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Local vs. Organic: I Choose Organic – Here’s Why

Local vs. Organic: I Choose Organic - Here's Why

For several years, the local food movement has been gaining some serious momentum. Supermarkets are pushing locally-grown food and restaurants insert “local” into their menus as often as possible. I have a good friend of mine who proudly and constantly tells me that he is eating local food all of the time. When I hear […]

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For several years, the local food movement has been gaining some serious momentum. Supermarkets are pushing locally-grown food and restaurants insert “local” into their menus as often as possible.

I have a good friend of mine who proudly and constantly tells me that he is eating local food all of the time. When I hear this, I just kind of shake my head. Why do I have this reaction?

While this issue is very complicated and the circumstances of every single piece food is vastly different, there is a lot more to this than many people realize and “local” isn’t necessarily better.

Yes, local food means that it has traveled a lot less (within 150 miles seems to be the accepted range) than something that has been shipped across the country.

Local also “supposedly” means that the food has been produced in a sustainable manner rather than from some industrial food operation.

But how do we know this? We don’t. There are no standards for local and there is no certification for local. There are, however, strict standards for organic and USDA organic certification.

Unless I am at a farmer’s market where I can look the farmer in the eye and ask him about his production methods, I just don’t know how local food has been produced.

How do I know that the farmer 20 miles away isn’t spraying his kale with toxic pesticides and polluting our water?  I don’t.  And this matters to me as I am gravely concerned about the abysmal quality of our water supply.

Furthermore, a New York Times op-ed piece by James McWilliams pointed out that lamb shipped from New Zealand to England caused much less impact to global warming than British-produced lamb.

Does this mean we should abandon “local”? Not at all.

This was simply one example and other examples may prove “local” to be much better for the environment.

MY TAKE

If I can buy local and organic, that is what I do and it is the best of both worlds.

I want to support local food as much as I can and will buy food at farmer’s markets where I have an incredibly high degree of confidence that the food is grown “cleanly”, even if it is not certified as organic.

However…..

1) Local food doesn’t necessarily mean better for the environment. In fact, it could be worse.

2) Local food doesn’t mean organic.

3) Supporting organic production and organic farmers is very important to me.

It goes without saying that local vs. organic is not a cut and dry argument, but I prefer organic over local because there are standards and I know what organic means.

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30 Comments

  • Bertha Munoz-Lewis says:

    Hi there! What is your opinion on farms/produce that are G.A.P. certified?

  • caristo masiwa says:

    thanks for the post .i am following the arguments and points put across in the comments. i am in africa zimbabwe in particular. with the increasing rise in concern for healthy eating and particularly organic food production systems i will appreaciate clarity on what exactly do we mean by organically produced food. i think though it is healthy and very much advisable to buy fresh food from the local farmer or producer whose production practices are well known to you and in the process support the growth and economic sustainability of that farmer, we are faced with a challenge of having some food crops that can not be produced in our locality due to climatic and other reasons but we need nutrients from those foodstuffs hence one way or another we have to buy from a distant farmer or producer. i suggest we give priority to own production for those who can produce their own provided they do it ” organically” and have the land and means to produce their own food, then buy from local farmers whose practices we know and are confident are organic. lastly i would suggest a better less costly means of connectivity and certification of organic producers from which ever food producing region so that one can have access to all food types, organically produced, required for their healthy consumption. i know this means a lot in terms of cost and competition with the conventionally produced bulky and plenty “cheap” food on the market. would like to know more on organic production systems. i am in agriculture extension and also a small farmer in my own right

  • Paul Modde says:

    Organic only means without chemicals. There are questionable practices that are used and considered acceptable in Organic agriculture. Personally I believe organic has more political than correct. It surely isn’t helping the majority of farmers that can afford the high cost of certification. THUS it helps those that have and further separates those that have not. But that is a major debate beyond the purpose of my post.

    Since the majority of our food is grown with NPK its obviously pathetic that one would even want to eat it. So as to be not to scientific lets call NPK minerals. To be healthy our body need to take in about 90 minerals to be truly healthy. Animals don’t produce these not do plants. So the question is where do we than get these other 87 or so minerals.

