The other day I was browsing the produce aisle of my local natural food store and a display of gorgeous organic peaches caught my eye. I started filling my cart with them, until I read the sign more closely and saw that these peaches hailed from California, more than 2,000 miles away from my Atlanta home.
It certainly made me stop to think - after all, I do live in the Peach State, and peach country is only about an hour north, where I could get fruit that is far fresher than these West-Coast peaches are likely to be. But, I also know that the peaches at the farmstands and markets in peach country are less likely to be organic. And peaches are among those items that the Environmental Working Group says should be bought organic if at all possible because of the high levels of pesticides they often contain. Which leads to a conundrum: Is it better to buy local produce, or is it better to opt for organic produce, even if it hails from far away? Certainly there are valid arguments for each.
GO LOCALLocally grown food hasn't logged countless food miles (the distance food has traveled from its origin to your supermarket). Many foods travel in excess of 1500 miles to your plate, which has a significant impact on the environment. Going local not only supports your area farmers, but means your food travels fewer miles, keeping it fresher, and in turn tasting better and retaining more nutrients.
GO ORGANICOn the other hand, you can't ignore the importance of supporting the organic food movement. Organic food, which is grown without chemical pesticides and fertilizers, is better for the environment because all of those chemicals aren't being released into the soil and nearby water sources. Additionally, when more farmers use organic methods, fewer harmful chemicals will need to be produced, further benefiting the environment. Organic growing methods also help keep the soil healthy for future generations of farmers.
Many food experts say that the environmental impact of transportation as opposed to using chemical farming techniques is roughly equal, so if you had to choose one or the other, it truly is a crapshoot. The ideal, of course, would be to buy food that's both local and organic. But, this might not always be the case, as I've discovered in my quest to find local, organic peaches.
My advice is this: Take it on a case-by-case basis. Some fruits and vegetables, particularly fragile and highly perishable ones, like peaches and tomatoes, are best bought locally, even if you can't find organic versions. They'll taste much better, and you're helping the farmer, who likely needs to unload his or her harvest quickly before they go bad.
At farmers' markets, you can ask the farmers about their growing methods. Many of them might actually be practicing organic techniques, but can't call their goods organic since they aren't certified, a very expensive and time-consuming process. Even if your local farmer does use pesticides, chances are that because he is a smaller operation, he uses pesticides in smaller concentrations than a large, commercial agriculture operation might.
Finally, shop according to your budget and your convictions. If supporting your local economy is more important to you, then focus your energies more on finding locally grown produce wherever you shop — but if the use of pesticides is abhorrent to you, whether from a health standpoint or an environmental standpoint, then head for the organic aisles.
Whatever your decision, be proud that you are at least thinking about where your food comes from and how it's grown, and hopefully, as more and more people become more informed, buying local and buying organic will become less of an either-or proposition.
What do you look for when you're out grocery shopping? Share your tips below!