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Local vs. Organic: Which is Best?

This is a question I am asked all the time. With the local food market growing tremendously, estimated at a $11.7 billion in sales in 2014, and climbing to $20.2 billion by 2019, compared to a $43.3 billion market in 2015 for organic, people want to understand, what is the healthiest choice. In fact, over the last decade, sales of sustainable, natural and organic products have increased by 20% per year.

Well, here it is... locally sourced beyond organic whole unprocessed food (produce, meat, eggs, milk…) is healthier for people and the planet. Beyond organic means that farmers are going above and beyond the National Organic Program standards. It is:

  • More nutritious due to the varieties, often heirloom, of produce that are picked at a ripened stage versus unripe produce that is a variety that is chosen for its long shelf life and is typically shipped long distances.

  • Small to mid-scale organic farming is generally regenerative, going beyond sustainable: building soil quality and regenerating our earth’s natural resources, diversified, growing a variety of crops, using natural pest management and integrated approaches to fertilization (using animal and green manure) versus large scale organic monocultures that use higher volumes of allowable inputs (fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides).

  • Meat, eggs, milk, and other animal products are often from heritage breed animals that are free roaming on green pastures and live a happy healthy life. Animal welfare is morally important. And, it goes beyond moral responsibilities. Animals living in inhumane quarters, not ever getting outdoors, live with high stress and have high levels of stress hormones coursing through their bodies. They are fed feed (typically genetically modified feed) that has unhealthy additives such as anti-depressants and caffeine, and they yield products of questionable health that then we consume.

  • Local is good for local and regional economies keeping 48c of each $1 spent in the local economy when buying from local businesses vs. national/international corporations which keep 13.6c/$1 in the local economy.

  • Supporting local farmers helps to maintain our rural landscapes, and provides national food security locally. A lot of food, including organic, is imported from China and other countries that have questionable certification processes and safety. Know your farmer and know your food! You can look your local farmer in the eye, or give them a call, and ask about their growing practices. You cannot have that relationship or trust with a global supply chain.

I know it is challenging to get everything locally and organic. Many local small scale farmers do not get certified due to the costs of certification or their reluctance to deal with a government certification program. Many of these non-certified farmers practice organically, or beyond organically, but do not have the certification. This is where you should build a relationship with your local farmers and trust that you are getting high quality food from them.

Both direct and wholesale marketing of local and regional foods contribute to local food economies. The number of farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSAs) operations have risen considerably in the last decade and are a good source for local organic products. About one-third of farmers at these markets are selling organic products and it is believed that a large proportion of CSAs use sustainable production practices.

When you can’t get locally grown organic food, buy organic as even large scale organic is preferable to conventionally grown food due to the toxicity of inputs, like glyphosate and 2-4D, and the dangerous health implications associated with them.

Not All Organic is Equal

I love that organic has become mainstream and am saddened that the result of that has been to dilute the founding principles of organic. There is controversy with National Organics Standards Board and concern that corporate interests influence organic standards to favor big food industry at the expense of the nutritious quality of foods and the environment.

Big industrial agriculture grows monoculture crops, meaning one crop on large fields. This is very efficient, and business-wise understandably appealing. However, it is not to the benefit of the quality of the crop or the environment. When one crop is grown on a large piece of land more inputs are needed to deal with pests, weeds, and fertility. Even though organic doesn’t generally use synthetic chemicals, the organic allowable inputs still are not ideal to have in large quantities in and on our foods or in the land. Additionally, big agriculture, including big organic ag, grows in large quantities, and ships cross- country. To do this, varieties are chosen for transportation and long shelf-life qualities and produce is picked before it is ripe. Fruits and vegetables picked before ripening have lower nutrients and are typically less tasty. Heirloom varieties allowed to ripen on the vine or tree, are delicious and nutritious!

So, what to do? Buy locally grown organic as much as possible and support small to mid-scale farmers in your local area. Not only is the food more nutritious and tastier, you are supporting your local economy and environment. If you are like me, and rarely get to the farmer’s market, even though I think they are great, then you can sign up for a CSA, and/or buying club to buy directly from farmers (use Local Harvest to find your local organic farmer) and food hubs (find your local food hub here). For my meat, I love to buy it by the whole animal, for what I don’t raise myself. Buying the whole animal from a local farmer who feeds organic or non-GMO feed (see my post on why the feed is important here), gives me an abundance of healthy meat and great food security, but does require freezer space, or sharing with a friend or two if you don’t have enough freezer space. I feel so rich with freezers full of great healthy meat!

For what I cannot get locally (avocados, tea, chocolate, mangoes, bananas, to name a few), I shop at a local natural foods cooperative. I prefer them over the national grocery chains because they support local and small to mid-scale farmers and their sourcing values resonate with my purchasing values. If you don’t have a quality cooperative nearby then you likely can go to one of the larger chain stores that are now also selling local.

There you go:

1. Buy locally grown beyond organic direct from farmers' markets, buying clubs, CSAs, and/or food hubs, and where that isn’t possible,

2. Buy grocery store organic, preferably at a co-op (find one near you here)

Happy healthy eating!

Devona Bell is a holistic health coach with over two decades of professional experience in building regenerative local and regional food and farming systems, with a focus on the nexus of food/health/nutrition, and sustainable natural resource management in the U.S. and internationally. She has worked in, lived in, and visited 40 countries and speaks English, French, and some Russian. Devona and her two girls left the DC suburbs and live on their beyond organic farm in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, raising their own food and meat without toxic inputs.

© devonabell 2017

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