    And farm or garden to plate is obvious the healthiest. A reality check is needed about why organic doesn’t guarantee quality. For example living in Northern British Columbia Canada I was pleased one day when a friend said a new brand of organics is not in one of the local stores. I couldn’t wait to check it out and by. But was skeptical of the potential quality which proved to be well founded.

    I was a 15 hour drive North of Vancouver near mile zero of the Alaska highway. The products in question were grown in Ontario a few days drive just to get to distributions centers be for heading north. Since salad greens loose most of there vitamin c and nutritional value in about 48 hours. So its obvious when one does the math what I didn’t purchase the product selling for premium price etc. etc. etc.

    But now back to the main point of this posting.

    So my best advice if you and your family want to be healthy buy a refractometer to test the quality of the food you are buying and print a Brix Index Food Chart and paste it on your fridge so you can test using refractometer and confirm quality using the chart.

    Now I will pay premium prices for premium quality but it has to be proven to me buy testing that I am getting what I am paying for. So test test test. And like Wayne mentioned just know your farmer if u can and how he grows. And support him if he meets your standards and expectation. Certification means little tome but confirmed quality by testing supplies me with the information I need for myself, family and friends.

    The secret is in the microbial biology of the soil or in case of soilless growing the nutrients feed to the plants. Everyone would do well to do due diligence in their research books like. Survival of Civilization, Teaming with Microbes, The Silent Spring, Symphony of the Soil, Bread to Stones, Rock Dust Primer, Miracle Men, Sea Minerals, and the hundreds of other volumes I have researched and studied over the years and since the advent of computers countless hours of research and study that I continue to do to this day, now 67.

    Lets all put our hands together and pray for the future of Gaia Grandmother of all the Universe and the people living in it. Lets celebrate 2015 as the U.N. Year of the Soil suggests. And watch all you can on U-tube by Dr. Elaine Ingham she is a great educator.

    As far back as the late 1800’s doctors and scientist were already stating processed foods aren’t giving us what we need. Big ag is killing the planet and us. Thus 1 in 3 get cancer 1 in 3 diabetes, 70% of US is obese and Autism is on the rise. I wont delve into that to much, Many people are no longer living because they have tried to wake people up.

    Communities have to be more Self Sustaining.

    What if we could grow more food using less energy, less water, less land, less time, less money to grow more healthy, tasty, nutritious food. We can we have the knowledge/technologies right now to do it. What we don’t have is the politics to make it a global reality.

    I don’t buy into this fear mongering that’s being propagated, we don’t have enough land to feed a growing world. That’s the biggest bunch of propaganda I’ve heard in last several decades. Its all about design using the latest scientific innovative and integrated approach to a self sustaining world.

    Look out Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and others, the revolution is gaining momentum. People need to understand we are not separate from nature we are part of nature. What we do to nature we do to ourselves.

    You are either part of the problem! or part of the solution! Which are you?

    God Bless you all, happy planting and I wish you all a safe journey, happy, healthy, long life is this majestic Cosmic Universe.

  • Wayne says:

    I appreciate your perspective, but it’s not quite as cut-and-dried as that. I know this because I’m a farmer, a member of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, and I just finished sitting through a webinar on the National Organic Program earlier this afternoon.

    Growers who produce less than $5,000 a year in organic goods are allowed to use the term “organic” (but not “certified organic”) without being certified or even inspected. They are supposed to comply with USDA NOP standards, but there’s no verification required.

    Meanwhile, certified organic growers are allowed to use manure from non-organic animals as fertilizer, meaning that the certified organic vegetables you’re eating may contain arsenic from chicken bedding on the floor of a factory farm.

    The standards are exacting, but sometimes nonsensical, which is why many small producers like me don’t bother with certification. I only market locally and my farm is in an urban area. People can easily come here and see how I grow their food. I’m concerned that if people read this article and then go to a health food store in my locale, they’re likely to pass up my stuff in favor of something grown by a huge corporate agribusiness in California that simply swapped their conventional chemicals out for organic-approved ones.

