What's More Important - Organic Food or Local Food?

| 10/6/2010 1:49:50 PM

Tags: organic food, local food, sustainable farming, peak oil, Mary Lou Shaw,

Organic foodPeople express surprise that I’m such a strong proponent of local food and say they don’t hear me emphasize organic. Don’t I think it’s important? Sure I do, but I’ve come to take “organic” for granted. Then the question comes up — do I think local food or organic food is the more important concept? I have a standard answer in life when given a choice between two things that I value: I want both! Let’s look at the pros and cons of these concepts and see if you can choose which you value more.

Organic Food

Organic became popular back in the 1970’s when people were becoming concerned about farm chemicals causing pollution and harming the environment. Herbicides and pesticides were introduced after WWII as industry sought a market for the neurotoxins that had been developed for chemical warfare. These petroleum-based chemicals kill by destroying the nervous system. Obviously, I choose not to eat food that has these poisons on or in them, so I vote for organic food.

The organic movement isn’t everything that the original founders had hoped however. After it became popular, the corporate world wanted to cash in on profits, and much organic farming is now done on an industrial scale. Just as in conventional farming, topsoil is lost, food comes from less than nutritious soil, produce is picked before it reaches peak nutrition, and lots of petroleum is used to produce, package, refrigerate and transport organic food. Additionally, the USDA allows many inorganic additives in food labeled “organic.” Chickens and cows whose produce is labeled organic don’t necessarily have pasture or sunshine. The food may be mostly organic, but it can be nutritionally inferior.

Local Food

Let’s look at the advantages of local food. Buying local keeps dollars in the community. Produce can be picked ripe when it’s at its peak flavor and nutrition. We can get to know the farmers and how they grow our food. Do they use just nitrogen for fertilizer or is their soil truly kept rich with compost and cover crops? Are animals allowed outside on pasture so our eggs, milk and meat are nutritious and have the healthy omega 3’s and linoleic acid? Are animals treated fairly, kept in clean conditions and allowed to graze on pasture when the season allows? We don’t want to worry about salmonella in our eggs, campylobacter in meat or E. coli contaminated vegetables. We want nutritious and delicious food that is ethically raised as well as safe to eat.

We can see that the down side of local food is that it can be grown in conditions that give it next to no advantage over industrial food. That’s why knowing the person who grows your food and their farming methods is important. Going to the farmers market and meeting the vendors is educational and empowering. A visit to their farm is valuable in understanding how your food is raised. Local Harvest is a worthwhile website that can put you in contact with more local farmers who sell produce.

You will also find it empowering to grow nutritious food yourself as well as discover organic, high-quality food in your community. Once again you’ll have more control over your food and health. If non-local, organic food becomes expensive or scarce, we’ll have a local food system in place.

A local food system is essential because our current food system is in jeopardy. It is almost totally dependent on resources that are becoming depleted. A “food system” is everything it takes to raise food and get it from the farmer to our table. It therefore includes tractors powered by gas, irrigation, chemicals developed from petroleum, transportation of food around the world and extensive processing, packaging and cooling.

We’re using up the basics that this system relies on. First of all, we need topsoil, and estimates are that it is being lost 16 to 300 times faster than it can be replaced. Water is essential, but aquifers are being depleted and increasingly polluted by farm chemicals. Additionally, climate change is resulting in more extreme weather. Finally, we need petroleum — cheap petroleum. Traditional farmers, who provide the vast majority of our food, have only marginal profits on their crops. The only way they can maintain this narrow margin is by farming more land. But every step of their work requires petroleum.

In April of this year, the United States military expressed concern that there will be a 10 percent global shortage of petroleum by 2015. That’s big news, and yet journalists didn’t put it on the front page, nor are our leaders telling us about it. I realize this has other implications than our food system, but I seem to be stuck on food concerns, and I want us to have nutritious, safe, and affordable food.

