Are You Local or Organic? Part Two

Responding to your thoughtful comments

heather jones This week I had planned on waxing poetic about my little victory garden. The Brandywine and Mr. Stripey tomatoes whose arrival I’m anxiously awaiting, the sweet peas that are eagerly climbing up their stakes and it looks as if this year there will be cantaloupe. But after seeing how last week’s post (Are you Local or Organic?), on my declaration of choosing local over organic in most purchasing situations generated a bit of talk I decided to answer those who responded to my previous post.

So let’s start with TreeMama who had this to say:

I find it impossible to be 100% organic anyway, so like you said, I weigh the options of most heavily polluted foods and get whatever I can here locally.

TreeMama, I couldn’t have said it better myself and that was exactly the premise of my post. It is pretty difficult trying to be 100% organic especially if you live in an area where organic food isn’t always readily available but when given the choice I will always choose local first.

Next up was Ed Bruske, The Slow Cook (I love your website, loads of great information), and this was his response:

We don’t go out of our way looking for tomatoes in January (in the District of Columbia), but we’ve had some off-season, hot house tomatoes that were pretty darned good. Someone is getting better at breeding and raising them. And does local mean only “seasonal?” What if the hot house tomatoes are being grown in your neighborhood and are really good? And in temperate areas where the normal growing season ends in September or October, if everyone goes local won’t they necessarily need to grow things in hothouses?

Ed, I have no doubt that the flavor and quality of hothouse tomatoes is improving, clearly there is a demand for fresh tomatoes year round and someone is trying to answer the call by making them as close in taste to seasonal ones as possible. Local obviously doesn’t mean seasonal but most local produce that is readily available to me is seasonal and it’s my personal belief that everything tastes better when it’s grown during its “true” season, regardless of whether it’s local or organic. I live in New Jersey so I have a real thing for tomatoes and to me there’s nothing like pulling one off the vine in the middle of July. Hothouses will only be needed if people chose to try and grow things outside of the normal growing seasons for their area.

And finally my most impressive comment to date comes from the Organic Trade Association…talk about keeping me on my toes. This was their comment:

Thank you for this thoughtful article. The Organic Trade Association would like to offer a different perspective on the issue of local vs. organic. In fact, local and organic are not in competition with one another. On the contrary, they embrace many of the same values. They both emphasize support for the farmers involved in food production. And they both encourage people to consider the environmental impacts of their purchasing decisions. Plus, as more and more local farms make the shift to organic, the choice between local and organic disappears: to buy one is to support and reap the benefits of both.

What should you do, then, if you are in the grocery store and the option to purchase locally grown, organic products does not exist? Which type of product should you choose?

When faced with such a choice, consider the following: organic offers a range of benefits that non-organic local products do not. Because they are regulated by the federal government, products bearing the organic label must meet a strict set of production/handling guidelines. They must be made without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and genetic engineering. Additionally, they must not undergo irradiation or contain ingredients made from cloned animals. Local products are not held to any such standards, and therefore cannot be counted on to meet any of the aforementioned criteria. And, because the term “local” is itself undefined, no guarantees can be made about whether a product is, indeed, local!

Organic products are also distinct with respect to traceability. In order to meet federal regulations, careful records must be kept about every phase of organic production. This means that everything from the source of the seeds to the way the products are placed on store shelves must be documented. Moreover, each of these steps must be verifiable by a third party. Local products, by contrast, are neither required to provide such documentation nor to undergo third-party review. As such, no guarantees can be made about where local products come from or how they are handled.

Does this mean you should abandon buying locally made products? Not at all. Instead, it means you should be thoughtful about the local products you choose to buy. If they are labeled organic, you can feel confident that they have been produced in a manner that not only supports personal and environmental health, but also helps to ensure product integrity from the farm to your family.

