Many of us often wonder: is better to support local farmers at the farmer’s market who are not certified organic, or is it better to buy certified organic products from the grocery store? If your local market offers organic and local foods, then you’re in the clear. But for many of us, it can be an ongoing debate as to which is the smarter choice.
The case for organic.
While buying organic is excellent — with ensured strict guidelines on pesticide and antibiotic use and animal welfare — it does have some downsides. Since a very small percentage of large farms follow the USDA’s guidelines for organic practices, organic food often travels a long way from farm to consumer. And these routes are not always very direct and efficient. So, although organic foods that you buy in your grocery store are limiting the amount of toxic, man-made chemicals sprayed over the earth, they may contribute significantly to transportation pollution.
Additionally, organic foods are significantly more expensive than conventionally produced foods. However, if more people were to consistently buy organic products, more farmers would theoretically be persuaded to switch over their practices to meet the demand. So, if organic products became more ubiquitous, the prices could potentially deflate a bit because the supply would reflect the demand. Speaking of demand, according to a 2014 Gallup poll, 45% of Americans actively seek out organic options, led by a strong push from 18-29 year olds, which means it won’t be long until more and more producers start to ditch the chemicals and amp up their organic output. In the meantime, if you want to buy organic foods, but don’t have the income for it, focus on buying your Dirty Dozen organic along with a modest amount of sustainably and humanely raised animal products. Save your money by buying the less contaminated Clean Fifteen conventionally grown.
The case for local.
The beauty about buying local foods is that you can ask the farmer directly about their growing practices. (Do they use pesticides/antibiotics lightly or at all? Where are they located?) Also, local generally means ‘within 100 miles’, so tons of fossil fuels weren’t burned to transport the food across the country to your area. In many scenarios, some of your local farmers might use organic practices, but cannot afford to go through the costly certification process. Other times, the conventional practices of a small farming operations are generally less harmful to you and the planet than the giant conventional monocultures that stock our grocery store shelves. Either way, local foods are generally a smart bet to support your health and your local economy in the process. Unfortunately, due to the small scale of their operations, local foods are not always cheaper — although you might like to believe that they should be. But their price points are generally comparable to what you’d buy in a store, and you may be able to get a deal from your friendly farmer if you buy in bulk.
There are always loopholes, too. Every scenario is different. To eat the cleanest you possibly can, you’d have to compare how the food was grown, what manner of transportation was used (trains are more efficient than trucks), how far it was transported, how much waste went into producing the fertilizer or feed, et cetera. It’s enough to drive a person crazy. In general, however, red meat and dairy are generally hotbeds for wasteful, unsustainable practices, so leaning more towards produce — organic or local — might be the most eco-friendly of options without trying to comprehend a series of hair-ripping algorithms and equations.
In the end, in terms of local or organic, it matters what you care most about. There’s a little dirt hiding under every rug, so it’s really about making a conscious choice that reflects what you care about in your food system. Whatever you choose to do, lending your support to local and/or organic foods still pressures our majorly broken food system to step into the 21st Century.
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