Would You Rather: Local or Organic or Conventional? Part 1.

by Laura Pilati

You know, buying groceries is a complex task these days. We have choices–for most of us, LOTS of choices. They start with “which grocery store will I visit today?” and “which type of cart or basket do I want?” and lead us through “well, do I want the free-range eggs or the cheaper eggs?” and “what is the difference between firm tofu and soft tofu?” and finish up with “do I want the self-check out or the cashier?” and “debit or credit?”. It’s no wonder that, when we go to the grocery store–no matter if it’s Martin’s, Kroger, Giant, Food Lion, Publix, Wegman’s, Harris Teeter, Farm Fresh, or even your neighborhood Ellwood Thompson’s–most people are not there to chat; they’re there to do their business and get out. We are plagued with decision fatigue!

from Well + Good NYC

Now, before I get on a rant about how ridiculously time- and energy-wasteful most grocery stores are set up these days, let’s talk about what this post is reeeaally about. Today, I’m going to attempt to simplify (well, start to simplify–I quickly realized this topic makes for more than one post) one of the most important decisions we all make at the grocery store: local, organic, conventional? I know that this may not seem right off the bat like one of the most important decisions you make (perhaps planning tomorrow night’s dinner seems more pertinent at the moment), but these days, every grocery item we buy falls into one of these categories and, more and more, grocery stores are carrying an array of these items. There’s no right or wrong decision, just a personal one. Each choice has legitimate pros and cons.

“100% Organic”: All Ingredients Certified USDA Organic

My friend Kat and I had a long discussion several months ago about what it meant for something to be organic. My conclusion has always been that there is no clean way to slice it. Though the USDA has an organic certification label for produce, which is generally accepted in the U.S. as the standard, there are plenty of farms out there that are following the guidelines (or standards) of the certification who simply aren’t certified. Small farms make up a large portion of this group because it costs a decent chunk of change to go through the process. And besides that, you may not necessarily agree with the guidelines set in place by the USDA for organic produce:

  • Produced without excluded methods (e.g. genetic engineering), ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge
  • Produced per the national list of allowed and prohibited substances
  • Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations

Yup, that’s it. The point of my sharing these guidelines is that they’re based on a host of other things, and they’re subject to change. On top of that, we have to remember that they’re still guidelines created by human beings, who are subject to the same lobbying pressures that we are. As of the time of this post, the major farming practice standards for organic certification include:

  • Crops: irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms are not permitted.
  • Livestock: producers must meet animal health and welfare standards, not use antibiotics or growth hormones, use 100% organic feed, and provide animals with access to the outdoors.

There’s a host of other considerations that you’re probably thinking of now: What are the current animal health and welfare standards? What’s on the list of allowable pesticides? Is “access to the outdoors” the same thing as “free range“? And what does organic feed consist of? Stay with me, ’cause there’s more.

“Made with Organic Ingredients”: Marketing and Label Ingredients

The guidelines above just cover produce–not products. For the purposes of this post, produce refers to any whole food: raw eggs, a head of lettuce, a raw steak, a yellow banana. Products, on the other hand, consist of many ingredients, which fall into one of two categories: whole produce or processed produce. Think about products as cereal and microwave dinners, but also items as simple as breads and tofu (which might, at first glance, seem too basic to be products). Products can also be labeled organic, but additional guidelines apply:

  • 100% organic products: all ingredients in the product must be certified organic, plus any processing aids (example: fruit/vegetable washes, enzymes).
  • “Organic” products: all agricultural ingredients must be certified organic, except where allowed on the National List (see above). Non-organic ingredients may be included up to 5% of the total content.
  • “Made with organic” products: At least 70% of the product must be certified organic ingredients. Any remaining ingredients must be produced without excluded methods and non-agricultural ingredients must be specifically permitted on the National List.
  • “Specific organic ingredients”: May not include USDA label and may only list certified organic ingredients (with percentage) in the label.

It’s easy to pass organic off as the “safe” choice for food when there a whole lot more descriptors and varying “shades of grey” out there. To come: What’s all the hoopla about buying local? And what the heck is an heirloom tomato?

What produce and products do you buy organic, if any? What are your considerations when choosing to buy organic?

8 responses to “Would You Rather: Local or Organic or Conventional? Part 1.

    • hey wartica! thanks for reading. i am with you about local and organic..that’s personally how i make my choices as well. however, i recognize that i’m very fortunate to have a market that offers local options year-round. without a farmer’s market, i wonder how folks in other places are able to find local produce. what do you do?

  1. Necessary post. I get so overwhelmed! Right now – I’m focusing on Free Range Eggs and Organic Milk…Does it really matter though? We are living so much longer. Quality of life?

    • thanks kipton! it IS very overwhelming. if you ask me, there are a lot of marketing folks who’d like it to stay that way, too! i’d love to hear your thoughts on whether or not it’s important to look for organic/local/free range/etc (all of which i’d categorize as “environmentally and socially just choices”). there are lots of studies out there that disagree on the subject.

  2. All I have to say is Thank Goodness for Relay (http://www.relayfoods.com/Home/Welcome). I can sort by local first and even visit the farms if I want to size up their processes. I think that’s a great way to make your decisions! The farmer’s market is another way to get your questions answered by the farmer directly!!

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