More people are making an effort to buy locally grown food but many are unaware that local and organic are not necessarily one and the same.
The organic-food industry has spent millions of dollars building brand awareness, only to see some consumers confuse “organic” food with “local” food products, says Ben Campbell, a University of Connecticut extension economist.
For a new study, published in the May edition of the International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, Campbell and colleagues surveyed 2,511 people online in the United States and Canada in 2011 and found 17 percent thought the terms were interchangeable.
“If consumers can distinguish between local and organic, then by buying organic, they will be able to reduce their exposure to synthetic pesticides,” says Hayk Khachatryan, a food and resource economics assistant professor at the University of Florida.
“However, there is no guarantee that organic is grown locally. Before reaching the consumer, organic produce may travel long distances, which involves some level of environmental footprint.”
By the same token, locally produced food may not be the most sustainable choice, if the same or better quality produce can be grown and transported less expensively from someplace else.
The study also shows that 22 percent of the people surveyed incorrectly think “local” means non-genetically modified. Now that several states have or are now debating GMO regulations, consumers need to be aware that a locally labeled product does not imply non-GMO, Campbell says.
“We are not saying GMO is bad or good, but rather that local does not imply GMO-free.”
What’s in a name?
Local and organic products have seen increasing consumer demand over the last decade, with sales of organic products reaching $26.7 billion in the US and $2.6 billion in Canada in 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association, a group that promotes organic food producers and related industries.
Exact figures for locally grown food are tougher to come by, but recent estimates indicate sales of local products were $4.8 billion in the US in 2008, according to a US Department of Agriculture study.
One factor clouding consumers’ understanding is that Canada is changing its definition of “local” food, and the definition of “local” food varies by jurisdiction in the United States.
US and Canadian governments both mandate organic production to mean grown without synthetic pesticides, among other things. The USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, and genetically modified organisms were not used.
Researchers from Michigan State University, Purdue University, and Texas A&M University contributed to the study.
Source: University of Florida