Karen Anderson, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA NJ), has just hung a New Yorker cartoon on her office wall. It shows two diners asking their waiter “Which entree raises the fewest ethical questions?”

“Food shopping and food consumption are complex,” says Anderson. “It’s gotten really difficult to make ethical food choices.”

Even choosing which conference on the ethically complex topic to attend can become a fraught decision. Anderson just recently heard about the Food, Ethics, and the Environment conference at Princeton University, which begins on Thursday, November 16, at 4 p.m. and continues on Friday, November 17 (for all the details go to www.princeton.edu/~eating and see U.S. 1, November 8) and would dearly love to go. “I’ve never heard Marion Nestle, and I’ve heard she’s a real firebrand,” she says. “I’ve never heard Peter Singer either.”

But she is already booked to speak on Friday, November 17, at another conference, Tech Transfer 2006, an all-day event at Kean University, beginning at 8 a.m. Cost: $200. Call 908-737-4652. A major environmental event, it boasts Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. as its keynote speaker. “So,” says Anderson, “two once-in-a-lifetime conferences are being held on the same day. It’s unfortunate.”

Sunny as the solar power that is gaining momentum as a petroleum replacement, Anderson allows herself a “darn” or two and moves on. The Kean conference is all about sustainability, she says, and traditionally such events have concentrated solely on building, heating, and transportation technologies and solutions. She is just glad that agriculture is on the menu at Kean. “It needs to be in that room,” she says. That means she needs to be in the room, and she will be, with only a short wistful glance at Princeton’s event.

She expects that the fur will fly (but only figuratively, for sure) at Princeton, and right away she offers her view on one subject on the agenda. While Peter Singer, author of the new book, “The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter,” sees value in importing food as a way to aid farmers in impoverished countries, she, in effect, says “not so fast.”

“I’d be very cautious about saying imported food is made by poor farmers,” she says. “It is often produced by very large corporations unless it is Fair Traded.” (Singer does advocate the use of Fair Trade products, those that impose minimum environmental and labor standards on food producers, and recommends Philadelphia’s White Dog Cafe as an excellent place to buy them.)

“You can’t necessarily assume that food from poor countries is made by poor farmers,” says Anderson. “The best land gets used for export.” This practice makes people in developing countries more impoverished still.

Besides, says Anderson, “you lose something very valuable if you stop producing your own food.” There are some things, of course, that New Jersey just can’t provide. “I’m a coffee addict,” she says. “I love chocolate. I’d be in pain if we lost that.”

So some things need to be imported, but the fewer the better, in Anderson’s view. “We give up control if we don’t feed ourselves,” she says. “You need to think long and hard.”

Security is a part of it. She points out that the spinach that sickened so many people across the country in October was grown in California, and had traveled great distances before being served. At the same time, New Jersey growers had fine, healthful spinach to sell, but given the way that produce now gets around, they were forbidden to do so. Few people now have any idea where their food comes from, so the USDA decided that the only way to end the spinach-borne illness was to ban the sale of all spinach everywhere.

“To buy from small independent farmers is what counts,” says Anderson. It’s not only potentially safer, but, “that is where you are supporting the local economy.”

Anderson has been with NOFA NJ since 1997 and has been its executive director since 1999. Trained in foreign relations at Georgetown (Class of 1981), she holds a degree in library science from Catholic University, and was a law librarian for the New Jersey legislature for many years. “A service kid who lived all over,” she received an early food education from her mother, who read Adele Davis, shopped at produce stands, and was “a conscientious consumer.”

Despite this background, Anderson didn’t join the local/organic movement until fairly recently. She was, in fact, born again on the Honeybrook Farm in Pennington when she became a co-op member at the urging of a friend.

“It was transforming for me,” she says. “I hardly knew that food could be like that. It’s amazing what can happen when you change what you eat.” But, she adds, laughing, “I can’t guarantee you will get a new job.”

She volunteered on the farm, and found stoop labor to be incredibly hard work, “even for an athlete, even for a very fit person.” Her farm experience, passion for locally grown food, and background at the legislature make her a perfect fit for NOFA NJ.

The organization promotes local agriculture and certifies farms in the state as organic. In the wake of various widely-reported instances of farmers stamping decidedly unorganic produce with that label, the certification gives consumers some level of trust and comfort. Organic vegetables and fruit are raised without the use of pesticides, sewage sludge, and ionizing radiation. According to the regs, they are to be grown in soil that is replenished by crop rotation.

Work on the federal regulations began in 1990, when consumer alarm over what was in the food they were eating began to bubble up high enough to be noted. But the regs were not issued until 2002, a length of time Anderson finds incredible. She freely admits that the regs are not perfect, and that change to bring them up to date is glacial, but she think they are a good base on which to build.

Before there were federal standards, NOFA NJ, and some 52 certification groups like it, drew up their own regs. That was good, says Anderson, because the system allowed for regional differences, and was nimble enough to change quickly. But there was a downside. “A farmer with one type of certification couldn’t sell goods to a neighbor with a different type of certification,” she says. So, for example, a farmer making 100 percent organic apple nut bread under one certification could not buy the apples from a neighbor operating under a different certification.

That problem has been erased, but others remain. Under the regs, a “small” farmer with less than $5,000 in income was exempt from the certification process — and all the paperwork it entails. That is a 1990 number, says Anderson, and in today’s dollars the “small” farmer is really a “tiny” farmer. This makes it too difficult for small farmers to obtain the organic certification that would make it easy for conscientious consumers to choose their products.

While the federal regs go into great detail on how organic produce is to be grown, they are vague on the subject of animals and their products. This is so, says Anderson, because consumer awareness of factory farming conditions was nearly non-existent back in 1990. She expects that there will be changes in the future, and that consumers will be given a much more precise guide to purchasing eggs, milk, and meat that is produced without antibiotics, fetid feedlots, or cruel treatment of animals.

Meanwhile, she says that consumers looking for well-treated animals — and their products, including milk and eggs, have a couple of local options. Both Cherry Grove, on Route 206 in Lawrence, and Simply Grazing, in Montgomery, offer free range, grass fed meat, and eggs and milk from free range animals.

Busy families on the move, who may have time to cook a grass fed roast, can still effect change. Anderson says that 70 cents of every New Jersey food dollar goes to prepared food. Some choose ready-made meals from Whole Foods, while others drive into a McDonald’s. In either case, the chains listen — very, very carefully — to consumers. “Change at McDonald’s and other chains will be important,” says Anderson.

Anderson does cook, and says that she is “the slowest shopper in the supermarket,” scrutinizing every label. But she is convinced that meaningful change in how we raise our food will not occur until someone figures out how to make meals both safe, healthy, positive for the environment — and convenient.

“It doesn’t benefit us to shame or blame people,” says Anderson. “I have a sister who lives in Loudoun County, Virginia. She commutes some God-awful time, has two kids in travel sports, and has just started a small business. It’s got to work for my sister.”

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