Is it better to buy local or organic food?

Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images                              Is it better to buy organic or local produce? Farmers at EcoVillage in Ithaca, New York grow organic food for the                                            local community.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images Is it better to buy organic or local produce? Farmers at EcoVillage in Ithaca, New York grow organic food for the local community.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

­Local grocery stores and farmers' markets now stock a wider variety of fresh fruits and vegetables than ever. Consumers can easily purchase food that is certified United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic, locally grown or genetically modified. But with so many options, how do we choose the best product? While both organic and locally grown food can be better than conventionally grown food for the environment and for our health, they also have their own drawbacks. Deciding whether to buy organic or locally grown food is a personal choice based on health concerns as well as environmental and social responsibility.

Organic food is grown on farms committed to environmentally friendly agricultural methods. In order to label produce as organic, these farms must meet government standards. However, when organic food travels long distances to market -- travel known as food miles -- it creates pollution that sometimes outweighs the positive environmental effects of organ­ic farming.

Alternatively, food grown locally is fresh and seasonal. If you've ever had a vegetable garden, you know that the best foods are the ones that don't sit on a shelf waiting for you to eat them. Buying local food also allows you to help your community's economy and helps reduce the environmental costs associated with food miles. However, local food is not necessarily grown with organic methods.

The decision to buy organic or local foods is not a simple one. In this article, we'll explore the pros and cons of both options.

Pesticides and Food Miles

Palestinian farmers spray insecticide on greenhouse crops south of Gaza City.
Palestinian farmers spray insecticide on greenhouse crops south of Gaza City.
Abid Katib/Getty Images

Conventional farming requires large amounts of pesticides and insecticides to keep crops healthy. A conventionally grown apple may be sprayed up to 16 times with over 30 different chemicals [source: OTA]. In a nine-year study, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported that between 33 and 39 percent of our food contains detectable amounts of pesticides, including 54 percent of our fruits and 36 percent of our vegetables [source: FDA]. Medical professionals are concerned about the long-term effect of these chemicals on our health.

The British Medical Association has found that our bodies store some pesticides [source: Soil Association]. Exposure to pesticides has also been linked to headaches, fatigue, nausea and neurological disorders.

Organic farming methods may help reduce the amount of pesticides we ingest. Organic foods are grown and processed under standards created by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and overseen by the USDA's National Organic Program. In order to produce certified organic crops, seeds and organisms cannot be genetically modified and produce cannot be treated with conventional synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Organic farmers must also use sustainable agricultural methods like crop rotation and composting to build and support healthy soil filled with nutrients -- a stipulation that could lead to higher levels of vitamins and minerals in organic food. Farms are inspected every year by a USDA-approved agency to ensure that standards are maintained.

It's still unclear whether nutrient-rich soil actually produces vitamin-rich produce. Although the USDA makes no claim that organic food is more nutritious than conventional produce, the absence of synthetic, artificial or genetically modified ingredients in organic food means it's probably healthier for what it lacks.

But while people buy organic food with the best intentions -- thinking it's better for their health and for the environment -- organics are not necessarily environmentally friendly. Organic farming began as a community-based initiative. Small organic farms catered to the local demand for organic food. However, the growing popularity of organics has led to the creation of what the agricultural industry calls Big Organic. Big Organic farms are industrial-sized operations designed for high output. Produce is refrigerated and transported to local grocery stores.

Produce labeled organic does not guarantee that it was grown locally. On average, produce in the United States travels anywhere from 1,300 to 2,000 miles from the farmer to the consumer -- a process that creates enormous amounts of greenhouse gasses [source: ATTRA]. These food miles partially negate the benefits of organic farming. A study at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, showed that the impact of the greenhouse gasses from food transportation diminished the benefits of environmentally friendly organic growing methods and was comparable to transporting the same amount of conventionally grown produce [source: University of Alberta].

So is it better to avoid food miles and just buy locally? In the next section, we'll learn about new food movements.