I think we can choose to have this food for now and our future. I believe we can grow food locally on a scale that will allow us to have plenty when petroleum costs soar. I believe we can have healthy food that is both high in nutrition and without poisons. I believe that we can go back to respecting the environment so there will be healthful soil and adequate clean water for now and our grandchildren. I believe individuals and communities can be healthier than they are now. We can grow strong communities as we join together to grow the food we eat. We are voting with every dollar we spend on food and every seed we put in the ground. Vote for what you think is most important!

Photo by iStockphoto/Catherine Lane 

nebraska dave
1/14/2011 6:56:21 PM

I think it quite amusing that we must choose between organic and local. From my first memories as a child in the 1950s a garden was always in the plan for the year. Even later as we migrated from farm to city, gardening was always expected. Organic and local were one and the same but we didn't know that organic practices were good because everyone grew organic and didn't know it. We didn't know the growing local was good because everyone did it and didn't know it was good but just what we did. It appears that a grass roots movement is leading the way back to those by gone days when gardens were the norm and not the grocery store. Here in Nebraska most everyone has land based living somewhere in their generational background but it's been lost as Mom and Dad can't make a living on the family farm and migrate to the cubical rat race of life. Have a great local organic day.

sandra dyer
10/18/2010 8:10:36 AM

I vote local. As the term "organic" grows more ambiguous every day and as our Rebecca of Sunnybrook farm idea of organic farming grows further away from reality we have to ask ourselves - is organic produce trucked in from thousands of miles away really better? Are the "natural" and "organic" chemicals used in large commercial farms really any better for us than any other chemical. As my older cousin is fond of saying - it killed the bug didn't it! By buying local from smaller farms you get a fresher product that, if not totally organic, is often much less chemically dependent than that produced on large corporate farms at a similar price. In today's economy that can mean being able to afford better quality fresh food when you can't afford organic. I know that I can pay much closer attention to my soil health with my few acres than someone can with thousands to keep up with. I use as many organic practices as practical just for the economic benefits. Building up my soil with natural mulches, ground covers, char etc. is much less expensive than having to buy more and more chemical fertilizer every year. I prefer to use insect traps rather than sprays when possible. My produce is much closer to the organic end of the spectrum than it is to the trucked in grocery store end.

carmen ortiz
10/15/2010 7:54:02 PM

I vote for both which is why I keep expanding my vegetable beds and the amount of fruit I grow. I live in a city lot that was almost all grass (and lucky for me 1/3 of an acre). Getting rid of the grass is hard when you are not willing to use chemicals but well worth it. I sell extras at a small farmer's market here in town (2 blocks from my house). I agree that some people lie about using organic methods. I tell people to casually ask the vendor if they use Miracle Grow for their ornamental plants, you wouldn't believe how often the vendors fall for that and say yes. You can bet that 90% of the time they use it for both. The way to get both organic and lower prices is to buy in the smallest market near you because usually the fee the seller pays is less than in the big ones. We pay only $3.00 for two days a week, but a large one where I inquired charges over $100.00 for the weekend.

carolyn ellis_1
10/15/2010 3:38:38 PM

I vote for local. It is notonly more envrionmentally sound, but "local" food in many instances means from my back yard. I haven't always been a gardener, but I have become more and more attuned to organic practicews. However, I also try to be realistic. Sometimes a chemical assist is the only solution for a problem. Fortunately, since I have been trying organic practices first I have reduced my need for nonorganic assistance by about 95%. Best of all, local food, whether home or farmers market, cannot be beat for taste and value.

barbara kruzel
10/15/2010 11:29:58 AM

I believe the most important step is buying locally. The resources saved are immense and impact us all. You MUST do your homework and find products that are truly organic.