    Most permaculturists and other “beyond organic” farmers (who aren’t certified organic but who grow food that’s far superior to the certified stuff that’s been shipped a thousand miles) only sell in their own area. Strengthening the local community is as much a part of their ethic as not spraying poisons, but if they have more than $5,000 in sales, “local” may be the only qualifier they can use that has any meaning to the customer, now that the government and big business made off with “organic.”

  • Lesley Kelly says:

    Organic does not mean it isn’t sprayed with chemicals. Both conventional and organic farming uses herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers. Organic and local doesn’t mean what you eat is healthier or more sustainable. Food is a personal choice but please check your facts before publishing.

    • Max Goldberg says:

      Hi Lesley,

      You are correct. Organic uses pesticides, organic ones.

      However, what you conveniently glossed over is this fact – conventional farming allows the use of toxic chemicals, such as glyphosate. The World Health Organization said that glyphosate “probably causes cancer”. California’s EPA intends to declare that glyphosate “causes cancer”. Glyphosate is not allowed in organic.

      Please check your facts before lumping organic and conventional farming into the same bucket.

      Live well,
      Max

      • Phil says:

        Organic farmers are able to use a range of pesticides that are classified as acceptable by whichever body oversees the accreditation in that country (the soil association here in the UK). The available products include both ‘traditional’ pesticides and some others that are deemed to be acceptable. In general they are likely to be less effective, require larger doses and will be less specific to the pest organisms they are used to treat. The organic movement doesn’t discuss this widely and is happy to not challenge the generally perceived notion that organic farming does not use pesticides. As to glyphosate, the WHO classification is, if I recall correctly, the same as that for coffee and a lower cancer risk than alcohol. Not an issue really…

  • Rachel Cywinski says:

    I agree that communication with farmers at farmers’ markets is key. There are many family farms th at do grow things organically ad will state when asked that they do not use any synthetic chemicals or genetically-modified seeds in growing, but they cannot post a sign stating it’s “organic” because in our state that requires an extensive and expensive process. They are able to provide organically-grown produce at a price below any produce in local grocery stores. In the locally-owned corporate grocery store chain, all certified organic produce seems to be routinely priced at twice the price of all other produce even when it is the same grower. For instance, this week Driscoll raspberries are $1.98/pint and right next to them are Driscoll organically grown raspberries for $3.98/pint. There is one local farmers’ market that features USDA Organic certified local farmers. Needless to say, the cost is about 4 times the cost of produce in a grocery store.
    Fortunately, this is no longer true for prepackaged items such as USDA Organic potato chips, tomato sauce, etc., but that’s for the larger brands. For the smaller companies who certify organic, they are often still much pricier. Locally, there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the cost and process of achieving organic certification on the part of producers, and also distrust of the “USDA Organic” label by consumers who have educated themselves about the requirements. And so I think for now the discussion also has to include consideration of the requirements for achieving organic certification. Are certified products really “organic” in the same criteria as what consumers value? Are the current state and national standards for certification equitable and unbiased to food producers?
    Also, local “natural” fertilizer companies often use only organic ingredients in their compost, but they choose to sell them without proclaiming them as “organic” because of the lengthy processes required to include that word for each component. I know a local restaurant that uses all certified-organic produce in the dishes it prepares, but the word “organic” is nowhere on the menu because iy of reasons similar to those explained above. Wouldn’t it seem more sensible and equitable if, rather than the current situation, businesses who used GMOs and synthetic chemicals were the ones who were required to undergo the lengthy and expensive processes of explaining what they are serving?

  • Nyfarmer says:

    Only groupings of farms, contiguous lands support ecosystems. We need farms that make up viable communities. No farm can survive alone . Unfortunately, it seems the consumers seem more interested only in themselves and not the farmers who struggle to hand onto the land .

  • Rob says:

    I just buy what’s on sale at Wegman’s and don’t worry about it.

  • Thanks Max, We live near lots of farms in the Catskills. Eating organic means better water for us and better food for all. Also we love to support the cultural shift that organic farming promotes. Keep our farmers families healthy and making a right livelihood.

  • Susan says:

    You would think farmers at certified farmers markets would be more welcoming of being transparent, but disappointingly some of them don’t really like answering too many questions and are reluctant in going into much detail. I guess they are ruled by the money book too. I would like to see more of them ‘get’ how crucial of a role they play in our ability to access healthy uncontaminated food.

