Is it better to buy local or organic food?

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.

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