laura _1
10/15/2010 2:14:41 AM

Food should be grown by almost everybody and then consumed in that community as much as possible. I've seen local stores running out of big sections of food when weather (hurricane season) or gas shortages kept delivery trucks from arriving for a while. When certain veggies were contaminated by bad farming or handling practices, people that were growing it in their yard were much better off. They knew that their harvest could be trusted. They did not have to pay outrageous prices either. Many people don't have room to grow big plots but every bit helps. Grow a few pots of tomatoes and herbs on the porch and enjoy wonderful quality compared to the ones that were picked hard and green for long distance shipping. My garden spot was about 10 ft x 10 ft, so it really doesn't take much room. My cucumbers did very well and took about 1/3 of that space. A couple staked Roma tomato plants supplied us without taking much room at all. We also had pole beans, okra and fresh herbs. Lettuces, spinach, beets, and my favorite greens will grow in the cool weather when the summer crop is finished. Then I will add more compost to the soil and let it recover till spring.

john m_3
10/14/2010 9:13:12 PM

we grow everything we can here in central texas. both is the answer. i have been far to many farmers markets where growers have tomatoes that they bought from a supermarket. or suppliers. i have been an organic gardener since 1971. grow what you can and then buy local, or local organic. do not buy from someone who says they are organic, unless the locals agree that they are. if you end up with more produce than you need or can preserve, then sell produce to near by people or markets or stores. there is no such thing as surplus food. too many hungry people right here in this country, in our home town.

eedward e smith
10/14/2010 8:57:39 AM

I KNOW for a fact there are people who sell at the Columbia MO Farmer's market that use gallon jugs of chemical fertilizer screwed into their watering lines to grow their produce. I wouldnt eat this stuff if I was hungry. KNOW who grows your local product!

john m_3
10/13/2010 9:06:06 PM

we grow everything we can here in central texas. both is the answer. i have been far to many farmers markets where growers have tomatoes that they bought from a supermarket. or suppliers. i have been an organic gardener since 1971. grow what you can and then buy local, or local organic. do not buy from someone who says they are organic, unless the locals agree that they are. if you end up with more produce than you need or can preserve, then sell produce to near by people or markets or stores. there is no such thing as surplus food. too many hungry people right here in this country, in our home town.

jon streufert
10/13/2010 7:39:43 PM

Like others, I generally prefer locally grown food and food that is also organic. However, I consider myself practical rather than a purist, and many times buy that which is the lowest priced. Simple economics sometimes reveals that specialization of labor can result in some foods being grown elsewhere at the lowest cost (including transportation), though I realize there are usually unseen costs to the environment from large farms (and from small ones, as well!). I have to add to the discussion, however, something that has bothered me more than once in MEN articles/letters/editorials. Some of us MEN types who garden, who try to reduce our impact on mother earth, etc. are also hunters, a REAL local and organic food. Wildlife like squirrels and deer that are taken by hunting have lived completely natural lives - no cages, no injections, etc. And a sizable proportion of these populations die of natural causes especially during the winter. I realize many readers (especially those raised like me in the city) have an aversion to hunting, but MEN needs to begin including some mention of wild game/fish in your articles. It can and should be done with respect/sensitivity to those who are vegetarian or who do not choose to hunt themselves. Great magazine; been reading it since you first published.

10/13/2010 7:17:34 PM

Sadly the only locally grown organic food I can get is the stuff I grow myself. Local around here means hundreds of miles away. Organic can mean just about anything. Next spring I will expand my veggie garden and maybe even learn to can food to use in the winter. But locally grown and corporate organics seem more like feel good labels than what the concepts actually mean.

