comment was, 'If it's local and organic, it trumps everything," Smallwood said Thursday evening at the Organic Gardening cocktail party at the Anabella hotel in Anaheim. He said that local is great, but noted sometimes local food is grown with chemicals, something consumers should be aware of.

Smallwood added that if your local producer says he or she doesn't want to become certified organic because of cost, paperwork, or government involvement, it's the consumer's job to seek transparency. If the food's not certified organic, locavores should ask, "Can I go to the farm and see how it's produced before or while I'm buying it, whether it's produce, cookies, or meat?"