Local vs Organic Food: Which is Better?

By Catherine Haug

Two recent articles in the NY Times:  Eating Food That’s Better For You, Organic or Not, and Obamas to Plant Vegetable Garden at White House prompted me to revisit a November 2007 article I’d written for my personal website. This was actually a series of articles on Whole Healthful Foods; what follows is the one on Local vs Organic foods.

So many of us take for granted that food labeled “Organic” is the best there is, but is that really true?

Local vs Organic:  Which is Better?

Now that many of us are rethinking our diets, and making a switch from processed to whole foods, lets add another twist.  You go to the store and see two boxes of red, ripe apples.  One says “Organic” and the other says “Local.”  Which is the better choice?  Of course, if it said “Local, Organic.” you’d undoubtedly choose that.  But this local box of apples doesn’t say ‘Organic.’


You reach for the apples in the Organic box, thinking it’s better because it hasn’t been treated with pesticides & herbicides and grown on chemical fertilizers.  And there is merit in that conclusion; after all, such farm chemicals are poisonous.  But, there are other issues to consider, too.  That organic apple probably came from Mexico or another Latin American country, not bad in itself, but unless that’s also where you live, that apple had to be flown or trucked all the way to your community.  It could be weeks, if not months old (and food loses nutritive value if it is not fresh).  And think of all the atmospheric pollution created by that shipping process. Think of the gas, diesel, jet fuel consumption, and the contribution to global warming.

And think of where that Organic apple came from.  Does the grower really abide by the Organic rules, now that he has the certification?  Take, for example, the case of Organic ginseng sold by Whole Foods under the label 365.  This ginseng, imported from China, was found to have unacceptable levels of a dangerous pesticide called ‘Aldicarb’ which can cause nausea, headaches, and blurred vision.  The levels of this pesticide in the so-called Organic ginseng was many times higher than that in non-organic ginseng!  The USDA has subsequently put this grower on 12-months probation to clean up their act or lose certification. (1)


Now lets look at that local apple.  It was probably picked within the last week–very fresh, and high in nutritive value.  And only the farmer’s pickup was used to transport it to your store. Or perhaps you found it at the farmer’s roadside stand or a farmers’ maket — even better.

The grower may have used pesticides on the trees, so it’s best to ask about his growing practices.  If the spraying is minimal, for most fruits & veggies,* you can scrub it with a good surfactant cleaner.  There are many non-toxic food-wash products available, or you can use home-made soap.

It’s best to shop around; you might find a local grower who doesn’t use pesticides.  When you buy from a local grower, you know your food is fresh, and you can question the grower about his practices, perhaps even visit his farm/garden.

*NOTE:  Some foods such as peaches and cherries have thin skins, allowing applied pesticides to penetrate the food.  But most local small farmers do not practice the extensive use of pesticides, making their foods still a better bet than Organic imported from South America or China.


According to Wikipedia, monoculture is the practice of growing a single crop over a wide area.  This is the practice of most large commercial farmers, whether organic or not.  But a dependence on large crops can have devastating effects when a single cultivar becomes susceptible to a pathogen, or when changes in weather patterns occur (think “dust bowl” of the 1930s, and now, global warming).

Monoculture also refers to the harvesting, packaging, warehousing and shipping of foods by large corporations, for distribution in supermarket chains such as Wal Mart, Costco, or even your local supermarket.

We may THINK we are doing good by buying organic foods from stores like Whole Foods, Costco, or Wal Mart, but these organic foods are part of the same monoculture farming system as regular supermarket foods.  The only difference is that the ‘organic’ foods are hopefully grown using better, less toxic and more sustainable methods.  But that difference is not enough; most organic produce is grown in a foreign country and shipped/flown/trucked to your Organic store, wrapped in a nitrogen environment to prevent spoilage.  And all that transportation and handling time means the food has lost much of its nutritive value.

One author says, “Where is the outrage at choosing between bad and worse” (2) when comparing foods from the same monoculture system, whether they are organic foods (bad), or supermarket foods (worse).  I couldn’t agree more.

The OCA website (Organic Consumers Assoc.) has a post on How Local Retailers can Compete with Wal-Mart. A new study suggests the best way to out-compete with discounters like Wal-Mart is to “move away from lower-tier products and expand their product assortment to different brands, such as natural or organic items,… top-tier brands,”  and locally-produced products.  Such a step would move your local grocery out of the monoculture category and into a niche market that is winning consumers across the nation.

Real Food:

Real food is truly fresh, and grown locally.  Period.

It is prepared, from scratch, in your own kitchen (or your neighbor’s kitchen) from raw ingredients. It can be raw, juiced, dehydrated, soaked, sprouted, fermented, cultured, salt-cured, or cooked.  It has not been treated to high-pressure or high-temperature industrial processes.  It has not been genetically engineered (to include the DNA of an unrelated organism) or irradiated (to kill pathogens).

Buy-Local Benefits

So, you can see that perhaps that local apple is better for you, for both health and environmental reasons.  But the buy-local benefits go even deeper.

When you buy from a local producer, you help the local economy because your money stays in the community.  If you want to help the farmers in Latin America, you can contribute to a charity.

When your money stays in the local community, it comes back to you in many ways.  It supports the local tax base for the education of your children, for example.  If you too are in business, that farmer is likely to spend his earnings locally, perhaps even at your business. Neighbor helping neighbor.  What could be more earth-friendly than that?

Buying from a local producer is also more sustainable, not only for the economy, but also for the health of the soil, our water supply, and our breathable air, than foods from the big-agro monoculture.


  1. www.alternet.org/environment/94146/is_your_organic_food_really_organic/
  2. Jamey Lionette from Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed edited by Vandana Shiva (South End, 2007)

Catherine’s Background

I have a BA in Biology and BA in Chemistry, with 4 years of post-graduate study in molecular biology and quantum mechanics.  I have spent over 30 years as a health researcher (a hobby of researching journal articles and other health-related literature).

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