Wednesday, April 29, 2009


I’m not lazy. I’m busy. And as much as the last political season proved to be the season of activism, I still believe in the efficient use of my time. So if I’m going to be activist, I want to get a real bang for my buck. Which leads me to bucks. Frankly, despite the economy, despite the ascendancy of Obama and the cries for change, some things don't seem to change. America still walks with wallet in hand.

So, with this in mind, I want to discuss the "organic versus local" produce debate. However, I'm not going to tell you that buying regionally grown produce is better than buying organic, nor that buying organic is preferable to buying local. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not undecided. I’m very decided. If we have to make the choice between regional and organic, we all lose. What you’re going to hear from me is that we need to buy regionally grown organic produce. Local AND organic. Period. And if it isn’t available, we’re going to have to use our wallets and a little ingenuity to make it happen.

So, what's the debate about, then? The normal arguments, I am going to tell you upfront, turn out to be too simplistic. They go like this:

Buy local: Buy regionally grown produce because supporting local agriculture means that farms can find more buyers locally, and therefore won’t have to ship their produce to far-off places. Shorter transport translates into lower transportation costs (and by extension, lower prices for the consumer), reduced carbon emissions attributable to lengthy transport distances - supposedly an average of 1500 miles for most produce - and fresher food. And, of course, produce grown locally tastes better because it didn't have to be picked before it ripened in order to survive the lengthy journey without spoiling. Finally, buying local supports the local economy, one component necessary for economic, social and environmental sustainability.

Buy organic: Organic food is pesticide-free, grown with sound ecological and biodiversity practices. It is therefore healthier for both you and the earth, because proper care of soil, critters and the ecosystem promotes the overall ecological well-being of the planet. And, because it is true that we are what we eat, e.g. our bodies are constantly regenerating and the raw materials for regeneration are the foods we put into our bodies, eating pesticide-free food is ultimately healthier. There is plenty of research to back that claim up. Oh, and organic produce also tastes better, because it lacks trace fertilizer and pesticide by-products.

That was the abridged version of the debate. If you’re insatiable, look here, ; here,; and a couple of particularly controversial editorials here,, and here, to list a few.

SO LOOK. To me the debate between organic and local is like asking, should I sacrifice my health for the good of the ecosystem (by buying local)? or should I sacrifice the ecosystem in favor of my health (by buying organic)? In fact, Grist writer Samuel Fromartz (article linked above) suggested that it’s actually a false choice anyway - that the economics of agricultural profit-making drive even local organic farmers to export their produce outside their regions in order to survive. However, he says it's not important which decision you make, so long as you're aware of the impacts of your decision.

I disagree. I say it IS important.

I want to eat organic. I do not want to intake pesticides, even in minute amounts (over the course of a lifetime, I visualize us taking in 5 lb bags of fertilizer and pesticide - why not just put it in a salt shaker and add it that way?). And I do not want produce that is farmed using questionable practices, and by questionable I mean practices that do not lead to sustainable agriculture or that do lead to degradation of the ecosystem. At the same time, I want to help reduce the strain on the world’s food and economic systems by buying more locally, but I want it to be organic. And I want more people to buy organic - more demand means more local farms respond by switching to organic practices, leading to more supply, and more supply means lower prices for organic, which means even more people will buy it - cycle continues! A win-win all around.

So what do I do? I have devised a system to vote with my wallet. The system that works best in America, apparently, and a system I hope will influence the less-than-perfect choices I now have at the store.

1. Favor produce that is marked both “locally grown” and “organic.” Be flexible enough to take whatever local/organic produce is available when I shop, instead of going to the store with preconceived notions about what to buy.

2. If there is no produce labeled both organic and local, I buy organic. My thinking is that the higher the demand for organic, the more local farms are likely to respond to it. This way I feel good that I am both putting healthier food in my system, and using my wallet to influence the system to provide more organic.

3. If there is no organic produce, by local produce. And TELL the store manager that you want organic AND local produce.

Returning back to my original statement on activism, here is my efficient activist suggestion. You know those bulletin boards at every grocery store? Where realtors and insurance agents tack up cards, and babysitters post contact information, and churches and Alcoholic Anonymous and local venues post information about the next event? Well, my idea is to put up one of those hand-made advertisements with the little pull-off tabs at the bottom (usually with a phone number to call) that people can tear off and hand to the store management. Below is an ad you can print off and post on the bulletin board at your grocer that hopefully will leverage your opinion. Put it with your green grocery bag so you don't forget to take it in with you!

Click HERE for a full size, printable version of the above image.

1 comment:

  1. your blog is going to do well toward educating more of us and helping us make a difference as individuals since we truly are facing an environmental melt down that big governments can't help mitigate without individual buy-in from all of us. I'm guilty of a LOT of wasteful behavior but awareness is always the first step towards changing our wasteful behavior. I know you cook a whole lot more than I do, but I'm working on that aspect of our lives too - who knows what's in our food from restaurants sometimes!!! My sister in-law has a compost container in her back yard and her husband has built an irrigated garden with plastic tubes for her garden so I know they are one of many I'm hearing about that are growing their own gardens. I like your idea of not having a preconceived idea of what specific items you will come home with from a whole foods store in your local versus organic article. I sometimes take my recipes with me into the store so that I'll have informed choices if the main produce I had planned to cook with is not available. By the way, here's a web site I found for "almost-vegetarians" that is kind of nice: I'm always looking for healthy recipes and it seems to me that there are far too few recipes for vegetables. I think typical meals in America still have too large a percentage of meat on the plate. How about more recipes that bring in just a taste of meat amid flavorful veggies. If more people are eating in that way, farmers would have economic incentive to grow more vegetables and steer us away from subsidizing high fructose corn syrup - but don't get me started on hight fructose corn syrup... Anyway - love your blog & enjoyed your organic versus local discussion today.