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Locally Farmed Food and the 100-Mile Diet

Shoppers in the Philippines peruse the produ­ce ­ at a farmers' market.
Shoppers in the Philippines peruse the produ­ce ­ at a farmers' market.
Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images

While many consumers choose organic produce to be more eco-friendly, others believe it's better for both the environment and community to buy food that is locally grown. Big Organic industrial farms help deliver low-priced produce to a larger population, but the food is often shipped long distances before it reaches supermarkets. On the other hand, local produce is grown within a community and travels only short distances to reach consumers.

Local food is not necessarily organic, nor is it required to meet federal organic standards. However, many local farmers have environmental goals similar to those of organic farmers. And because local farming is just that -- local -- consumers also have the opportunity to ask farmers about agricultural practices. Many local farmers actually encourage questions from customers.

One way to learn about local farming is to find out where to purchase fresh produce. There are over 4,000 farmers' markets currently open in the United States -- an 18 percent increase from 2004 [source: AMS at USDA]. Farmers' markets are usually outdoor venues where local farmers can sell their produce directly to customers and discus agricultural methods. Farmers' markets usually stipulate that farmers sell only products that they themselves grow or produce.

People are also beginning to think about food in new ways. Grassroots food movements like the 100-mile diet and slow food may end up changing the way we eat. The 100-mile diet encourages eating foods grown within only a 100-mile radius of where you live. While the diet is strict and requires research to find reliable venues for staples and specialty items, proponents believe it exposes followers to the bounty of local food and may even encourage gardening. And because there is no hard rule on how far local foods can travel and still be considered local, the 100-mile diet helps locavores, or people who eat local food, define their territory.

Slow food is a non-profit organization with 170 chapters across the United States and 80,000 members worldwide. The movement encourages slowing down and enjoying food, family and community instead of hitting the drive-thru for take-out. The slow food movement compliments the local farming movement because it promotes taking the time to taste your food and know where it comes from. The movement favors both local and organics. It encourages environmentalism, including limited use of pesticides and earth-friendly farming methods but is not opposed to genetically modified foods so long as they are clearly labeled.

In the next section, we'll explore the economic impact of buying organic or locally.

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Big Business Versus Mom-and-Pop

A woman at Ithaca, New York's Eco Village co-op weighs vegetables.
A woman at Ithaca, New York's Eco Village co-op weighs vegetables.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

As large companies like Wal-Mart move into the organic market, the alternative food scene is transforming from a small-time fringe movement to a major business. Even the definition of organic farming and production is changing -- in December 2007, law was passed allowing some synthetic substances in organic food production. Many organic farmers in the United States also worry they'll be undercut by imported organic foods that are less expensive.

Food cooperatives, or co-ops, are an alternative to conventional grocery stores and help support local producers. Cooperatives are owned and democratically managed by members, people who work or shop at the organization or help supply goods. Cooperatives exist to serve the needs of their members.

As a consumer, becoming a member of a food cooperative gives you a group advantage. Cooperatives receive volume discounts, savings that are passed down to members. Cooperative members help run the organization, voting on policies and making decisions. Members also receive patronage refunds, or a share of the earnings that is usually part cash and part equity.

Cooperatives generate local jobs, pay taxes back into the community and usually support local farmers and producers by selling their products. The impact of buying locally and through cooperatives is significant. In the United States, the top 100 cooperatives in 2003 had combined revenues of about $110 billion [source: ICA]. There are more than 100 million members participating in cooperatives in the United States, and about 30 percent of farmers' products in the United States are sold through the more than 3,000 farmer-owned cooperatives [source: NCBA].

Some critics argue that buying foods locally and living the 100-Mile Diet takes jobs away from developing countries. Yet, there are more than 700 million cooperative members worldwide who participate in over 750,000 cooperatives [source: NCBA]. In 1994, the United Nations estimated that co-op efforts support the livelihoods of nearly 3 billion people [source: ICA].

Both organic and local foods have their own pros and cons; there is no perfect choice. By being aware of where your food comes from and how it is grown, it's easier to decide what type of products to buy.

To learn more about organic food and organic farming, look over the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

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  • Birr, Emily. "Organic Food Fight." NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, NewsHour Extra. 2006.
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  • Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms - HGP Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues. Human Genome Project. U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. 2007.
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  • "Reducing Food Miles." ATTRA - National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. 2007.
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