Food and labels: Shopping with knowledge

When it comes to buying food, we often are overwhelmed with the number of options of products and labels out there. It can be a daunting task to figure out which label best fits our belief system. To help make these choices a bit easier, we need a better understanding of what the different labels mean.

Here at Shady Grove Farm U.P. in Gwinn, Michigan, we are a local farm, our products are certified naturally grown (or CNG for short) and we use certified organic chicken feed. That's three different labels in one farm description. However, none of these labels are synonymous. Confusing? For many, it is, so let's get some clarification.

Many believe local means the same thing as organic. It is common for local food to be grown organically, but not always. Many times, local food is grown using conventional methods, which often includes herbicides, pesticides, GMO seeds and livestock feeds. The term local is not officially defined or monitored, and only indicates where, not how, the food is produced.

As for certified organic, that means it is approved by a government-regulated program that doesn't allow synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides, growth hormones or antibiotics, or GMOs. For processed foods, there are different degrees of certification. For something to be labeled 100 percent organic, salt and water are the only allowable non-organically produced items a farm can add. To be simply organic, the percentage gets lowered to 95 percent organic ingredients. And finally, labels that say made with organic ingredients require a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients.

Or, farm products grown right down the road might carry none of these labels. The organic program relies on third-party inspections and can be quite costly for farmers, making it unachievable for many small, local farms.

Finally, there is certified naturally grown or CNG. This grassroots alternative to the certified organic status has the same rigorous standards but is based on a farmer-to-farmer inspection process. CNG was founded by farmers in 2002 and is tailor-made for direct market farmers and beekeepers who use natural practices free of synthetic chemicals to produce food for their local communities. The costs to become CNG are affordable for most small farms.

On the CNG program website, the approach is described this way: "Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) was born of a commitment to healthy food, healthy soils, and the belief we could create something uniquely valuable to small-scale farmers and the communities they feed. Our peer review certification model encourages collaboration, transparency, and community involvement. We actively support Local Farmers Networks."

In turn, this model promotes farmers coming together, sharing ideas and knowledge, and building stronger local farm networks.

So, the next time you are shopping in your local food co-op, grocery store or at your local farmers market, take this knowledge with you. Know where your food comes from, what standards were used to produce it and understand that higher quality products cost more. Your best bet is to know your farmer or farmers so you can feel good about investing in and supporting a more sustainable, local food system and the future of the food you want to eat.

Randy Buchler is the owner of Shady Grove Farms. You can also visit the farm's Facebook page.
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