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Local Food or Organic: Which is More Important?

Last week's blog about organic food drew lots of comments from people who believe organic food is far better for you than conventionally farmed food and from those who think the whole "organic" label is a sham.

In today's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column I chat with Kate Gosselin of the TV show "Jon & Kate Plus 8" about her commitment to giving her large brood organic food. Gosselin's concerned about nutrition and pesticide use and also about the environment.

But locally produced food, organic or otherwise, addresses some of those same concerns. Since some nutrients may be diminished during shipping, locally farmed foods will probably retain more of their nutritive quality by the time they land in your shopping cart. And local farmers can select for flavor rather than choosing varieties that are hardy enough to survive long-distance shipping. What's more, locally grown food avoids the environmental impact of trans-continental shipping. And buying locally is good for your local economy.

Sam Kass, the Chicago chef who has worked for President Obama's family and who it's been announced will be working alongside White House head chef Cristeta Comerford, is an advocate for local food. (It will be interesting to see how he feels about working with D.C.-area food versus what he had access to in Chicago.)

Local trumps organic in my shopping cart. (Of course, it's not always either/or; many local farmers are also organic farmers.) Best of all is to buy what I can from farmers whose farms I can actually visit.

Many "locavores" -- proponents of the local-food movement -- acknowledge that it's nigh on impossible to eat only locally produced food (where would we get coffee?) and suggest picking local food only when it makes sense to do so. If you're thinking of going local, here's a set of guidelines to get you started; it features a tool to draw a 100-mile-radius circle around your home to give you a sense as to what "local" might mean to you.

(Check tomorrow's Food Section for a list of CSAs -- community supported agriculture farms -- that still have shares available for the upcoming growing season.)

What's your take? When you shop for food, are you more concerned about where it comes from or how it's raised?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  February 3, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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Comments

I am posting in reference to Giant's Nature's Promise organic products but also applies to any organic product. I want to see country of origin on the package. If I see 'product of the USA', I will buy it.

Thanks for this opportunity to comment.

Posted by: Jsn2 | February 3, 2009 9:21 AM | Report abuse

It depends on the product. If I'm concerned about the environment, local can be good or bad. A grass-fed cow raised in New Zealand has a smaller carbon footprint than most locally raised cows (given that the grass there doesn't need watering or fertilizing, and isn't shipped in from elsewhere-- the transportation costs don't exceed the difference in impact from raising the animal). Of course, this is more likely to be true of animals, who take years to reach the market, than of vegetables which tend to take months.
If I'm concerned about health, I tend to pick local produce over organic for products that don't absorb too many pesticides. Broccoli? Local totally trumps organic. Strawberries, on the other hand, absorb pesticides-- i prefer organic (though fortunately, my farmer's market has a stand that sells local organic strawberries, so I don't generally have to choose).

Posted by: Christy3 | February 3, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

While “buying local” is a laudable goal, the issue is not just “food miles.” A 2007 study conducted in New Zealand looked at emissions based on life cycle assessment and discovered that dairy products produced in the United Kingdom (UK) used twice as much energy per metric ton of milk solids compared to those produced in New Zealand even including the energy to transport them to the UK. Recently, the Soil Association in the UK backed down from withholding its certification mark on imported air-freighted organic products because of the importance of improving the livelihoods of farmers in developing countries.

Regardless of where globally farms are located, when you choose organic products, you are supporting a system of sustainable agricultural management that promotes soil health and fertility, nourishes plants, fosters species diversity, helps combat climate change, prevents damage to valuable water resources, and protects farmers and their families from exposure to harmful chemicals. There is no such assurance with non-organic practices, even if they are used on local farms. Plus, it is more efficient and better for the planet to grow certain organic products in specific locales, which may not always be in one’s backyard.

The quest: to buy locally grown organic products whenever possible, and supplement those purchases with products grown by other organic farmers in local communities throughout this wonderful planet of ours.

Posted by: OrganicTrade | February 3, 2009 11:32 AM | Report abuse

If locally produced food is inundated
with pesticides, fungicides, chemical
fertilizers -- then there is no
advantage - it is poison!

Certified organically grown food, however,
is great. Note: there are many local
growers around the country who say they
are "organic" growers. Without sufficient
paperwork support, this is not convincing.

There was a local farm stand where all the
produce items offered were identified as
"organic". Fact: products were purchased
from terminal produce market, boxes
discarded, and products displayed as
"organic". A real sham! Do not kid
yourself, this is a reality across the
US. Be cautious, and ask for authenticity.
If no paperwork, consider the products
being offered locally as poison.

Local is great, but tainted foods with
the various chemical applications being
used are void of any nutritional value.

Certified Organic - local or otherwise -
without the year-round growers, many
areas of the US would be without organic
foods - so let's stop taking them out
of the loop - we need them as well.

Posted by: Sirius2 | February 3, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Obviously this debate really depends on the food item in question. Each can have its benefits, and simply choosing one over the other as a blanket response is naive at best—it is a bit hard to take seriously the person who touts the environmentalism of a person who eats organic fruits and vegetables from California because it is better for the environment or themselves. I am sure they drove cross country in pollution-free trucks, right?

I think this requires some common sense—as well as knowledge of your local farms to ensure you take advantage of the best of both worlds. The ideal would obviously be growing your own organic veggies in a garden or a pot in the window or having a fruit tree in your yard, but not everyone has that sort of patience or time…

Posted by: ChrisinDC | February 3, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

I am ready to pay premium for the organic or locally grown food but sometimes these people charge you almost 300-400% more than the regular price. Just yesterday I noticed, organic zucchini for 3.59 per pound, now that's too much!

Posted by: sr_1945 | February 3, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

I could not disagree more with Sirius2. One of my favorite "organic" farms is not certified. He's been there for years, and people trust him. Why should he waste his money (and yours) getting certified. Are you interested in how he's growing his food? Just ask him, or wander through his barn, or help him out in his field. Does he label his food "organic"? No, he says it's "Grown in our fields." Also, many local growers practice something called "integrated pest management." They use some pesticides, but only when absolutely needed. I think this is fair, and they will tell you exactly want and when they use them. So, ask questions, get to know your local farmers, and I think you will find your relationship with your food much more satisfying.

Posted by: ftg_somerville | February 3, 2009 5:06 PM | Report abuse

Local food is way more important.

I not only do not believe organic food is healthier for you, I think its bad for the environment/world. It is *NOT* a sustainable food practice anymore than dumping toxins into our air is- its intensive farming that cannot be replicated and cannot feed the world's population. We don't have the land or the resources to make it any more than a yuppie/egocentric specialty.

That said, back to the topic of the post. I'd *love* to find a local CSA that is not organic- I'm not going to pay a huge premium for "organic" farming, but I would love to get local food. All the CSAs I checked out in my area have a huge premium on their prices.
I would really like a food movement that emphasizes locally produced, SUSTAINABLE and SENSIBLE agriculture practices. Even the guys that wanted the White House to put in a garden insisted that it should be organic.
I grew up surrounded by farms and we bought from our local farmers. While this is a bit more difficult in the DC area, I don't understand why we don't get fresh fruits and veggies from the outlying areas.
Local *is* important to me, and when possible I try to buy vegetables that are either (relatively) local, or should be (such as green beans and squash which grow in our area).

Posted by: kaths1 | February 3, 2009 5:11 PM | Report abuse

kaths1, check out your local farmers market come spring. There are usually plenty of farms there that are not organic, but are local. Usually Kim O'Donnell (sp?) publishes a list of farmers markets on her blog come spring.

Posted by: ftg_somerville | February 3, 2009 6:49 PM | Report abuse

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