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Local vs. Organic Produce: Which is Better?

Last week, I gave you the latest updates on the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean Fifteen” – the lists produced by the Environmental Working Group that rank the most and least contaminated produce items, so that shoppers know when it’s more important to purchase organic fruits or veggies, and when it doesn’t quite matter as much.

On Monday, I gave you a recipe for homemade strawberry freezer jam that I made over the weekend, using amazingly delicious berries that I picked myself at a local you-pick berry farm. Strawberries are ranked #3 on the “Dirty Dozen.” But guess what? The local berries I used for jam weren’t organic. Did I make toxic, pesticide-filled concoctions?

Well, not necessarily. It’s not quite that simple.

What Does Organic Mean?

In the US, the term “organic” can mean a few different things. A product that was made completely with certified organic ingredients and techniques can be labeled as 100% organic, and it can bear the USDA Certified Organic label. A product that has at least 95% organic ingredients can be labeled “organic,” and it can also display the USDA seal. Anything with at least 70% organic ingredients in it can say “Made with Organic Ingredients,” but it can’t display the seal.

Photo by Tim Berberich

How Does This Apply to Produce?

In order for produce to be certified organic, a farmer must meet a long list of requirements. Of course there is the obvious elimination of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. However, they must not only change all of their farming methods in order to come into accordance with organic standards, but they must also keep detailed records and documentation and pay required inspection fees, some of which can range upwards of $2000.

Loopholes and Exceptions

The USDA Organic Certification process was established as the demand for organics grew, and it was intended to provide uniform standards of accountability. Unfortunately, there have been exceptions and loopholes written into the laws over the years, primarily driven by profits. For example, in 2007, the USDA released a list of 38 non-organic ingredients that could be allowed into organic packaged/processed foods and still be labeled 100% Organic. The list includes hops, which allows Anheuser-Busch to market its Wild Hop lager as “organic,” even though the hops are grown with pesticides. [1]

Photo by Martin Vidner

What About Local Produce?

The strawberries we picked for jam weren’t organic. A lot of the produce that I buy at the farmers’ market is not organic, either. Don’t gasp in horror, though – let me explain.

One of the great things about buying locally grown or locally raised food is that you can actually speak to the person who produced that food. As Katie so poetically described in her post on Wednesday, the farmers’ market provides the perfect opportunity to talk to farmers and ask them how they grow their food. I guarantee they will be happy to tell you about it – most of them are even happy to have you come out for a visit to the farm and check it out yourself! (If they’re not too forthcoming, that’s a sign: move on!)

It doesn’t stop at farmers’ markets; if you’re part of a CSA or you buy from a local co-op, you can talk to those farmers, too, even if you might have to go to them to do so.

Local Farmers and Organic Certification

At the farmers’ market where I shop, some of the produce is “organic,” meaning that it carries an official organic certification. The vast majority of it, though, is not certified in any way. The organic certification process is an enormous commitment in both time and money, and most small farmers simply can’t afford it. They are not exactly rolling in the dough from selling you their zucchini each week, and instead of spending time filling out papers, they need to spend their time in the fields growing that zucchini.

So get to know them, and ask them about the methods they use to grow zucchini. If they do use some pesticides and chemical fertilizers, ask them to tell you more about that. Then you can make the best decision for you and your family.

Photo by Michelle Riggen-Ransom

Which Is Better, Local or Organic?

The answer is: neither (unless you grow your own!). They both have benefits and drawbacks. Unless you’re a very committed locavore, you’re going to buy your apples at the grocery store in Texas, because they just don’t grow here. Being #4 on the “Dirty Dozen” and one of my daughter’s favorite foods, I’ll take supermarket organic apples, thanks. Peaches, on the other hand, are abundant in central Texas, so I will scout out some local beauties at the markets as soon as I can, and maybe if I show up late, I can take home those bruised and battered babies at a discount – perfect for a peach cobbler.

How do you handle the organic food / local food issue?

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  1. Kara Fleck

    I tend to go w/ whatever is the most convenient for me to acquire and the best on my budget when it comes to choosing local/organic. If I can get both, wonderful! But when I can’t I have to go w/ ease of purchase and cost – just practically.

