The produce section of the grocery store or farmer’s market is filled with so many options. When we start discussing the merits of organic, locally grown, or conventional produce, it can be downright overwhelming. How should you decide when to pick organic, local, or conventional produce? I could sit here and write a ten page dissertation on the subject, but you don’t have time to read that! Instead, I am going to answer some practical questions you may have on the topic, and leave you with some links that can help you delve into the nitty gritty details of this subject.
What does it mean to be “organic” produce? USDA certified organic produce is a very complex and technical definition. The USDA National Organic Standards Board defines organic agriculture as the following:
“Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.
“‘Organic’ is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.
“Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water.
“Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”
You think that’s a long definition? It keeps going. Check out the entire definition here.
Bottom line: Organic produce is about limiting pesticides and agricultural additives, and most importantly, employing farming practices that promote the health and balance of the environment. Organic agricultural practices do not necessarily yield produce with more vitamins, minerals, or phytonutrients (more research is needed to determine this), but it does leave the farmland and surrounding environment in a healthier place.
Should I choose local foods or organic foods? Foods that are certified as “USDA Organic” go through a very rigorous (and expensive) certification process. Many small, local farmers practice sustainable agriculture, but cannot afford to get the USDA organic stamp on their produce. I am a big believer in supporting local produce over organic produce (at least in most cases) for the following reasons: 1) local produce is picked when ripe and gets to you within a few days. This translates to you consuming more of the micronutrients in the produce than you would from something that was picked when not ripe several days or weeks earlier; 2) less travel for the produce from farm to table = a lower carbon footprint = better for the environment; 3) supporting local farmers means you are supporting plant diversity. Large-scale farms only grow a few crops that ripen uniformly and can withstand large-scale processing. Smaller, local farms grow several varieties of crops to help lengthen their growing season.
Is conventionally grown produce “bad”? No fruit or vegetable is bad! Conventionally grown produce typically has had more exposure to pesticides, but as far as we know, the exposure is low enough to not cause harm. Sometimes you cannot afford organic or local produce, or it may not be available. It is better to eat conventional produce than go without.
What is the best way to buy lots of fruits and veggies, support the environment, and stay on budget? The Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen and Clean 15” list can help you identify fruits and veggies that you may want to get in the organic form. Also, shop according to the season! You are not going to get a good tomato in February for a reason. To support local agriculture, shop at stores and farmers markets that carry local produce, or consider subscribing to a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. Northeast Ohio has quite a few CSAs to fit your needs!
If you are interested in reading more about organic, conventional, and locally grown foods, check out this fantastic article from Today’s Dietitian.