Local vs. Organic: Which Should I Choose?
#EcoAdvice from our expert
Dear Dr. Donley,
I don’t know what to do! I feel like I’m in a constant dilemma between buying food that’s organic or buying local. Often I can’t do both, so what’s the best choice I can make for my health and the health of the environment?
Paralysis by Analysis
Dear Focal Local Who’s Manic About Organic,
This is a very common question, and it really speaks to the innate desire in yourself to make the most responsible decisions you can.
The real issue is that the default (conventional) buying option is often unsustainable, environmentally degrading and altogether contrary to values many of us hold dear. We often don’t really know where our food is grown, how it’s grown, the working conditions of those who grow it or the extent to which it degrades natural resources. Ultimately this has allowed a food system to be thrust upon us that very few people approve of or support. But at the end of the day, we’ve all got to eat.
Thankfully many of us do have choices. Buying food that bears the USDA organic label gives you a high confidence that you’re supporting agricultural practices that don’t rely on synthetic pesticides that harm sensitive ecosystems or fertilizers that often require disastrous strip-mining practices. Buying local food — for instance, at a nearby farmers’ market — ensures that you’re supporting your local economy and greatly reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with getting your food from point A to point B. Food that’s both local and organic is always the best option, but neither option is perfect alone.
However, pitting organic versus local is a bit like comparing apples to oranges since they address completely different issues — so choosing one isn’t really about what’s better for the environment, unless you’re going to argue that we should prioritize environmental health over global climate change or vice versa. And recommending one over the other is of no help to underserved communities that don’t have easy access to either.
Since the core of your question really just boils down to “how can I use my purchasing power to support the most sustainable food system,” one answer is simple: Eat less meat and dairy. Raising animals for food is the single biggest thing in our food system that has an outsized impact across all environmental indicators. In fact, eating meatless just one day a week results in more greenhouse gas emission reductions than eating an entirely local diet. This is one of the few things that anyone can do — it doesn’t matter how much money you make or where you live.
Once you’ve reduced your meat and dairy consumption to the lowest level you’re comfortable with and you still want to do more, here’s my advice: Support local farmers by shopping at farmers’ markets or getting a CSA (community supported agriculture) share as often as you are able; buy regionally appropriate foods from small to mid-size organic farms, when available; and support federal, state and local policies that demand sustainability and accountability for polluting agricultural practices.
It’s time to retire the organic vs. local debate, because it distracts from other important issues in agriculture and, at the end of the day, still leaves us with a food system that doesn’t live up to what we deserve and expect. Big changes need to happen, and complacency is our biggest obstacle.
Dr. Nathan Donley is a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity who answers questions about how environmental toxins affect people, wildlife and the environment. Send him your questions at AskDrDonley@biologicaldiversity.org