When it comes to produce, should we choose organic or local? The obvious answer is “both.” But when local, organic produce is not available, which is the greener and healthier choice?
People who vote for organic will argue that organic is always healthier because it is not genetically modified and is not sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. On the other hand, many of the eco-conscious cite the enormous carbon footprint involved in the transportation of produce. It is a bit ridiculous to buy organic California grown oranges in Florida and vice-versa. Buying locally not only saves on fossil fuels, it also keeps money in the local economy.
So, if you’re buying for health, you should always buy organic, and if you’re buying for environmental reasons, you should always buy local, right? Not necessarily.
Which is Healthier?
Locally grown fruits and vegetables may actually be healthier than organic fruits and vegetables shipped in from afar. While GMOs should be avoided at all costs, if health is your primary concern, try to find out if the farmer practices crop rotation. This is necessary to determine the nutritional value of the produce. Consider the distance organic produce travels with the substantial loss of enzymes and nutrients compared to fresh produce. And remember that organic farmers are allowed to use some harmful pesticides under many circumstances. Then consider the significant increase in vitamin and mineral content in produce grown on local farms that practice crop rotation.
The vitamins and mineral content of produce is not always higher when produce is organic, not when the nutrition is determined by the health of the soil and the freshness of the produce. While organic practices typically do promote healthier soil and more nutritious produce, with big business fully on the organic bandwagon soil quality is not always taken into consideration. Consequently, crop rotation, one of the best ways to help restore the soil, can be ignored.
The average person, that is, a person whose health is not degraded to the point where chemical sensitivities are an issue, would do better to ingest a little more pesticides with a lot more vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and enzymes. It behooves the consumer who shops in this manner to choose wisely. If buying conventional for health’s sake, conventional produce that typically contain the highest concentrations of pesticides, like berries and apples, should be avoided. It is likely that the increased benefits of local fresh strawberries are nullified by the enormous amounts of pesticides conventional farmers use to grow them.
Which is Greener?
When purchasing produce, we should consider long term ramifications of decisions. Voting with the pocketbook is the most powerful vote anyone can make considering its frequency and potential to evoke real change. Money talks. Every time a purchase of conventional produce is made a vote is cast for non-organic, environmentally harmful practices. Buying non-organic produce encourages everything the environmentally conscious stand against. Purchasing local conventional produce for the purpose of saving carbon emissions is penny wise and pound foolish.
To further complicate matters, the way food miles are calculated often misses a big piece of the puzzle. When purchasing an apple grown locally, for example, one should take into account the fact that the apple grown on a small scale farm may have arrived to the market via a small farmer’s pickup truck that traveled 65 miles to the market with around 100 apples or so. Compare this to a semi truck carrying two or three thousand apples. We can do the math to calculate the fuel consumed per apple, but in most cases, the math gets way too complicated. Farmers often bring their produce to large farmer’s markets in their area via their pickups and flatbeds, where the produce is shipped all over the country via tractor trailers.
A Better Idea
Ask the local grocery store manager if s/he carries local, organic produce. When shopping at farmer’s markets ask the vendors if they have organic produce and if they practice crop rotation. When the answer is no, move on. This is how change happens.
Grow as much of your own food as you can.