Would You Rather: Local or Organic or Conventional? Part 2.

by Laura Pilati

Two weeks ago I started to delve into the hot topic of whether to buy local, organic, or conventional (or some combination of the three!). I appreciated hearing from you about your own choices or your two cents on making the decision–thanks for chiming in! If you’re just now joining us, I’ll mention again that I don’t believe that there is a right or wrong answer in all of this; there are pros and cons to each choice, and not every one is available or even the best fit to every person or family. That being said, now, let’s talk more about buying local!

Maybe it’s just Virginia, but in the last few years, there’s been an explosion of the “Buy Local” movement. I personally believe that several well timed documentaries (like Food Inc., King Corn, Fresh, etc etc), books like the 100-mile diet, and the recession are primarily at root, but I also think it’s a heightened “mainstream” awareness of environmental issues (which took off around 2005 with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth–did you forget all about that one?). It’s true that buying local usually presents several environmental and health benefits, like:

  • Biodiversity: small, local farms and producers generally aren’t like the monocrop farms of the Midwest; they grow more than one crop and they tend to rotate crop beds (this avoids a recurrence of the great dust bowl of the 1920s and mass famine). Additionally, many local farms embrace “heirloom” varieties.
  • Fewer greenhouse emissions. As you might deduce, buying local means that your produce and products have a shorter distance to travel to get to your table. Fewer miles = less gas, and less gas = fewer CO2 and other greenhouse (and smog-inducing) emissions.
  • Seasonal and riper, healthier and tastier. It may also come as no surprise that buying local means being limited to buying whatever’s growing in your area when it’s ready. That means truly seasonal fresh produce (which has some local cultural impacts, too–Richmonders, think about the Hanover tomato and all of that hoopla) and produce that has been picked much closer to its prime ripening than if it had grown across the country or across the world and had to be shipped to you. And though the “official” jury’s still out on the nutritional value of organic produce, most experts agree that purchasing local produce has distinct nutritional benefits. This is also related to several key differences between the growing and harvesting methods used by most local and small vs. large-scale farmers.

At the same time, there are also economic and social benefits to buying local. Namely, keeping money flow largely within a community. I think there’s widespread support for “Made in the USA” products because of thinking that says as long as we’re buying within the US, we’re all benefiting as American citizens–and I believe that’s true, to a certain extent. But it’s also true that economic imbalance occurs within pockets of our country where there’s too much cash flowing out and not enough flowing in. The example that always comes to mind for me is that of Appalachian coal country. Though this region has an extremely high concentration of wealth in their supply of an economically valuable natural resource (coal), most counties in the area are among the poorest in the US–a result of, in part, the way that that industry is structured within the region. And yes, this is a rather extreme example, but I think that it illustrates the point concretely.

Another potential economic/social benefit to buying local is the opportunity to get to know the producer or farmer. As Madeleine wrote a few weeks back, having the chance to meet these folks allows the opportunity to ask questions about how a product is made or how produce was grown, and in turn know what is going into our bodies. If this information is important to you, and you don’t have the option or time to grow and make your own food, then this is (in my humble opinion) the next best thing. I have to admit that I’ve never taken the time to go around to the farms that I frequently purchase from at Ellwood Thompson’s, but I appreciate reading the information that many of them post on their websites–it makes me feel more comfortable with what I’m buying.

from Ellwood Thompson’s.

Now, as with all posts in this series, I do want to shed light on some of the potential “cons” to buying local–because it isn’t the most ideal option for everyone. First off, it’s just not accessible by everyone. I could go off on a tangent here about food deserts, but we can leave that for another day. What’s more pertinent here is that the source that most people have for local is farmers’ markets, which have increased in number in recent years. Despite that, they’re not necessarily available in all communities every day or even year-round. Nor are fresh local fruits and veggies always available year-round, wherever you are. I’ll be the first to admit that consistently buying local takes some serious persistence; you’ve really got to nail down your sources and commit to them. Then, if you want to eat strawberries in the winter, you’d better work on your canning skills.. What challenges do you have in your community for tracking down local?

Another con to this option can simply come down to price. Though it has a shorter distance to travel, smaller farms (or smaller production facilities) mean less product to sell to a great demand. There’s also less product to take the chances of fate with when something goes unpredictably with the weather or otherwise. And small farms don’t receive many of the subsidies that larger, traditionally Midwestern farms do. Finally, many small farms also practice organically. This coupled with a smaller scale leads to even more of a “novelty” or high-demand-low-supply product. And if it’s heirloom? Well, you can take it from here.

So, what do you reach for in your daily life? Of the three major categories of produce (and products) that I’m exploring in this “series”, I tend to reach for local. For me, taste and nutritional quality are key. The economic/social benefits for my community are the icing on the cake. But I also have the opportunity, living in a larger metro area, to have stores like Ellwood Thompson’s, lots of CSAs and farmers markets, and options like Relay Foods to have access to local. If I didn’t, I’m not honestly sure that I would have the energy to seek it out a la the original 100-mile dieters.

Check back in a couple weeks for the final post in this series: conventional foods!

2 responses to “Would You Rather: Local or Organic or Conventional? Part 2.

  1. This post makes me wish I was in California at this exact moment in time, as opposed to NY, because of the wide array of local farms–anytime of year:))

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