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Local, Organic, Farm-Raised—What Do These Buzzwords Actually Mean For The Environment?

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It’s Eco Week at Byrdie, which means we’re digging into the best in sustainable beauty, from our fourth annual Eco Beauty Awards to what it really means to follow a zero-waste beauty routine. Consider this week your education on how to be a more eco-aware, knowledgable beauty consumer. 

When it comes to doing our part to preserve the planet and combat climate change, there are so many recommendations out there. From eliminating single use plastics whenever possible to trying to driving less, there's a lot we can do—but changing the way we eat is a big one.

If you're trying to eat less meat (especially beef!), composting your food, and doing your part to stop wasting food, you're already doing a great job. You also might be reaching for meat or vegetables with labels on them like local, organic, and farm-raised in hopes they're doing a little something for the environment, too.

To find out exactly what kind of impact these types of practices are really having on the environment, we chatted with experts on food and sustainability. "Most of these buzzwords, like organic and local, are just... buzzwords," Wen Jay Ying, founder of Local Roots NYC, admitted. While that seems to be the general consensus from experts, these words aren't in any way meaningless. So we broke down the specifics of the words you see on your food so you can make your own informed decisions. Here's what you should know.

Local

If you've ever shopped at a farmer's market, you've likely made the assumption that your food comes from somewhere nearby. And you're probably right. But what about when you see a "locally-sourced" label somewhere else, like the grocery store? According to Abby Cannon, a dietitian who works to help people create more environmentally-friendly decisions around food, it's hard to define "local" as it pertains to food.

Meet the Expert

Abby Cannon is an attorney turned dietitian who created Abby’s Food Court to make a healthy, low-waste lifestyle approachable, doable, and fun.

"One way to define it is food grown or raised within a certain distance from consumers—this is how it's defined by the USDA," she says. "The problem is that there isn't an agreed-upon distance. Local food is also defined as food grown in its native conditions. By this definition, it doesn't matter how far the food travels before getting to the end consumer, it's local as long as it was grown in a certain environment. Others define it according to how the food is sold to consumers—as in local foods are those sold from the farm directly to consumers."

What Is Local Food?

Local food is defined by the USDA as "the direct or intermediated marketing of food to consumers that is produced and distributed in a limited geographic area. There is no pre-determined distance to define what consumers consider 'local,' but a set number of miles from a center point or state/local boundaries is often used. More importantly, local food systems connect farms and consumers at the point of sale."

While the different definitions are confusing, Cannon does recommend buying local when you can. "By supporting food grown in close to you, you're supporting your local economy and getting the freshest food with less of an environmental impact, she says. "It takes a lot of resources to package food and get it from farm to processing plant to supermarket to you." 

Organic

While there's some controversy around the word "organic," Cannon emphasizes that opting for organic food is almost always better for the environment than not. "A food that is USDA-certified organic must meet a specific set of criteria. These foods are grown and processed according to guidelines on soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives," she says. "Organic foods are better for the environment and our health because they don't involve harmful practices, including the use of certain toxic chemicals, and, in general, help retain the health of the soil." 

What Is Organic Food?

"Organic" is a labeling term that indicates that food or other agricultural products have been produced through approved methods. According to the USDA, "These methods foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used. Animals that produce organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products may not be administered antibiotics or growth hormones."

The standards are:

  • "100 percent organic" must contain only organic ingredients
  • "Organic" must contain at least 95 percent organic materials
  • "Made with organic ingredients" must contain 70-95 percent organic ingredients

Pasture-Raised

Ying says that pasture-raised as an important word to look for both for your own health and the health of the environment. "I want animals to be pasture-raised, because that means they are living a more natural life, which leads to a healthier product, and it means it's not abusing the land the animal lives on." That said, there is currently no legal definition for "pasture-raised" in the U.S. However, the USDA's guidelines for "free range" is that birds must have "outdoor access," but it doesn't specify about full-body access or give a minimum space requirement.

What Is Pasture-Raised Food?

According to the HFAC’s Certified Humane stamp, the "pasture-raised" requirement is "1000 birds per 2.5 acres, and the fields must be rotated. The hens must be outdoors year-round, with mobile or fixed housing where the hens can go inside at night to protect themselves from predators, or for up to two weeks out of the year, due only to very inclement weather."

Farm-Raised

Farm-raised refers to animals that would otherwise be caught in the wild but are raised on a farm—you may have seen this label on your salmon, for example.

"Farm-raised isn't necessarily bad for the environment, but on its own it doesn't give us enough information," explains nutritionist Brigitte Zeitlin. "The same goes for free-range. While it can be an environmentally-friendly phrase, indicating the chickens are living a more natural life, it still doesn't tell us enough in terms of type of feed, land quality or preservation, and natural behaviors the chickens may be allowed."

In other words, you can probably count "farm-raised" out if you're hoping to eat in a more environmentally-friendly way.

Antibiotic-Free

According to Cannon, antibiotic-free doesn't mean much of anything, environmental or otherwise. "There's no single definition of 'antibiotic-free' for food labels," she says. "While food labeled 'antibiotic-free' might come from animals not given antibiotics, that doesn't mean that those animals don't carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to the CDC."

What Is Antibiotic-Free Food?

According the USDA, the term "no antibiotics added" may be used on "labels for meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to the Agency demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics."

Feeling empowered to make more informed food decisions regarding your body and the environment? We thought so!

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