Local or Organic, or something else…? That was the question I left with after attending the What’s Next Lecture Series last Weds. evening at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz.

Slightly after the talk had started, I slipped into an enthusiastic full house, eagerly joining the others to hear some of the Central Coast’s most knowledgeable thought leaders discuss the Future of Food, from Plow to Plate, as the description promised. This topic is both timely and intriguing, as we recognize more fully the huge implications of global warming, pollution and rising energy prices as related to food production.  In fact, researches claim that If the whole world adopted sustainable farming practices, production could increase by over 50 percent.

Essentially, as an agricultural hub providing 15% of the world’s produce, the Central Coast is in a place to drive changes that could reduce energy use, improve health standards and streamline production.  These are big and exciting possibilities!   I expected to learn more about how that would happen, what the experts’ strategy would be. That’s not quite what happened.  The panel was conducted Q&A style, with one panelist answering at a time.  It was interesting to hear not only the diversity of answers, but the rather different interpretations of the questions.

Clearly the panelists answered based on their varied past experiences, but not all of those experiences were truly relevant to the question posed.  It was slightly disappointing that this great opportunity to educate and motivate people around a topic so relevant, didn’t really clarify anything.  While the ambiance was enjoyable, it was slightly disappointing that this great opportunity to educate and motivate people around a topic so relevant, didn’t really clarify anything.  That said,  I gathered some good information (including the 15% statistic referenced above) and learned more about both two vital local organizations:  Organic Farming Research Foundation, and New Leaf Community Markets.

Where much of the panel discussion focused on semantics, ‘Are consumers interested in fresh, organic, local, sustainable?  Which label is most important?”, the fact that personal preference, environmental impact, and economic viability of these labels are all different was not explained.  For example, maybe fresh is what customers will want in the future, as one panelist suggested, yet the term “fresh” can also mean loaded with pesticides, dyed to match your carpet and completely out of season, there is no USDA regulation.

Maureen Wilmot, executive director of the Organic Food Research Foundation offered a valid explanation about the use of food marketing terminology, including the fact the “organic” is the only USDA regulated term to date, but beyond that, neither a consensus nor consistent take-away was unveiled.  The audience was left however, with plenty of food for thought (sorry!).

For more information about food labels and answers to questions like local or organic (short answer – it depends), click here.