When shopping for the healthiest, cleanest foods, both for our bodies and for the planet, we are often faced with a choice between buying local or buying organic. (Both would be the best of all possible worlds, but local organic food is not as widely available as many of us would like.) Which is better for your health? Which is better for the environment? It is great to have options, but how can we know we’re making the best choice, both for our health and for the health of the planet?
When in doubt, go organic
I usually choose organic over local, unless I personally know the farm producing the food and am familiar with its practices. Vegetables and greens can be grown at a small local farm and still be sprayed with lots of pesticides. Produce can be grown from genetically modified seeds in land that has been treated with Roundup and all kinds of chemical fertilizers. Unless you really know how a particular farm treats its soil and its products, you just don’t know! The USDA organic label carries some reassurances, for instance, that the food is NOT genetically modified, and has NOT been sprayed with harmful pesticides in depleted, barren soil primed with unnatural chemical fertilizers.
Dairy is different
For dairy products, local can be more reassuring. Big industrial food companies are able to raise animals in less than natural environments, on a huge scale that leads to unhealthy and unbalanced conditions, and often, lax enforcement by the USDA of the organic rule for dairy allows them to keep their organic certification. The main requirements for milk to be certified organic are cows that graze on pasture, no hormones, no antibiotics, and only certified organic feed. A small, local producer is less likely to use so-called “factory farming” practices and more likely to be up-close and personal with his livestock. Sometimes small local farmers simply do not have the resources or money to meet the requirements for organic certification. But they often use organic practices anyway. This recent article in the Washington Post looks at some of the ways that milk labeled organic can be out of compliance with organic standards.
Do some due diligence
If you see products from local farms that are not certified organic, I recommend contacting the farm. Ask questions about their farming practices, and ask to visit the farm, see the fields, see the animals, etc. Many small family farmers will be proud and happy to show you what they are doing. If they put you off, beware. If there are lots of areas locked up and off limits, beware. And keep in mind that labels saying “all natural” or “sustainable” carry absolutely no guarantees of clean, healthy farming practices. (But that is for a future article on packaging and how to decode food labels… stay tuned!) So you’ll need to ask specific questions of local farmers and health food store managers.
- How are your animals sheltered? How much time do they spend outdoors?
- What do you feed your animals?
- How do you prevent/manage pest control on your crops?
- How do you monitor and promote the health of the soil on your farm?
Farmers should be more than happy to give you detailed answers to these questions and others like them.
My hope is that soon we will not need to weigh these options and choose between local and organic all the time. As more and more people become aware of the greater nutritional value – and better taste! – of clean, organic food, we will hopefully see more demand for the products of small, local, organic farms, and fewer economic and administrative barriers to organic certification for family farmers.
In the meantime, we take it case by case, do our homework, err on the side of organic but look for local, and ask lots of questions.
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Joanne Malino, a certified Integrative Nutrition Coach, co-founded Profeta Farms with her husband, Paul Profeta, and John Place. Joanne helps people to optimize their health and energy by choosing the best, cleanest, most wholesome foods available. She is passionate about providing a wide variety of local, organic, great-tasting foods to the surrounding area, and educating people about the importance of knowing where their food comes from.