Alexandra Zissu talks Local vs. Organic

Unless you’re 100 percent organic or 100 percent local (most ecointerested eaters fall somewhere in between), it’s hard to figure out how, when, and why to choose local over organic, and vice versa.

Amy Topel, an educator and former food columnist for the now defunct Green Guide—the publication that existed before National Geographic bought the property—refers to this experience as “flummoxing.” That’s about right. “In Whole Foods they have local strawberries and organic ones,” Topel says. The locals aren’t organic, and the organic ones are grown halfway across the country. “I’m feeding my baby and I want him to eat organic; he should not be taking in those pesticides.

For ten minutes I walked back and forth—Do I care more about my baby? Or everybody else? I ended up deciding I didn’t want him to have the pesticides.” This is just one instance of choosing organic over nonorganic local. This mental tug-of-war is a familiar process for those of us trying to decide what the ratio of organic to local should be in our diets, especially where kids are concerned. Pound for pound, developing little ones take in more of the harmful chemical spray residues than adults do, which is why organic is so crucial for them and for pregnant moms. The trick to coming to peace with this local versus organic dance is to educate yourself on the concerns.

If health is your main concern, then you might decide that you always want to avoid ingesting sprays that have been linked to cancer, no matter how small the amount. You’ll mainly choose organic. If you decide local strawberries are the most delicious things on earth and you prefer to risk pesticide residue for a short season once a year and support small farms nearby, you’re going local, especially when you can locate low-sprayed local. Soon you will arrive at your working ratio of organic to local.

One suggestion: If you’re feeding kids, choose domestic organic over local but lightly sprayed when buying what the Environmental Working Group refers to as “The Dirty Dozen”—the twelve most contaminated conventional fruits and vegetables. Though if a farmer at the market says she’s basically uncertified organic, and keeps pests off her strawberries using row cover (finely woven fabric placed over the crops) instead of sprays, for example, that tends to work for me.

Bottom line: This is confusing, yes. But it’s learnable and doable. It’s also not a test. “Those of us concerned with this can get so caught up within the minutiae, we forget that any choice”—within the eco-arena, be it organic, local, or local and organic—“is the right choice,” says Topel. “It’s okay to do it halfway if at least you’re doing it halfway.” Amen.

MAKING THE CHOICE

One way to figure out whether to choose local or organic is to ask questions as you shop. Most people manning farmers’ market stands can answer farming questions. Seek out people who are open and eager to talk, who don’t get testy when you ask them about their farming practices. Even if you know nothing about agriculture or gardening, listen carefully as they explain their systems. A nonorganic farmer bringing up integrated pest management is a good sign. If you don’t like what you hear, head to a stall selling local organic. And let any farmer you chat with know you prefer organic. Even at small markets there are always going to be big-ish farms producing food for a larger segment of the population, and they need to hear their customers clamoring for organic.


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