I do realize that local and organic are not in competition with one another although sometimes it can certainly seem that way. And I do sincerely hope that more local farmers are able to become certified organic just so that gap and confusion between the two choices can close. I will not deny the health benefits that organic foods can have and as I stated in the first post more often than not local farmers practice sustainable/organic farming methods so their food is equally healthful. As far as federal regulations, documentation, and third party reviews it is my understanding that the steps needed to become certified organic are quite costly and for a local farmer who’s trying to make ends meet that’s not always a viable option. In my opinion we just need to get back to basics and for me that means supporting my local agriculture. I’d rather buy free range farm fresh eggs from the guy 20 minutes away versus buying the supermarket free range eggs that were shipped from 200 miles away. It just makes more sense. And when talking about distance that whole carbon footprint and emissions topic always pops up but that’s a conversation for another day. Bottom line I always encourage friends and family to talk to their local farmers, find out the farming methods and ask why if relevant they choose to use pesticides/herbicides but ultimately they need to make the choice that’s right for them. I’m not delusional when it comes to the whole seasonal, local, thing. I realize that things like Bananas, lemons, limes will never be seasonal or local in the state of New Jersey and if my 3 year old wants a banana in January well then by all means she’s gonna get one. For me its seasonal first, local, and then organic and since I have no idea when Bananas are in season and they are the farthest thing from local then by all means it will be organic.

I know there’s more opinions out there so let em rip.

Next Time: I’m taking the show on the road through the local political process to try and bring a community farmer’s market to my town. I’ve already spoken with the New Jersey State Department of Agriculture, and my next step is getting a meeting with the mayor and the city council members. Through the next upcoming posts, I will document these efforts, and share my results. Wish me luck!

Heather Jones is a wife, mother, freelance food writer, and graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. She has worked for Gourmet Magazine, TV Personality Katie Brown, and the New York based Indian-fusion restaurant Tabla. Heather resides in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters. She is a strong supporter of the Sustainable Food Movement and believes that education is the key to making a difference.


  1. says

    After opening up farmers markets all throughout Southern California I have had a complete 180 degree turn on the local versus organic opinion. Working with small growers around the country and the state, I’m endeared to the small farming movement. I’ve been suprised to find that over the last year the bottom dropped out of my commitment to buy strictly “local”.

    Local food is a really great way of understanding where food comes from, but does little or nothing in assessing the environmental impact of food production.

    The push for local food was birthed out of the concept that food should be cultivated, transported, and consumed responsibility. Indeed, this is at the heart of an ideal food system. The problem with local, is that the target of food miles and proximity shapes the dialogue about our food system in a dangerous way that skips over more pressing problems. It’s only a matter of time until large scale companies (we’re already seeing this with Lay’s “Local” potato chips), take this concept of local and deconstruct it from it’s true intentions.

    Making organic the standard method of operating needs special attention only because that deals closest with the manner in which food is produced. Yes, local food emphasizes transportation, but the majority of carbon and resource related concerns occur ON the farm, and are expressed by deteriorating water and air quality with special attention to soil quality (very, very special attention to soil!). Farm yields will continually go down and American small and medium sized farms will fail if soil quality continues to deplete at it’s current rate.

    Non-organic methods will inevitably indebt American small farmers to GMO’s and Monsanto-esq technology, by forcing our small farmers into using genetically modified crops in order to supplement environmental degradation of soil and water (or lack thereof). We need a consumer backed pushed for organic to be the basic operating procedure of American farming and food production.

  2. Lisa Bell says

    Having now made kale strudel, kale lasagne, cream of kale soup, braised kale w/bacon, stir-fried kale, given kale to every one I know more than once, I too can fully support the hoop house tomato movement, especially here in Portland where the growing season for ‘maters is perilously short. A little hoop house w/no heating element in a mild but damp and grey climate generates an enormous amount of heat. And we need that for good tomatoes here in Oregon, not Arkansas or Jersey or Oklahoma maybe…but I am okay with pushing the season here since I am really sick of paying whole foods $7 for a big heirloom tomato and getting some disappointingly mealy farmer’s market ‘maters.Tomatoes are a particularly troubling crop, tho’, slave labor is right, so am trying to wean myself off those cherry sweets out of season as much as they brighten a grey drizzly day.

