mini food forest abutting a plastic greenhouse

The living garden from my permaculture design course

A few days back, a friend of mine, aware of my generally* healthy eating habits and advocation of all things green, asked of my opinion on buying organic versus locally sustainable produce. I realized that not many understand the difference between the labels–and for good reason… they’re confusing as fudge! Not that fudge is confusing at all, but in the spirit of keeping this family friendly… Here’s what I shared with her. Hopefully it helps you navigate the waters of your local produce section.

Local

Even the USDA has not quite developed a clear definition of what shall be deemed local food. Their 2010 study entitled “Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts and Issues” doesn’t want to say that they’ve concluded local to mean food sourced from within four hundred miles of one’s location. But they do. Kind of. They also go on to say that it includes food grown within one’s state. Sort of. Somehow, they really skirt the issue of just spitting out a definition. I seriously thought that if anyone would define what local food means, it would be the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But no. They go on to say that it’s not the distance that makes food local but the relationship between the consumer and the supplier. Huh? To make it a bit more confusing, people who call themselves locavores bring those four hundred miles down to one hundred… and only source from within that radius.

Good: Fresher produce – ripened on the vine/tree and not in the back of a cargo truck between your local grocery store and say, Chile. Reduced carbon impact – your food doesn’t need a passport to get to you. Responsibility – in the farmers’ market sense, there’s some accountability when the farmer must look you in the eye as they hand over their wares.

Bad: There are no rules on how farmers must grow produce – local farmers are not prohibited from using pesticides or GMO seeds.

In-between: When choosing local, look for local farmers who also incorporate organic and/or sustainable practices. Ask to visit their farms to be sure of the methods employed. Be wary of the farmer who says no.

Organic

Organic food is typically grown without using chemical fertilizers, pesticides or other man-made substances. It’s not exposed to antibiotics, radiation or synthetic additives. To label their food organic, farmers must obtain certification from one of several governing bodies. Processed food labeled “organic” uses inputs certified as organic.

Good: Organic food not only tastes better, but researchers are finding that it’s better for our bodies. It’s what nature intended. The body finds it difficult to process those unnatural chemically laced foods, which are notoriously contributing to major health epidemics in Western countries.

Bad: Certification is quite costly – a farmer must have each component independently certified. The average small organic farmer–when you think of actual yields–cannot afford the cost of certification. Organic foods are not without controversy; processed foods labelled organic have a five percent leeway in including components that are not organic. That’s right. Only ninety-five percent of the products in an “organic” product must actually be organic. Yes. Really. And there are exceptions to chemical use: if pests and weeds are not controllable through organic methods, farmers are permitted to use chemicals not listed on the national list of synthetic substances. I know! Don’t get me started on animal care… animals given antibiotics or other medications to treat specific diseases (read: non-routine) become ineligible for organic classification, representing a huge loss to the average organic farmer.

In-between: Despite what’s been said about organic the good still definitely outweighs the bad. Be sure to note the practices of the organic farmers from where you source. You can discover a company’s growing/sourcing methods with a few Internet searches. Find out whom the parent company is and, if applicable, look into their practices too. Although the price of organic food is higher than conventional food don’t let this be the reason you’re eating unhealthily. Give up something else, if necessary. You’re worth it. If you can only afford some organic items, be sure to buy the items listed in the Environmental Working Group‘s Dirty Dozen.

Sustainable

Food grown using sustainable practices isn’t necessarily labelled organic. It isn’t necessarily local. It’s usually both. Sustainable practices often involve permaculture principles that promote harmony with nature, which means using as little resources as possible to grow and distribute food. Employing planting/growing/harvesting/raising techniques that serve as pest and weed control and increase yield, without damage to the soil and/or environment.

Good: Sustainable farming allows the Earth to work the way it works. It follows cycles and goes beyond what nature intended–it is nature at work. It leaves the land in better condition. And uses less resources than conventional farming.

Bad: I really can’t think of many here. Save that some may not purchase sustainably grown food that isn’t also labelled organic. Since the organic certification is quite a costly undertaking and is somewhat losing its validity, many sustainable farmers simply choose not to seek certification.

In-between: This one is my favourite. Hey, I’m a biased wanna-be sustainable farmer–mostly due to an incredible permaculture design course I completed awhile back. Still, I stand firmly behind the idea that one can’t go wrong with eating food grown in the way nature intended.

Do you tend to buy more local, organic, sustainable or a combination of the three? What label is most important to you when buying groceries? Based on the information provided above, will you change your shopping habits?

*I don’t profess to be a complete health guru/junkie. While I mostly eat an organic/free range diet, let’s be real – I’m from the Southern U.S. Butter (from humanely raised, non rBGH treated cows) runs through my veins. Along with the occasional apple pie and peach cobbler – made from scratch, of course, using organic and locally sustainable (when possible) ingredients. :p

image: Rachel Walls