When it comes to eating produce, we all know that organic is “better.” We have all heard the tale that only organic foods are foods produced without the use of harmful pesticides, hormones, and other chemicals unfit for human consumption. If you’re reading this article, chances are you believe this to be true. But what about other factors that may be just as important as choosing between organic and non-organic foods? What other determinants have a huge impact on our health and the health of our environment? Enter the number one food trend of 2012: eating local.
Eating local is a huge movement right now for good reason. The benefits are tough to rival. To begin, let’s paint a picture to illustrate the current problem at hand. Let’s imagine a woman shopping for groceries at her local supermarket. She picks up two vacuum-sealed bags of spinach, one organic, one non-organic. She carefully scrutinizes the packages, searching for any signs of added chemicals, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) or other ingredients deemed undesirable. The two bags each cost the same, although the organic spinach contains a smaller volume. She makes her selection, putting the non-organic spinach back on the shelf, and carries on, feeling good about her decision. Sure, it costs a little more per ounce, but she knows that when it comes down to it, organic is “better” so she is making the “right” decision. Does this sound at all like you? Several months ago this certainly sounded like me.
Let’s dissect the issue here. Yes, the bag of spinach she purchased is organic, therefore eliminating the harmful practices of unhealthy sprays, which reek havoc on the health of the farm’s workers as well as the climate of the farm and surrounding area. Yes, by supporting organic she is preventing these chemicals from leaching into the ground and harming the soil for future use. She is helping reduce the risk of herbicides and fertilizers blowing onto surrounding farms and spreading GMOs and other chemicals. She is helping protect her own body from these toxic substances. And yes, she lets her dollars speak for her! But where exactly did that organic spinach come from? How was it grown? Chances are it came from several states away, where it was grown and harvested in a fashion that is all too similar to non-organic industrial farming.
If you visit a modern industrial farm today, you may be surprised. It is not the small farm with green grass and a red barn that we imagine from childhood. Many companies (yes, it is now companies and not farmers) grow both organic and non-organic produce. They grow rows upon rows, acres upon acres, of the same crop in strict organized form to maximize efficiency in a destructive practice known as monoculture. There are rows as far as the eye can see of non-organic spinach, and right next door is the exact same practice: rows upon rows of spinach, this time grown without chemicals (or sometimes just with sprays whose ingredients are organic, so they are therefore classified organic by USDA terms– eek!) and there you have the “right choice” of organic spinach. Although the organic versus non-organic elements of the spinach are important, it cannot be denied that this vegetable is produced in nearly the exact the same way as its non-organic counterpart. In both instances, monoculture is hurting the crop and the environment, and lack of crop rotation is eroding the nutritional quality of the soil. In addition, the great distance that this produce must travel to reach consumers means increased stress on the environment. The vivid green of that organic spinach is now starting to fade.
Fossil fuels may be the biggest problem associated with our spinach purchase. According to the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, “the average American meal travels about 1500 miles to get from farm to plate.” This transportation distance accounts for a large amount of the consumption of fossil fuels in the United States. The same source estimates we expend 1 kcal of fossil fuel energy for every 1kcal of food energy. This is a ratio we cannot sustain for long. Food transportation has other tolls on the environment too, like contributing significantly to carbon dioxide emissions. To cut down on the extremely harmful effects of indefinite transportation we need to stop transporting when unnecessary. Eat food grown near you whenever possible. Our climate says, “Thank you.”
There are health benefits to eating local too. Food that travels long distances loses its nutritional value over time. Additionally, to prevent the over-ripening of produce, many fruits and vegetables that must be transported are picked before they are ripe, and then artificially ripened with gases, chemicals, or by other highly-processed means. To keep levels of vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants high, it is best to pick produce when it is just ripe and consume it soon thereafter. This is best achieved by eating foods that have a short travel time between farm and plate.
Eating local foods also supports your local community. The best way to do this is by shopping at farmers markets (for more information and tips, check out my most recent article, “Farmers Market Tips”). This puts money directly in farmers’ hands and eliminates the middlemen of large supermarket chains. This also provides you with the opportunity to converse with your local farmer. You can provide him or her with valuable feedback and in return he or she can give you more information about your produce. If farmers markets or stands are not an option, look for markets that sponsor local farmers or provide local produce. At the very least choose a grocery store that labels where each item of produce was grown!
When you look at the logistics of how produce is grown and how it reaches consumers, the importance of choosing local foods really shines. Choosing that plastic vacuum-sealed bag of organic spinach from the supermarket may have seemed like a good idea at face value, but when you consider the impacts on the environment, our communities, and our health, this may not be the wise decision at all. To support eating green you must support eating local. Choose local options whenever available. Know where your food comes from. Are organic tomatoes really the best choice when they are imported from Ecuador? I don’t mean to tell you that if you don’t live in the tropics you can never enjoy a banana or pineapple again. I just mean to emphasize the importance of eating local as often as you can.
For more information I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which provides wonderful insight into the intricacies of eating local. You can also search for a farmers market near you. If you must shop at a supermarket, be picky! Give your business to places that share your same values. Use your purchasing power to uphold the environment! Whether you’re an herbivore, carnivore, or omnivore, its 2012 and the time has come to become a locavore!