Is it better to buy local or organic food?

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.