    And, I love coffee and my kids love bananas and pineapple – all items I’m not gonna find locally grown in Indiana no matter how hard I look 🙂

    I agree, that it makes a world of difference to me to be able to talk to someone face to face (or over the phone even) about the choices they make in growing. 🙂

    Great post, Katie, and good “food for thought” I’m going to carry with me …
    .-= Kara Fleck’s last blog: Parenting Preschoolers: A Starting Place for Social Graces =-.

  2. Debbie

    I often would choose the local option (assuming it exists) It helps to note that most of the “dirty dozen” involve the part that you eat being directly exposed to pesticides (or exposed w/ a very thin skin barrier) There are a lot of growers/farmers who use pesticides and herbicides, but don’t put them directly on the “food” part of the plant. We grow a large home garden, and although my farmer husband does use some synthetic chemicals, it is almost never put directly on the “food” I know for the organic purists types this is unacceptable. But if you are just concerned that your family isn’t eating a lot of pesticides, consider local “non”-organic growers that use synthetic chemical’s sparingly, even for things on the dirty dozed list. They probably have considerably less pesticide contamination than the national mega farms that ship produce cross-country.
    .-= Debbie’s last blog: 30 boxes, 30 days Final Count! =-.

  3. Heather G

    Great post. I buy most of our summer produce through a CSA. Most of the farmers in the alliance have been farming the land for a number of years. They know the history and share it freely. They’ve shared that while they farm organically it isn’t cost effective for them to get the label. If they did they would have to raise prices to cover their additional costs. I’m thankful they don’t have the “official” organic label. It allows me to support local farmers at a price my family can afford. As with many things, a label doesn’t mean much. It is what is under the label that really counts!
    .-= Heather G’s last blog: Done for love =-.

  4. Nikki Moore

    I like local if possible, because I like supporting small farmers. But yes, as bananas, pineapples and other things aren’t grown in Nebraska, I’ll buy those at the store. I do go by the EWG’s lists (I have their iPhone app and the list stays updated!), though, when shopping in the regular grocery stores.

    I didn’t know that organics standards were lax in so many areas! Not cool!
    .-= Nikki Moore’s last blog: eating healthy + saving money =-.

  5. Xan

    I have a descending standard of what I’ll buy– if I can, I’ll by SLOW-seasonal AND local AND organic AND whole. If I can’t do that I’ll buy the best combination– seasonal and local OR organic. Failing that, I’ll go seasonal and local– i.e. buy from a small grocer rather than a chain store. Locavore doesn’t have to mean don’t buy it if it isn’t local. There are many small neighborhood grocery stores that also need our support. Meet you local grocer as well as your local farmer, and hey, tell them about each other.
    .-= Xan’s last blog: Putting in the garden =-.

    • Steph

      Love that!

      It’s all about supporting local and finding reliable sources. Organic, local produce is often available where we live but we do buy organic bananas from our local store.

      Don’t forget to walk to the store and if you have to carry or push the stroller home you will likely save so money on stuff that you don’t need too!
      .-= Steph’s last blog: Organic Cotton Sun Hats Made in Canada (No sweat Shops Here!) =-.

  6. Sandra Lee

    It’s so useful to have the official definitions of what the labels and term “organic” really mean. Like you, I go for the mix of organic and local, but it’s necessary to carefully speak to the growers. Here in Hawaii “local” and “spray-free” can still mean the use of quite a lot of pesticides. But like you say, there are plenty of people producing organic produce called “local” that don’t have the label. Our health food store, for example, only carries “local” produce that is basically organic but not certified, alongside certified organic produce.

    I have a question for you. Does “organic” produce mean using organic seeds? I was disappointed to find recently that my favorite local, but essentially organic grower doesn’t use organic seeds because they cost more. Since the seeds contain the plants DNA, somehow I think it makes a difference if they are organic. But I don’t know the facts on this. Is it preferable to use organic seeds?
    .-= Sandra Lee’s last blog: Healthy twig tea =-.

