Is it better to buy local or organic food?

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.