Don’t Panic When It’s Not Organic

It’s official: Organic food has entered the mainstream. Safeway has an organic line of products. Wal-Mart stocks some organic produce. That seems like good news. But when it comes to your health and the environment’s, is eating organic enough, or is it better to buy more locally produced foods, even if they’re grown conventionally?

After all, shipping organic produce long-distance takes a toll on the environment, and at grocery stores,
it’s not always apparent just how far this organic lettuce or those pesticide-free apples have come. Head to
the store, and you’ll likely find produce identified only by country of origin—if at all. Meanwhile, locally produced foods have a growing appeal. Since 1994, the number of farmers’ markets in the US has increased 167 percent, as more people have realized that buying straight from the farm provides health, environmental, and economic benefits to their communities. But because locally grown food isn’t as accessible as organic at most grocery stores—and because it may be grown using conventional farming methods—which option is ultimately better?

Your health
When it comes to health, local produce has one major advantage over imported produce: Since local produce doesn’t have to travel far, it’s often fresher and more nutrient-rich than produce (including the organic kind) that has been shipped. Even under ideal transportation and storage conditions, produce loses many of its nutrients soon after being picked. For instance, according to a Penn State study, spinach kept at 39 degrees Fahrenheit (about the temperature of an average refrigerator) loses about fifty percent of its folate within eight days.

There’s another nutritional difference as well: Food picked for long-distance transport is often harvested while it’s green, before the nutrients present in ripe fruits are abundant. Smaller, local farms are more likely to wait until fruits and vegetables are ripe before harvesting. So fresher, in all likelihood, means more nutritious.

But locally grown foods are not necessarily organic, and conventional produce has its drawbacks. Just as I don’t want parabens in my hand lotions, phthalates in my perfume, or Bisphenol A in my canned tomatoes, it follows that I’m not too crazy about the idea of pesticide residue on my produce. Many pesticides are recognized carcinogens, and though the Environmental Protection Agency specifies levels that are safe for use, I have a hard time believing that “just a touch of poison” isn’t harmful, especially when listed effects include paralysis, cancer, and organ damage.

The environment
Locally grown food has a shorter distance to travel to market, and that makes an environmental difference as well. Unlike apples from New Zealand or grapes from Chile, produce grown regionally doesn’t need international
flights or the long-distance trucking system to get to its destination, so the carbon footprint of an apple can look more, well, like an apple, and less like the shadow of an airplane.

Local farms also preserve green space and limit suburban sprawl. Less sprawl means fewer commuters, lower carbon dioxide emissions, and cleaner air. More green space promotes a greater diversity of wildlife, offers migrating birds more rest stops, and is pretty nice to look at, too.

But even when it’s shipped from far away, organic produce provides environmental benefits for its home base: Because it is grown without pesticides, toxins are not circulated to groundwater, farm workers, and consumers.
Pesticide runoff kills fish and wildlife, gets into drinking water, and threatens the pollinators that are an integral part of agriculture.

The community
Locally grown produce plays a role in keeping our communities vital, and it is part of what makes the Bay Area and Northern California unique. After all, we have the rare privilege of being able to grow excellent food year-round, and we should celebrate by enjoying this bounty.

Purchasing locally is best when you can interact with someone from the farm, because these one-on-one interactions can help you find out how things are grown and let you make better buying and eating decisions.
Buying from local producers supports smaller farms and gives buyers a connection to where their food originates, a connection easily lost in the aisles of shiny waxed fruit at large grocery stores.

Buying from regional growers also supports the local economy, which seems extra important lately as small businesses struggle with the current economic crisis. According to a study published by the New Economics Foundation in London, food produced and sold locally infuses the local economy with about twice as much money as food brought in from far away.

The catch
If buying local is so great, why isn’t it the standard?

Well, for one thing, it’s not feasible everywhere and in all seasons. On a recent trip to Boston, I looked around at the snow-covered ground and across the frozen Charles River and realized that, in winter, eating locally can get pretty bleak. We’re all too used to the crunch of a fresh carrot to eat only seasonally available foods.

Another reason why you don’t see much locally grown food in chain grocery stores is the problem of scalability. While the large scale of industrial organic farming allows growers to work with companies that supply many stores, local production tends to be much smaller and more decentralized. It’s not as able to meet the large-scale demand of chain grocery stores’ ordering structure.

There are other issues to consider as well. Produce exports play a significant role in other nations’ economies—
for instance, in 2004 Chile exported $24 million worth of fruit to the US. And swearing off food that’s not grown locally would leave us with nothing more than vivid memories of pineapples and bananas.

The answer? Look locally
Even with its limitations, buying from local producers has a lot of appeal, and, at least to me, seems just as worthy a label to strive for as organic. For many people, embracing locavorism requires adjusting shopping habits, but when you add up the benefits, the extra effort makes sense. Luckily, there are plenty of options for people looking to localize, especially in the Bay Area. If you don’t already, head to your local farmers’ market, preferably a smaller one that has relationships with local farms, or head out of town to a nearby farm stand. If those aren’t available, think about joining a CSA, or Community Sponsored Agriculture program, which connects city dwellers with farms via a weekly box of fresh produce.

Encourage your local grocery stores, whether they’re chains or independent, to start stocking more local produce. Try to eat seasonally. If you’ve got a sunny spot in your yard, get up close and personal by growing some of your own fruits and vegetables.

Best of all, local produce often is organic. While a shift towards eating locally grown food may take a bit more effort and cost a little more, the benefits are clear. Eating locally may not work for everyone, everywhere, and all the time, but here in Northern California our soil, sun, and seasons give us abundant opportunities to savor the local flavor.

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