I met up with a friend of mine over the Christmas holidays, whose name I’m not going to mention for reasons that will become obvious. When we got together, I was surprised to see that she was carrying a bottle of water in her backpack. She’s usually pretty good about environmental stuff, so I asked her, “What’s with the bottled water?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well, you know, I thought you were avoiding it because of how resource-intensive it is?” I said.
She shrugged. “Oh, that’s okay,” she said. “This water’s organic.”
I’m not telling this story to make fun of her, although it was pretty funny. The point is that we all get tripped up sometimes by the myriad of environmental buzzwords now circulating through our collective cultural memespace. Especially with the kind of greenwashing that’s become increasingly common these days.
“Organic” is one of those words that can have a pretty wide range of actual definitions. Apparently there are more than forty organizations in Canada alone that can certify foods as organic, and they use several different standards. That’s not including foods that use labels like “authentic” or “natural”, which don’t have legally specified definitions. Sometimes that means an advertiser is trying to put one over on people; sometimes it means a small producer doesn’t have the money or the ability to go through the organic certification process, even though their food would meet the qualifications if they did. Without knowing about the specific supplier, it’s hard to know which.
And of course, like anything else, this issue doesn’t exist in isolation. There’s a market in my neighbourhood that sells organic apples imported from Japan. Quebec apples, probably sprayed with pesticides, are still available at this time of year at the Provigo. Buy local or buy organic? Or, as is far more likely at the moment, run out of time, buy whatever I can get at the store that’s directly on my way to work, and then feel guilty about it?
There are other options; I’ve been volunteering for the past few months at Zero Food Waste (which, incidentally, would love to have more volunteers, if you’re in Montreal!). It’s kind of like dumpster diving, except officially approved-of by the stores – they put aside food that they’re going to throw out, and we pick it up and sort it out for use by the food bank, community kitchen, and other local organizations.
I try to avoid making New Year’s resolutions, except in a really general way, but I am going to make more of an effort to pay attention to what I eat this year. Hanging out with the above group of cool people should help. We’ll see how it goes.
(As an ironic epilogue, I found out later, via Wikipedia, that there actually was a complaint filed with the USDA in 2004 against a company that was indeed declaring tap water to be “certified organic” in order to claim that their various personal care products contained organic ingredients. Weird.)