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Last week, we talked about shopping at your local farmers market and how to save money on fresh, seasonal produce. Did you get out and visit a farmers market? Any stellar finds to share? Today, we’re going to learn a bit more about what makes produce “local”. Is it a better choice than certified organic produce? Let’s look at local vs. organic produce.
What is “Local”?
Defining: You can find local produce in just about any grocery store these days. Defining “locally grown” isn’t as easy. The USDA (US Department of Agriculture) has pages of parameters to define “organic” food, but it has not drawn any lines for “local” food. Right now, retailers choose how to define the foods they sell as “locally grown”. Some stores may define local produce as anything grown within a 1-hour drive. Another store may use state lines to define local. In my grocery store, I’ve seen “local” produce grown on a farm four hours away. Do you know how your store defines local produce?
Benefits: What are some of the reasons to buy local produce?
-Nutrition. I just learned that locally sourced produce may be more nutritious than imported commercial produce! Any fruit or vegetable begins to lose some of its nutrients after it’s picked. The longer a food is sitting around, the further it has to travel, the less nutrients it will have. For example, this study from Penn State showed that spinach lost 47% of its folate after eight days. Food available in grocery stores is typically 4-8 days old, and sometimes it is a LOT older. Since locally grown produce doesn’t have to travel across the country, it’s usually fresher and, therefore, contains more nutrients.
-Carbon footprint. The further your food has to travel, the larger the carbon footprint (environmental impact). Transportation uses natural resources and releases pollution. Shorter travel distance = lower environmental impact
-Price. If you are buying local product directly from the farmer, you will likely pay less than retail prices. Plus, buying direct gives you the opportunity to buy in bulk for a discount.
-Know your farmer. If you have the chance to buy directly from the farmer, you can learn everything and anything about their agricultural practices: do they use synthetic pesticides? What kind of fertilizers do they use? Are any of their seeds genetically modified? Do they practice crop rotation? What other questions matter to you?
-Support your local economy. I like to “vote with my dollars”, so to speak. Given the choice between supporting a small, local farm or a large, faceless farm, I’d prefer to support my local farmer.
-Farming practices. Here’s the biggie. Buying local doesn’t always equal a better product. Yes, it will be more fresh, but “local” doesn’t guarantee anything except a location. Unless your local produce is USDA Certified Organic, you may still be consuming foods with multiple pesticides grown too quickly in depleted soil. Or, you may get an organically grown food from a small farm that doesn’t want to deal with the USDA’s organic certification process. You don’t know unless you ask. Talk to the farmer, make a phone call, find out exactly what you’re getting when you buy from that local farm.
-Price. Grocery stores may charge higher prices for local produce- I’ve seen this in my stores. They’re advertising “local” as if it were on the same level, and price, as “organic”. If that local farm uses modern, intensive agricultural methods, that local produce may have no nutritional advantage over the (cheaper) imported commercial produce. Again, find out what you’re paying for.
-Availability. This is totally obvious, but I’m listing it anyways. Local farms will only be able to supply fruits/veggies that are in season. If you need strawberries in January, you’re out of luck.
What is “Organic”?
Definition: According to the USDA, certified organic produce “can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.” A farmer must apply (a potentially expensive process) and pass inspections to earn the USDA Certified Organic label. Farms within and outside the US may apply for certification. That’s significant- meaning organic produce may be travelling from all over the world.
-Toxins. Organic produce is grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. No pesticides = no toxins.
-Nutrition. Organic growing practices may produce more nutritious foods. An interesting study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition suggests that conventionally grown food in the US has significantly less nutrients than it did 50 years ago, thanks to the declining soil quality caused by modern agricultural practices. Organic farming, on the other hand, seems to produce foods with more nutrients than their conventionally-grown counterparts. There are dozens of published studies comparing organic vs. conventionally farmed foods. Here are a few to consider:
1.Fruit and Soil Quality of Organic and Conventional Strawberry Agroecosystems, Sept. 2010 – found “organically farmed soils to have more total carbon and nitrogen, greater microbial biomass and activity, and higher concentrations of micronutrients”
2. Research At Great Lakes Meeting Shows More Vitamin C In Organic Oranges Than Conventional Oranges, June 2012 – “organically-grown oranges contain up to 30% more vitamin C than those grown conventionally”
3. Ten-Year Comparison of the Influence of Organic and Conventional Crop Management Practices on the Content of Flavonoids in Tomatoes, 2007 – Found that organic tomatoes contain up to 97% more quercetin and kaempferol aglycones (flavonoids) than their conventionally grown counterparts.
Cost. Running an organic farm is more expensive than a conventional farm, so organic produce will usually be more expensive than conventionally farmed produce. Organic farmers in the US don’t get as many government perks as conventional farmers.
Availability. Organic produce is easier to find these days, but it’s still not an easily accessible option for everyone. I’ve found that some stores carry a small supply of organic produce, but it hangs around the store longer and isn’t always the freshest option available. Organic availability varies; start checking around to see who brings in the most organic produce and keeps supplies fresh.
Organic does not equal local. Some organic produce may travel halfway around the world to get to you. The longer the distance, the greater the environmental impact (and often the price).
The Important Point:
Organic tells you HOW something is grown. Local tells you WHERE it is grown.
Local or Organic?
So, you’re left with a decision: local or organic? What’s right for you and your family depends on your health goals and what’s available. Do you prioritize organically grown foods to avoid toxins? Or do you prioritize locally grown foods? Personally, I’m staying out of this one. I don’t think there is one “right” answer, but here’s where I fall:
-Ideal: local + certified organic
-Great: local farm that uses organic farming practices but hasn’t been certified organic by the USDA
-Great: buy certified organic produce, even if it has been imported
-Great: buy from a local farm
-Good Enough: buying any produce
Will organic produce be better for you than conventionally grown? Yes. Will fresh, local produce have more nutrients than older, imported produce? Yes.
But you know what? Don’t let “ideal” stop you from doing “good enough”. When it comes down to it, getting more fruits and veggies into your diet is the ultimate goal. If you can make it organic, local produce, even better!
Want to prioritize your organic spending? Refer to the “clean fifteen” and “dirty dozen” lists (below). When you can, always try to buy the organic option of the Dirty Dozen.
Saving Money on the Good Stuff
Next week, we’re going to look at a great way to save on all that delicious, local produce: CSA’s. Community Supported Agriculture is gaining popularity. What are CSA’s? How do they work? Can they help you save money? Are they right for you?
This is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.