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Oct 12, 2009 10:11 AM

Local versus Organic Produce

So, I was at a family-owned grocery store yesterday—one with great produce. I wanted Swiss chard and had a choice between conventionally grown local chard for $1.99 a pound and chard grown organically thousands of miles away for $3.99 per pound.

What's better for my health and the environment: buying locally grown "conventional" produce or organic produce grown 3,000 miles away?

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  1. The locally grown will be better. It will be fresher as it takes days to ship the other stuff. The fuel savings is the major killer on the distant produce.

    1. Local produce is better for the environment than organic-but-from-chile-or-wherever produce.

      Whether it's better for your health depends on how the local producer treats the produce -- and the organic label in this case wouldn't necessarily be meaningful. Organic certification can be an arduous and expensive process, and many small farmers simply don't have the resources to adhere to every proverbial jot and tittle of federal certification laws. Such is the case for a majority of the sellers at several of my local farmers' markets. Or they just plain don't want organic certification -- a local cheesemaker, for instance, refuses organic certification because she wants to be able to give her prized and much-beloved goats antibiotics if they get sick. In all other practices, her entire operation is organic.

      I suppose the best option in that case would be to ask the produce department manager what farm the chard was grown on, and if he or she knew anything about the farm's policies on pesticides, GMOs, etc.

      1 Reply
      1. re: LauraGrace

        IN this case, the local Swiss chard was so lovely and tender—so much nicer than the organic. So I bought the local.

      2. Another consideration--buying local produce means that money stays in your community. Local, for me, is more important than organic and, as LauraGrace noted, requirements for organic certification can be out of reach for many small producers. So, the produce may actually be organic anyway.

        9 Replies
        1. re: nofunlatte

          A local farmer told me that "the further produce travelled, the less organic it was". Think about that statement.

          1. re: jayjay

            I did, but it still doesn't make any sense to me. Organic refers to how the produce is grown, not how it gets from place to place. So what did this local farmer actually mean?

            1. re: small h

              Consider the purpose of organic food; the idea is to produce food that's 'natural' in some sense, and less harmful to the environment. From this perspective, food that's transported from far away can be considered less 'organic' than something grown nearby (all things being equal).

              Besides, foods grown for local markets don't need as much preservatives as something that's going to be driven across the country in a truck.

              1. re: Scrofula

                I understand the purpose of organic food. I also understand that the term organic, with regard to food labeling, has an actual definition.

                Organic food, according to our friends at the USDA, "is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation."

                Note the complete absence of references to transportation! Unless I missed them - let me know what you find in this forest of words:


                1. re: small h

                  He's talking in the more general sense of the environmental impact of the product, not whether something meets organic certification standards. In other words, if you include the oil, rubber, etc., that it takes to transport the product, then the total process from farm to market is less organic.

                  Whether one product is healthier than the other is really not an issue: there's no evidence that organic produce is intrinsically healthier than non-organic. So which one is more "eco-friendly" and/or which one has a better socio-economic impact are really the keys to making the choice. My local natural grocery also prefers to buy local produce that's not certified organic, because of the factors nofunlatte described, than certified organic from thousands of miles away.

                  1. re: small h

                    I agree with Ruth--I think the farmer is using the word "organic" to reflect its original intent, well before the USDA got involved (anyone remember the original USDA "organic" guidelines, which allowed for sewage sludge to be used as a fertizilizer? The outcry and subsequent petitions were, I think, the largest and loudest in the USDA's history). I agree that he/she is not using the textbook definition of organic and his/her statement needs to be looked at with a more poetic or literary view.

                    That said, small_h, have you created any new words lately (didn't you coin "locavorganic"? Please, my foodie glossary beckons!

                    1. re: nofunlatte

                      <That said, small_h, have you created any new words lately (didn't you coin "locavorganic"? Please, my foodie glossary beckons!>

                      Sadly, I have not, and I've been thinking all day! But to you & Ruth Lafler, cast your eyes top-of-the-threadward, and you'll see that the OP notes (rightly) that local and organic are not synonyms, although they both suggest an interest in protecting the environment. I'm a big fan of precision in language, and I don't like to see the linguistic waters muddied. When people use "organic" to mean "just generally, ya know, better, and shit," I feel sad. And angry! But mostly sad.

                      Anyhoo! People with stronger math skills than mine (which is everybody) have also suggested that one farmer driving 50 miles to sell a bushel of onions might actually consume more fuel per onion than a big ol' cargo plane flying cross-country with thousands of bushels of onions. So, there's that, also. Speaking of muddy waters.

                      1. re: small h

                        'I'm a big fan of precision in language, and I don't like to see the linguistic waters muddied. When people use "organic" to mean "just generally, ya know, better, and shit," I feel sad. And angry! But mostly sad.'

                        I can sympathize with that. I think 'organic' was a poorly chosen word to begin with (in this context), so I'm not surprised that people use it somewhat loosely.

                        1. re: Scrofula

                          Where I am, in the UK, "organic" has legal definition under sales description legisltion. If it's sold as "organic", we would know (broadly speaking) what that meant and that the farming methods had been certified by one of the EO approved bodies (usually, in the UK, it's the Soil Association).

                          Within recent days, three directors/employees of a company in Northamptonshire have been prosecuted for a scam selling conventionally grown produce as organic. The director got 27 months in prison, whilst the other two got community service.

          2. "What's better for my health and the environment: buying locally grown "conventional" produce or organic produce grown 3,000 miles away?"

            Difficult question and one that I don't think has a single answer. On the health issue, you may take the view that organic, with its lack of pesticides and other agrichems, will be a better product for you. On the environment issue, it becomes much more difficult to call. On the one hand, you have the pollution of the local environment from agrichemicals. On the other, you have the polluting effects of transportation.

            It's a continual issue where I am as demand for organic outstrips local production, so many items arrive as imports, particularly with supermarket supply. Of course, I have no moral dilemma if it's, say, a fruit we can't grow here and, whilst, I usually try to buy organic I really will not buy onions that have been shipped thousands of miles.

            1. Is it terrible that neither health nor environment are the biggest factor in my answer? The bottom line for me is that I prefer to support my local community and will almost invariably choose the locally produced product. Don't get me wrong - I don't go crazy and eat nothing but seasonal, locally produced food, but I buy that way as much as possible.

              Actually, I don't buy much organic in general when it comes to produce. I'm a little more picky about animal products.