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A Health(ier) Showdown - Locally Farmed or Organic Produce

It’s an ongoing debate that has fueled some very passionate discussions. So, which one is healthier? My answer may perpetuate the conundrum; it depends. Let us start with the basic ideas of each and see if we can solve this foodie riddle.

What is Local Farming?
The generally accepted definition is non-commercial foods, or foods which are grown or farmed relatively close to the places of sale and preparation. However, local does not mean ‘cleaner’ as pesticides may be used. Not great. However, the upside is that local farms do not use the heavy duty poisons and dosing amounts that commercial farms are known to use. Overall, local farms are fresher and picked when at peak ripeness, instead of picked before ripening in order to sustain the traveling time to your store. Last, but not least, you can more easily check on their growing practices.

What is Organic Farming?

Organic farming, in general, features food practices that strive to cycle resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Sounds healthy, right? Unfortunately, organic does not necessarily mean without pesticides – it means without conventional pesticides – which can be used if the farmers are in danger of losing the crop. The most concerning part is that the farm does not have to let anyone know; just write it down, somewhere (in fine print). Sneaky you say? Possibly. The good news in the US is that you can choose among a percentage scale of 4 different organic levels or categories:

  1. 100% Organic: This means that all ingredients are produced organically. It also may have the USDA seal.
  2. Organic: At least 95% or more of the ingredients are organic.
  3. Made With Organic Ingredients: Contains at least 70% organic ingredients.
  4. Less Than 70% Organic Ingredients: Three of the organic ingredients must be listed under the ingredient section of the label.

So, what DOES organic mean if there are possible pesticides?! It means that these pesticides, if used, must be derived from natural sources, not synthetically manufactured ones. Also, these pesticides must be applied using equipment that has not been used to apply any synthetic materials for the past three years. Lastly, the land being planted cannot have been treated with synthetic materials for a period of 3 years prior. 

But why are there pesticides at all? Given a choice, no one would ingest pesticides if cleaner food was an option. So why doesn’t everyone choose organic food? The main concern with purchasing organic food is cost. Organic farming practices are more expensive than conventional approaches. Any guess on what helps cut costs? You bet; it’s that toxic anti-pesty solution.

According to Wikipedia: While organic is fundamentally different from conventional because of the use of carbon based fertilizers compared with highly soluble synthetic based fertilizers and biological pest control instead of synthetic pesticides, organic farming and large-scale conventional farming are not entirely mutually exclusive.

Getting back to basics helps to rough out the logistics of this debate, so let’s revisit the core of what Organic represents:

“Organic” refers to the way farmers grow and process fruit, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. Organic farming meets environmental and sustainability goals to:

  • Enhance soil and water quality.
  • Reduce pollution.
  • Provide safe, healthy livestock habitats.
  • Enable natural livestock behavior.
  • Promote a self-sustaining cycle of resources on a farm.

“Organic farming” adheres to a disciplined commitment to growing food and livestock that is not only safe to ingest but is kind to planet Earth.

Here’s a look at what is not permitted in organic farming:

  • Synthetic fertilizers to add nutrients to the soil
  • Sewage sludge as fertilizer
  • Most synthetic pesticides for pest control
  • Irradiation to preserve food or to eliminate disease or pests
  • Genetic engineering, used to improve disease or pest resistance to improve crop yields
  • Antibiotics or growth hormones for livestock

Organic farming practices are permitted to include:

  • Plant waste left on fields (known as green manure) livestock manure or compost to improve soil quality.
  • Crop rotation to preserve soil quality and to interrupt cycles of pests or disease.
  • Mulch to control weeds.
  • Predatory insects or insect traps to control pests.
  • Certain natural pesticides and a few synthetic pesticides, used only as a last resort in coordination with a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certifying agent.
  • Healthy living conditions and access to the outdoors for livestock.
  • Pasture feeding for at least 30 percent of livestock’s nutritional needs during grazing season and organic foods for animals.
Cutting to the Core

All of this is only meant to let you know what you are or are not getting when you are deciding to make a purchase between organic and local. Unless you know your grower personally, there is no guarantee that your produce has been grown without pesticides or other chemicals. It’s a point to consider, given the substantially higher cost of organic foods.

Now that we have considered the basics, what is the answer? The best choice is both. For some, unfortunately that’s not always an option. There are pros and cons for each, so here’s more fuel to add to the pesky fire:

     The Pros – 

  1. Organic foods are free of harmful pesticides, antibiotics, GMO’s, and additives.
  2. Organic farms have less of an environmental impact than conventional farming.
  3. Organic foods typically have a higher nutritional value

     The Cons –

  1. Organic foods are more expensive.
  2. All foods, including organic, are prone to foodborne illnesses.
  3. Organic fruits and vegetables may have a shorter shelf life.
The Center of the Food Maze

What it comes down to is a personal choice. Time, experience, trial and error has helped me to form my personal preferences; here’s my Clean Foodie cheat sheet:

1st choice: Grown organically and locally from small farms.

2nd choice: Grown organically and locally from large farms.

3rd choice: Grown organically in the US. 

4th choice: Depends on what you’re purchasing. If left with the 4th choice, I practice the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen protocol by EWG and purchase Clean 15 produce from local farms that are not practicing organic growing methods. For produce on the Dirty Dozen list, I would choose organically grown outside the US. As for all other produce, well, it’s a toss-up between local small farms not practicing organic methods and produce that is organically grown outside the US. Foods grown organically outside the US is a topic worthy of a soapbox rant and I’ll save that for another blog. Until then, I leave you with a quote from one of my favorite Chef Guru’s, which sums up this entire topic so succinctly:

“Real Food Doesn’t Have Ingredients, Real Food IS Ingredients.”

~ Jamie Oliver

  1. [41] In the U.S., the food label “natural” or “all natural” does not mean that the food was produced and processed organically.[42][43]
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