  • Urszula says:

    Hello Max
    may I copy and print your article to be distributed as an informative leaflet in London / United Kingdom at a demonstration on Saturday?
    I fully agree it should be ORGANIC AND LOCAL. Your article is fab!
    thanks
    Urszula

  • Max, here is the key to your argument. You wrote: “Local also “supposedly” means that the food has been produced in a sustainable manner rather than from some industrial food operation.”

    I wrote an article on this about a year ago, and made the same point. Local does not imply anything other than locale. Your neighbor can be local and bomb the hell out of his yard and plants and everything with poisons. The air, water and ground can be poisoned locally. The word “local” has been overused as a greenwashing marketing term and is as useless as the word “natural.”

    • Max Goldberg says:

      Hi Vic,

      I am with you 100%. I am all for supporting the local economies but far too many people think local is pesticide-free. And as we know, local means something very, very different than organic.

      Live well,
      Max

  • Kesang says:

    Hi

    I would like to hear more about the mycotoxins and phyotoxins in food as well, if anyone can share

  • Roger Stillman says:

    My sentiments exactly! Max you explained this just as I myself would. If I can’t look a farmer in the eye and know he/she is practicing “clean” farming I wouldn’t buy it. If you ever are in San Francisco go to the Ferry Plaza on Saturdays and experience the all organic all local farmers market there. Great farmers, outstanding produce and goods. A bit pricey but you know what you are getting and you just might make friends with a Local and Organic “small” producer of excellant food. It is the best of both worlds.

    • Max Goldberg says:

      Thanks Roger! Yes, I know the farmers market at the Ferry building. It is outstanding! I appreciate your feedback.

      Have a great day!
      Max

  • Beth-ann Roth says:

    My mantra: I don’t like local pesticides either. Local is wonderful, but the first test is whether it’s organic or biodynamic. If it’s not, the rest of the questions aren’t even implicated. It’s not just a question of what I put into my body, but of supporting agriculture that doesn’t cause problems (such as fertilizer and pesticide runoff) that can have consequences worldwide (e.g., contributing to poisoned water and dead zones far from home).

    • Max Goldberg says:

      Hi Beth-ann,

      I agree with you completely. It is about what we put into our bodies AND the implications for the environment as a whole. This last point often gets overlooked by people because the damage is not visible to them, only to people where the damage is taking place.

      Thanks for sharing!
      Max

  • Sachi says:

    Speaking of our low quality water supply, what do you do for your drinking water? Cooking water? Do you have a post about this already?

    • Max Goldberg says:

      Hi Sachi,

      I have a custom water system. My best advice is to visit your local organic restaurant, find out who does their water filtration, and speak to that person.

      Live well,
      Max

  • joan says:

    If possible, grow your own food, even if just a herb or two.

    (website not up yet)

  • Max Goldberg says:

    Hi Lisa,

    Thanks so much for your comments. Freshness is certainly key. I agree 100% — local AND organic is the best.

    Live well,
    Max

  • Max Goldberg says:

    Hi Richard,

    It would be great for the readers if you could delve into a little bit more deeply into the mycotoxins and phyto-toxins debate vs. conventional produce that is sprayed with toxic chemicals. And how bugs are an essential part of the ecosystem and foods that we eat.

    I am interested to hear more.

    Thanks so much!

    Live well,
    Max

  • As a partner in ‘MoreSouth organic catering’ part of our mission statement is an intention:
    ‘We look for the best local and organic produce which is freshly prepared on site.’
    Like you I would choose organic over local most of the time but it’s the freshness that marry the two.

  • Good read, And I’d suggest another for your ending list.

    4. That organic doesn’t necessarily equal healthier. ( Increased mycotoxins and negative phyto-toxins because of higher insect herbivory). Of course, just as you suggest, each purchase is unique–some farms, seasons &yields will have more insect damage, others less so.

    I do prefer organic, heck my own organic gardening led me to my profession as an entomologist, but do purchase conventional-grown produce as well. Many factors enter into each purchase.

    Richard Martyniak

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