Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Organics Not Always as Green

December 30, 2013 By Annie Shapiro, Macalester College

This week we pick up Minnesota 2020's environmental op-ed series with a look at how green organic food really is. We hope you're enjoying this collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students. Let us know.

The organic diet heralded by the “green” food movement involves food that travels thousands of miles before it reaches a consumer’s plate and may use more fuel and resources than non-organic produce would. Local foods are often the greenest. But that’s an especially difficult problem to overcome here in Minnesota.

Seasonality in the state is often unpredictable and temperamental, with temperatures ranging in the 90s in the summer and falling below -10 during the coldest of winter months. In between these two highly polarized seasons, spring and fall are characterized by frequent fluctuations in temperature, precipitation and humidity that result in the unpredictable availability of organic fruits and vegetables.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the only major and reliable seasonal fruit and vegetable crop during the winter are apples, kale, carrots and sweet potatoes. This year, University of Minnesota researchers predict the state’s annual 16 million pound apple crop to drop by as much as 40 percent due to unpredictable weather. Such frightening statistics pose an uphill battle for businesses that must choose whether to sacrifice valuable business or import produce from thousands of miles away.

Meanwhile, supporters of the green food movement continue to shop for organic and sustainably harvested produce in the hopes of reducing their carbon footprint. According to a 2011 Organic Trade Association study, organic food and beverage sales account for about 4 percent of overall food and beverage sales in the US, with organic fruits and vegetables representing more than 11 percent of total fruit and vegetable sales.

The marketing behind the organic food movement is centered on the fact that eating organically is less destructive to the environment than traditional food production. This is true in some cases, especially because the lack of pesticide use in organic produce contributes to healthier soil filled with microorganisms and nutrients to hold moisture, ensures that pesticides do not leak into precious groundwater and encourages natural pest prevention instead of fertilizer. Indeed, a June 2000 study carried out by the conservative think-tank National Center for Public Policy argued that 69 percent of the public believes the organic label on produce and food means that these foods are “better” for the environment than non-organic foods.

If an individual is able to finance an organics-only diet, then he or she should also focus on the movement’s gaping holes. Shipping fleets and cargo planes carry organic produce from all corners of the world, emitting tons of greenhouse gases, until the produce is finally placed among the racks of a local coop, Lunds or Cub.

According to the National Resource Defense Council, for every 830 tons of food imported, 6,482 tons of greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. Transportation of environmentally friendly, organic, natural and sustainably harvested produce requires trucks, ships and airplanes that all use fuel and refrigeration that contains harmful chemicals to both human and atmospheric health. Transportation is necessary in order to ensure that restaurants and grocery stores are able to retain their stock of organic and natural foods. However, reliance on organics and non-seasonal produce comes at a very high environmental price.

In Minnesota, consumers and suppliers of organic and sustainable foods have rallied around new programs and initiatives to keep fresh, organic and local produce available to the public while at the same time eliminating the carbon footprint of food transportation. For example, local food movements such as the Minnesota Farm to Fork Initiative and Slow Food Movement focus on supporting local food rather than simply organic food. This shift ensures that food does not travel very far to its destination and does not rely on heavy-duty transportation for distribution.

The emergence of profitable, environmentally-friendly and locally sourced food trucks like Minnesota’s own Gastrotruck is another example of Minnesota’s push away from the organics-only approach of the “green” food movement and towards locally sourced and seasonal foods. This community-oriented system provides organic, local foods to Minnesotans without shipping produce from thousands of miles away.

Although the shift away from traditional organics means that seasonal fruits and vegetables would be harder to come across, green food movement followers may rest assured that their food will be truly environmentally sound. That is, their food will be harvested and marketed with minimal emissions and a significantly lessened carbon footprint. If enough consumers rally behind local organic food, leading green restaurants and grocery chains would also adjust their policies in order to maintain their consumer base. Once consumers start to track their food and become aware of the environmental impact of organic shipping, the “green” food movement will finally be able to take its biggest stride in reducing the carbon footprint of food.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Sunny Didier says:

    December 30, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    Point taken - however, there is good reason to support organic as well as local and not ONLY local, if it’s not also organic.  I realize the carbon footprint issue is a compelling one.  I also think that the more demand there is for organic, the greater the likelihood of it being seen as a profitable choice for food growers, and therefore more local food growers may opt for transitioning to organic.  While the article cites produce, one can buy local organic meat and dairy foods year ‘round, so it’s important not to focus solely on how far produce must travel and possibly have people lose sight of the other organic choices they can still make.

  • Joan Stockinger says:

    January 2, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    The issue of food miles is often not what is seems.  For many / most food products, only a small portion of the total carbon footprint comes from transportation of the product.  I have seen estimates of 11-12% overall.  The far larger carbon contribution is from production which might require more input in some regions than others.  And there is often a greater carbon foot print for transportation of local food, where there are fewer miles but much smaller vehicles.  You have to look at the fuel use/carbon per pound of product to do a good comparison.  So, for example, greens coming from a single source in CA on a semi, will have a lower carbon transport cost per pound of greens, than local product from many small farms, coming in small lots.  Another factor here is that a semi of produce coming from CA will likely carry another product (back haul) on the way back.  Often local delivery goes home empty and so the return miles also count.  Many/most local producers know this.

  • Joan Stockinger says:

    January 2, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    That being said there are many many reasons to support organic.  I agree.

  • Brandon Sigrist says:

    January 2, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    Another factor to consider in calculating food miles is the operating carbon of the food distribution infrastructure.  Food coming from California to Minnesota may not come direct, it will probably land in a distribution hub that is basically a giant refrigerator/freezer you can drive trucks through.  Then it goes to a coop or grocery store that is full of display coolers open to the 70 degree air and freezers with heaters in the glass doors to keep the windows clear.  Grocery stores and food distribution centers are among the highest consumers of energy per square foot of any building type in the country.  While buying local can leave out the distribution hub, it still supports the current energy intensive grocery store model.  A CSA box, even delivered with the farmer’s van, avoids this high energy cost, and I bet the van goes back with a few needed items from the city as well.  Food grown in your back yard, or the local community gardens avoids all of this.

  • Jim Mork says:

    January 3, 2014 at 12:29 am

    Energy consumption for food exceeds practically every other way we use energy.  We focus on our appliances, our cars, our insulation. But how many people know or do anything about the food on the table?  The fact, if you look it up, is that transportation of domestically-produced produce is only a small part of the picture. We certainly should not buy produce, organic or not, from distant parts of the world. But claiming that organic fruit from Washington, Vermont, or California is “less green” than packaged food from General Mills is simply oblivious of all the ways that food consumes energy.  I wish I could give you a series of links, but MN2020 is a think tank and should already know them. So use them and then based your comparisons on the total picture.

  • Jim Mork says:

    January 9, 2014 at 3:39 am

    The other reason for preferring organic is personal health.  As time moves on, it is going to become critical that we avoid being sick where the causes are avoidable.  Eating food that requires extensive pesticide use, food that is treated with antibiotics and hormones, foods full of corn fructose, all these are leading our country to lifestyle illness epidemics.  The medical system is pushed in the direction of breakdown for the benefit of big agribusiness.  Carefully choosing nutrients is among the important things that can be done to support self-healing by the body.  This is another green issue.  And the money involved is staggering.

  • fknbastages says:

    February 9, 2014 at 11:29 am

    So in the winter, we should eat GMO foods? I’d rather leave a carbon footprint and plant trees, in place of the toxic GMO foods.