jan steinman
10/13/2010 5:32:57 PM

I agree with the author, that "local" should generally mean "organic." What's more important? If "organic" means "USDA Certified Organic," then I'll take "local" any day. The problem is that "organic" has become watered-down by special interests. The USDA has a list of some 38 non-organic ingredients that can be in "Certified Organic" food. Conceivably, a food-like substance could consist of nothing but these 38 non-organic ingredients, and still be labeled "Certified Organic!" The USDA rolls over and plays dead whenever Big Business comes knocking. Anheiser Busch said they were having trouble getting organic hops, and requested an exemption for hops, which was granted. Now no one has any incentive to produce organic hops, since beer can boast the "Certified Organic" label with ANY sort of hops in it! Another case in point: I live in Canada. Our favourite corn chips are labelled "USDA Certified Organic" when we buy them in the states, but in Canadian stores, they are labelled "86% Organic." Those wily Canadian border agents, slipping 14% non-organic ingredients as they cross the border! Canada's organic labelling laws are stronger than those in the US, so US customers of "Certified Organic" products have no idea they're eating 14% non-organic stuff in these corn chips. The "Wall*Martization of organic" is a bad thing. The problem is just as much industrial food production as it is "organic," which has become a greenwashing joke, like "sustainable" and "green."

rix mohay
10/13/2010 3:50:18 PM

Local of course. More to come if I can figure out how to get signed in.

10/13/2010 3:29:53 PM

I think local and organic are both great, but if we have an ever increasing population neither will be possible. I want to see global population controls to decrease the population of the world to something more sustainable.

10/13/2010 2:43:36 PM

I agree on the local food being the best. Most of our comes from friends with abundance or our local farmer's market. We went to a farmer's market for a couple of seasons, where we could get all kinds of good things including goat cheese and goat milk ice cream which was out of this world. A couple of the larger farms decided that they should make their market "certified organic". It cost thousands of dollars to get that rating from the 'government', so it priced many of the small home farms right out of that class. Now they come to our local market and we can once again get their great cheese and ice cream as well as beautiful healthy produce. It has been a good season here lots of great goodies.

10/13/2010 11:20:01 AM

Obviously both are important. But Local wins hands down. In my area, we seem to be heavily invested in local food. There are an abundance of farm markets and local growers that practice organic methods but don't have 'certification'. One can walk around and question the vendors, visit their farms, see for themselves what process is being used. It means a great deal to me that my food not be shipped in from thousands of miles away. That I not 'reward' companies engaging in these practices, which are truly self defeating, with my money. I'd rather buy in bulk, what I cannot myself produce, and can, freeze or dry it for later use. Having a good idea of how much you use of something annually is a great starting point for deciding how much you need of something till it can be grown and harvested again. It's sort of like buying a side of beef/pork/lamb from an organic farmer. You put all your money up front and then kick back knowing it will be months before you have to purchase again. In this way you amortize the food bill and with each week you're not out shopping for a 'few things' you see the savings.

10/13/2010 10:09:34 AM

To me, local is more important than organic. The vast majority of our produce and all of our meat comes from the Farmer's Market. I would rather have local food that may have been sprayed (I know which farmers spray and which don't) than organic food from halfway around the world. That's just not sustainable. Our highest priority is that the animals lived a real life and were slaughtered humanely, and the produce was raised by a real person and harvested just before we bought it. I've talked with the farmers at length and their meat is pasture-raised, no hormones or antibiotics. They're not certified organic as the certification is expensive and a lenghty process, and they sell directly to consumers like me who know how they treat their animals. Their tomatoes weren't harvested green by migrant labor then riped on a truck from California or even farther away. I wish the organic label had some effect on how animals are treated but it doesn't. Organic means the chickens aren't given artifical horomones, or antibiotics, and they're fed organic feed (i.e, no pesticides or GMO in their feed). However, this means they can still be squished into tiny pens, never see the outdoors, and be fed organic corn feed. Chickens, as well as all the other animals that we force to eat corn like cows and pigs, are not natural corn eaters. Real chicken food is forage (bugs, lizards, etc..) and bits of grass.

delaney hansen
10/13/2010 8:50:11 AM

I agree with this article. Yes, organic is important, but I'd like to see the lable organic actually mean grown in a healthy way! Promoting and supporting our local farmers is vital to the survival of a way of life in general and the economy. Keep as much of the money you spend local and you boost the economy in your area by keeping your neighbors working! The local produce I've gotten at the farmer's market near us has been fresher, more flavorful and often cost less than the grocery store! I also love to garden and missed it this year because of relocating. My gardening is organic.

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