Remember back when food was just food? Maybe I was too young or possibly I was simply oblivious, but I don’t think determining what was in my food or how it was grown used to be quite such a labyrinth of certifications and acronyms. Even when I really started paying attention, it seemed that there were only 2 choices; conventional and organic. The choice seemed pretty clear, in most cases, and I went along my merry way believing that I was purchasing with an eye towards not only the health of my body, but that of the Earth and our natural resources as well.
Since October 2012, standards for use of the “organic” label have been defined by the USDA. According to the USDA website, “Overall, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances…The USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used.” These standards, I daresay, have been trusted as the gold standard for those concerned about the purity of their food sources and environmental stewardship. While I admit that I have never actually read the standards, I have taken comfort in their existence.
I have, to date, relied on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists to determine whether I buy organic or conventional produce to stick to my food budget. This is certainly helpful, but now I find myself faced with choices such as: Should I buy organic granny smith apples from Washington State, or do I purchase the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) apples from a local grower, such as Alyson’s Orchard? Or, do I buy those heirloom apples that are “ecologically grown” at Scott Farm in Dummerston, VT? Yikes! Complicated, right? If I choose the local apples, am I compromising my commitment to my health and the environment? Obviously, there are many considerations and everyone has their own values and commitments.
While there are generally accepted practices for growers who practice IPM and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does have a detailed fact sheet on IPM, there is no standardized certification for IPM practices comparable to the USDA organic certification. However, in the case of apples, The IPM Institute of North America drafted standards for the Northeast Eco Apple Project with input from growers, consultants, and scientists from the University of Massachusetts and Cornell. The Eco Apple Protocol has an extensive grower self-evaluation and an inspection for those seeking certification for the first time. Recently, this protocol was extended to peaches, plums, apricots, and nectarines to create a new Eco Stone Fruit Protocol. Both of these Eco certifications are administered through a non-profit called Red Tomato in Plainville, MA. Be sure to check out this super cool listing of the farmers Eco certified by Red Tomato which, incidentally, lists both Alyson’s Orchard and Scott Farm, as well as other regional growers.
So, back to my original dilemma: I stand in front of the abundant apple selection and pull out my handy-dandy EWG dirty dozen list (okay, app) and try to decide if I’m going to buy that organic apple or the local, conventional IPM apple. Since the IPM apple is not USDA organic certified it will still bear conventional signage and PLU code stickers. Suddenly, the decision is not simply about choosing conventional or organic. As for me, I have no qualms about choosing those local apples that are Eco certified.