One of the most challenging things for me about going green is that it requires big picture thinking for the most mundane of tasks—grocery shopping, for example. Trying to be a responsible consumer means that I have to think about not only what is best for the health of my family, but also what is best for the environment and the local economy. Ultimately, it means giving up a little of the convenience I have become accustomed to, and finagling my budget to allow for the increased expense of buying local and organic.
As I began to pay more attention to the food I was eating—where it came from, how it was grown, the impact my food choices were having on the environment—I found myself learning the new language of sustainability. Local, organic, free-range, antibiotic free, grass-fed, biodynamic, carbon footprint… grocery shopping suddenly became an overwhelming process. I needed a cheat sheet just to pick out my eggs, and I all but gave up on buying meat.
Of course, over time it has become a little easier. I started to learn the language and some tricks of the trade. Here are some of the things I figured out (with the help of some great websites, books, and people):
What makes a food organic? Ok, so I am going to admit something here—I was one of those people who thought that eating organic was an overrated fad. A natural skeptic, I was suspicious that this "organic" label was simply a way for big business to get us to shell out more cash for their products, and before I could be convinced otherwise I had to understand what organic really means. So here it is folks: something that is organic was produced without chemicals, genetic modification or irradiation. In other words, it is in its truly natural state.
Why choose organic? Part of my skepticism sprang from my (false) belief that eating organic was solely for personal health. Oddly, this was not a good enough reason for me to pay twice as much for an apple or make time in my schedule for the farmers' market. Here was the "ah-ha" moment for me: chemical free farming meant that chemicals were not being leached into the ground and our waterways, thusly avoiding negative impact on future generations. From this perspective, eating organic becomes part of being a responsible global citizen, and really, who doesn't want to be a responsible global citizen?
Organic vs. Natural. If you remember nothing else, remember this: organic products are regulated, natural products are not. The "USDA Certified Organic" seal means that the farm has gone through a rigorous certification process. There are many other organic certifications, so my rule is to look up any unfamiliar certifications before I purchase something—which in the day of the iPhone can even be done right there in the store. There is also one caveat to be aware of: because the certification process is often costly and time consuming, many small local farms don't get certified. But when you are buying local, you can just ask the farmer about their farming practices.
Why is local important? Here is a startling fact I read in Christie Matheson's Green Chic: Saving the Earth in Style—the average food item in a grocery store travels 1,500 miles before you eat it. By comparison, the average local food item travels only 50 miles to your plate. This is important to know for two reasons—1) fewer miles travelled means less energy used and fewer carbon emissions, and 2) fresh food begins losing taste and nutritional value from the moment it is picked, so the local food is actually better for you. Choosing local also means that you are supporting small, local farmers and your community's economy.
Local vs. organic—which do I choose? This is a tough one, and for me comes down to striking a balance between personal health, environmental impact, and supporting the local economy. From what I have gathered, there is no hard and fast rule here, so I will just share with you mine: 1) local AND organic is best, 2) if choosing between a local non-organic product and a mass-produced organic product, I go local, and 3) if my only choices are non-local, then I choose organic. There are also certain foods that absorb pesticides more readily, so having a "priority list" of organic foods (http://planetgreen.discovery.com/food-health/eat-organic-foods.html) can be helpful, especially when you are on a budget.
And what about all of those words? Just today, as my mom was telling me about using ground turkey instead of ground beef in a recipe, she said "I used the free range, organic, antibiotic-free, and all the good for you stuff," shaking her hands as she spoke in a sign of general confusion. I think many of us are in the same boat as my mom— generally accepting that all those words translate to "better for you" but not knowing exactly what they mean. However, knowing what is behind the terms on your food label can help you make the most responsible food choices. I have found Organic.org's glossary (http://www.organic.org/articles/showarticle/article-215) extremely helpful in learning what all the jargon means.
One final note: There isn't one right way. Initially, I had a misconception that being green meant 100% conversion to a carbon neutral existence. While this may be the ideal, I have come to realize that there is a "continuum of green". I think of myself as a "pragmatically green" consumer, trying to be as environmentally responsible as I reasonably can be within the realities of my life. And once we know what is behind all the organic hype, each of us can define what kind of green we are able to be.