    And please do know that I love greens, and turnips, and rutabagas, and all those cool weather crops, but cooking up huge amounts of them week after week can be challenging. Guess that’s when you run to the pantry for those put-up summer delights. I have a friend in a CSA who is frightened of all those greens–she has a 5 year old and there is just so much a kid can take.

    Great articles, Heather…hope your garden overflows with deliciousness.

  3. says

    We’re quite fortunate that organic vs. local isn’t an either or situation in our area. My husband and I run a farmers market and, this year, we required all produce vendors to be certified Organic or certified naturally grown which helps to appease our client base. Certified naturally grown is a really good option for those growers who operate according to organic standards but can’t afford the licensing.

  4. says

    A lot of small farms can’t label their produce organic because they find the certification process burdensome–either too costly and/or too much paperwork. Nevertheless, they still practice organic methods and sometimes even go “beyond organic.” And, don’t be too bowled over by the OTA–they’re a trade association much like any other, with professional marketeers who say what we want to hear without disclosing the full story. Organic agriculture–in particular, big industrial certified organic agriculture–depends upon a lot of petroleum inputs in the guise of cultivators and the like.

    That said, I buy local, organic food as much as I can. I do buy conventional from my neighborhood produce market, but usually only things like onions–never potatoes or soft fruits. While I do buy citrus, grown in California while it is in season, I do not buy fresh food out of season. Honestly, I don’t miss fresh tomatoes in February. Hothouses growing tomatoes in New Jersey in the middle of winter would require a lot of energy–both heating and lighting. Kinda defeats the purpose of eating local.

    We need to consider a new way of eating–actually, an old way. Not just local, just seasonal, but in harmony with the seasons and in connection with those who produce/harvest our food. If you can actually talk with the not-certified-organic farmer about her farm management practices, you might learn that she’s doing things just the way a gov’ment certified farmer does things–maybe even with more care and fewer petroleum-based inputs. A mid-winter salad can still be delicious even it is is not composed of lettuce grown in Salinas Valley and packed in a incredibly process-intensive seven-layer plastic bag and a tomato grown with virtual slave labor in Florida or an energy-intensive hothouse in New Jersey.

    I’m glad people are talking about this…let’s keep challenging ourselves to think, talk, and do more.

  5. says

    I’m still working into all this local/organic/seasonal stuff. I have a sort of mental checklist I go through when making buying choices. First choice: local, organic, in season. The best of the best. I start at the Farmer’s Market and my CSA box, making menus from what is available, but those choices can be pretty limited.

    I choose organic over local when shopping at a grocery store because I know the local conventional farmers, the GMO crops they grow and the pesticide load in my area. But I draw the line at international foods or long-haul foods like Hawaiian pineapple, bell peppers from Holland and grapes from Mexico even if they are organic. These foods will grow here (limited success on the pineapple, but we’re working on it) in season, and sometimes patience is required. I’d rather support local farmers if given the option.

    And I must admit I’d rather support a local conventional farmer in transition to organic than a mega-organic grower on the other side of the continent. But for most people, that’s a load of research they’d rather not do.

    My first choices are always rooted in the philosophy of “shaking the hand that feeds you.”

  6. says

    Heather, thanks so much for including my comments. You should know that just about every farmer growing things for the local market is already using hot houses or greenhouses or hoop houses–some sort of method to entend the season, or start seedlings earlier than what local conditions would normally allow. Growing a tomato to maturity in a “hot house” is merely an extension of what farmers are already doing by starting their seedlings indoors before transplanting them outdoors, all to produce tomatoes earlier that what the “season” would normally allow. Talk to any CSA grower and he will tell you how many of his customers are miserable in the spring because all they see is greens, greens and more greens. So farmers a shortening the season on greens, and trying to extend the season on tomatoes and pepper and squash–things customers want to see more of. If you inextricably couple “local” with “seasonal only,” you not only limit vastly the total number of calories farmers produce, but limit consumers in winter to only those things that can be stored or preserved. Don’t get me wrong, I like my rutabagas. But going to a local food system will require that more food be grown in greenhouses and that things be made available out of the normal seasons you are describing.

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