Standing in the produce section, you hold up two seemingly identical peaches. One has an organic label, and one was grown at a farm only ten miles away. Which piece of fruit is better—for you and for the environment?
Modern conscientious eaters have a lengthy list of “food rules” to which they’re expected to adhere. No commercial meat. No fast food. No unsustainably farmed fish, nothing grown more than one hundred miles away, and nothing grown with chemicals. In a perfect world, we’d all tend our own organic produce and slaughter our own humanely raised meat, but in the real world, we have to make choices, and especially when it comes to produce, the choice sometimes comes down to buying local products or buying organic ones. Is one really better than the other? Given the choice, which should we purchase?
Fresh from the Farm
When you buy food from farms within your community, you’re supporting local businesses. But you’re not just supporting the farms themselves; you’re also supporting the local workers who do the planting and harvesting; the companies that provide equipment, seeds, and service; and the local markets that sell them. Small farms are more integrated into and invested in their communities than factory operations are, and patronizing them spreads the wealth around. Another big benefit to buying local is that it forces you to think in terms of growing seasons. Yes, that means you won’t get tomatoes during the winter, but eating seasonally is a good way to stay in tune with the natural rhythms of nature and become familiar with your region’s agriculture.
Buying locally also eliminates the need for farmers to pay to transport their products over long distances. According to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the average carrot travels 1,838 miles from farm to table, so local food both saves fuel and eliminates the need for expensive packagers and distributors who add to the final cost. Those savings for the farmer can translate into a substantial savings for the customer, too: according to the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems, about 23 percent of the total fossil fuels used in food production are devoted to processing and packaging. When you buy local products, especially at a farmers’ market, the farmer is able to keep eighty to ninety cents of each dollar you spend—far higher than what he or she would earn for the same product bought in a supermarket hundreds of miles away.
But the best part of local food is that it’s fresher. Factory farms—even organic ones—pick their produce before it’s ripe and then allow it to ripen on the way to market. An organic apple from the grocery store was likely picked about a week ago, as opposed to a local apple, which could have been picked as recently as this morning.
Local food, however, is not necessarily sustainable, humanely raised, or environmentally friendly food. Many small farmers still use pesticides or fertilizers, which account for a substantial part of the fossil fuel use in farming. According to the University of Michigan, approximately 40 percent of the fossil fuels used in agriculture are spent on manufacturing chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Ingesting these chemicals has its own health risks, as well as environmental consequences.
In Search of the Big O
When you buy any food labeled “USDA Organic,” you know exactly what you’re getting. Farms with this certification undergo stringent testing to ensure that no chemicals come in contact with the produce. Organic meat cannot receive the organic certification unless it’s antibiotic- and hormone-free. Not only do the farms themselves have to maintain these high standards, but so do any packagers or shippers that handle the products on their way to market. Organic farming in this country has increased significantly in the past decade, but it still represents only a small percentage of food sales. We sometimes think of organic farms as being small, family-owned operations, but nowadays, many large-scale organic-farming operations ship to supermarkets all over the country, such as Whole Foods. Buying organic produce—wherever it comes from—ensures the survival of these food distribution networks and makes it easier to increase production and bring more organic food to more people. Another benefit of supporting large-scale organic farming is that it increases the acreage of farmland that remains pesticide- and fertilizer-free, which is great for the environment.
The organic produce found in most supermarkets travels from farms all over the country. The good news is that this enables people everywhere to have access to organic food, but the bad news is that it uses fossil fuels the same way conventional produce does: organic produce from factory farms still undergoes packing and shipping, and it’s still transported hundreds or thousands of miles, ripening during the journey. Organic fruit picked in Florida and shipped to Ohio doesn’t do much for local food systems or suppliers, either.
Ultimately, the decision of whether to buy local food or organic food should be made based on your own priorities and needs, and on what’s available in your area. If your greatest concern is avoiding pesticides, buy organic. If you’re just trying to eat seasonally and reduce your carbon footprint, local food may be the way to go. If you live in California, you have a wealth of options for both local and organic food, but Hawaii has to import 90 percent of its food, so choices may be slim. Seek out farmers’ markets, where you can interact with the farmers themselves and ask questions about how they grew their plants or raised their animals. Shopping at farmers’ markets—whether the food is organic and local, or just local—is the best way to get acquainted with where and how your food was grown. Even if you do your shopping at Safeway or Publix, when customers start asking questions, the company will start providing answers.Whether you buy your produce local, organic, or both, the important thing is getting off the system of factory farming. Both choices are important in discouraging harmful agricultural practices and encouraging the production of the kind of food that keeps us—and our world—healthy.