  7. chris

    We too do a mix in our shopping. I generally go local before organic, partly because it usually is more or less organic and partly because I love showing my daughter at the market that people are growing our food. We don’t always eat seasonally though, which we’re trying to be better about, so there are still many items that I get at the supermarkets (though I don’t really think they’re super markets at all!). I go organic when we can get it, and often have to in order to avoid the corn derived preservatives my daughter is allergic to, but still often end up with a few conventional items in the cart :(. We’ve been getting better and better about all of these areas over the last year or so though, and our new farmer’s market coupled with the boost I get here is keeping us striving to do even better!
    .-= chris’s last blog: Adventures in Park, Adventures in Palate =-.

  8. Kathryn

    Thanks for pointing out that cost is sometimes the only reason a farm doesn’t have the USDA Organic certification. Also, some farmers don’t participate out of principle. One example in my area: There is a large Amish community nearby that farms organically but doesn’t have a USDA certification because participation in that kind of government program goes against their religious beliefs. They sell their produce, eggs, bread, etc. at their own stores and at independent grocery stores whose owners deal directly with the farmers. That makes it easy to find out what methods they do/don’t use.

  9. Primal Toad

    We buy foods from local farms and we buy organic food from the supermarket/health food stores. When you buy locally, you can only get foods that are in season. While I am eating more foods seasonally, if I want strawberries before they are available (June) then I will buy me some strawberries. I like them too much and they are quite healthy. 🙂 Same with blueberries and other produce.

    But, when a food is available organic and locally, I will buy it from the farmers market or from the farm itself.

    I purchased 1/2 a cow this week… you can’t do that at the supermarket – no cow is labeled organic 🙂 Next up is a whole pig!
    .-= Primal Toad’s last blog: Barefoot Sprint Intervals Outside In My Backyard =-.

  10. Heather Warren

    This dirty dozen you refer too does not reflect methods that small local farmers use. The dirty dozen is from large corporate farms, nothing like the farms we have here in New Hampshire. I would purchase non organic apples in NH anytime over organic. Organic growers can use copper and sulfur for fungicides and both are not good for you or the environment. NH has developed management methods that cut down on the pesticides used by 80% . I think one spray of a low toxicity fungicide or insecticide would be better than repeated sprays of organic pesticides.
    Also, when you write about the transition period for a farm to be organic you mentioned no pesticides can be used with organic and that farming methods will have to completely change. This is a huge non truth because A; go to the OMRI site and see all the pesticides available to organic growers and B; any farmer worth their salt has used cover cropping, crop rotation, record keeping and more. We’ve been using these common sense practices before the word “organic” came to erroneously imply “safe” in the minds of the misinformed.

  11. Bobby

    i have a local farmer’s market that really pushes local produce. The local gardeners in my area really do have some delicious fruits and vegetables. One thing about it that I hadn’t thought of before is that local produce helps me with my allergies! Especially nice in the spring. Gives me an excuse to spend the extra money on local honey…

  12. Karen @ Pledging for Change

    I just think it;s not right that the costs for certification are so high. Our governments need to rethink about the way they subsidize farmers and help them to make the necessary changes to being organic and to get that certification. Only then can we be assured of a sustainable future with uncontaminated waterways and land.
    great post though … it makes us all think!

  13. Bill Brikiatis

    In southern New Hampshire, there are few farmers growing and selling organic produce. Typically, when you ask a farmer here about how it’s grown, they typically don’t want to talk about it because so many people are asking if it was grown organically. The only solution to eating local and organic in my neck of the woods is to grow your own. I wish we had more farmers in my area that didn’t use pesticides.

  14. baseboard heaters

    Woot! This was the thing that I was looking for this whole time man. Awesome job man. I’m for sure going to add a link of this to my site.

  15. Michael Newman

    Great post! My father-in-law is a local farmer here in the Panhandle of FL. That organic label is very expensive and time consuming to attain so he’s decided to stick to just being “local.” Some great points in this article and I’ve passed it on to some friends who are looking at buying organic food online. I encouraged them to buy local and that brought up the question of local vs. organic and this a great article for that! Thanks!

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