Food for Thought

Local? Organic? Consider the Source
by Kezia Bacon-Bernstein

When you are trying to make good choices about what you eat—shopping the perimeter of the supermarket,
avoiding heavily processed products, favoring farmers markets—it is often clear which foods are healthier than others. “100% fruit juice” has more nutritional value than “fruit drink.” Fresh vegetables contain more antioxidants than
canned. “Processed cheese food” is to be avoided at all costs. These choices impact not only your own health, but the health of the planet as well.

But sometimes the lines are not so clearly drawn. A perfect example: which is a better way to spend your dining dollar—on food that is locally grown, or on organic food?

What does “organic” mean, anyway? If it’s a fruit or vegetable, a grain, nut or other cultivated product, then the term “organic” indicates that it is grown without the use of chemicals, herbicides, artificial pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers. (In addition, these must be absent from the soil for three years prior.) Irradiation and genetic modification are banned as well. If it’s an animal product—such as milk, meat, eggs or cheese—“organic” means that the animal is given only organic feed, and raised without feed additives or growth hormones. Organic farms are certified by independent third party organizations, which maintains strict standards. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is in charge of the legal definition of “organic” in the U.S. and oversees these independent certifiers.

By choosing organic, you don’t have to worry about the potential dangers—cancer, for example—of consuming the substances mentioned above. Plus, the sustainable methods often employed by organic farmers—such as crop rotation, compost, and cover crops—help to protect the soil, the water supply, and the health of farm workers.

Sounds good, right? Surprisingly, there is a down side. In order to meet growing demand for organic food, industrial organic farms—on which sustainable methods are not necessarily employed—have become popular. Grown on the West Coast or in South America, factory-farmed crops must be transported across the country or the world, requiring a huge outlay of energy for shipping, packaging, and refrigeration, not to mention marketing, to arrive on your dinner plate here in Massachusetts.

Locally grown food, on the other hand, requires little to no packaging or refrigeration, and travels a far shorter distance, so the environmental impact is considerably smaller. By buying local, your food dollar goes directly to the farmer, supporting the regional economy. Because it travels a much shorter distance, local food tends to be in season, more flavorful, and higher in nutrients. But is it just as safe for consumption?

One of the benefits of choosing locally grown food is that you can go directly to the source for information. If you’re purchasing from a farm stand, the checkout person can tell you how it was grown, whether pesticides were used on it, and so forth.

Many of our local farmers use organic methods. Some, such as Colchester Neighborhood Farm in Plympton, Bay End Farm in Bourne, Plato’s Harvest in Middleboro, and Web of Life Farm in Carver, have earned organic certification. Others, while uncertified, still practice organic methods; still other local farms use far fewer chemicals than the conventional sources that supply the bulk of our nation’s food.

For example, Erin and Bill Carpenter grow flowers on their Duxbury farm—as well as tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, basil, peppers, and pumpkins—which they sell at White Gate Gardens, their small farm stand at 687 Union Street.

The produce at White Gate isn’t organic, but the Carpenters are mindful about how it is grown. “We use very little fertilizer on the vegetables,” explains Erin. “I amend the soil with manure from our two horses, plus compost. Most years we plant winter rye [as a cover crop], tilling it in the spring.” The Carpenters use pesticides only when absolutely necessary, and have not used them on the majority of their crops in many years. “I spend most mornings inspecting my veggie garden, often hand picking bugs off of plants,” Erin says.

So which should you choose, local or organic? Each alone is an excellent option; both would be ideal. But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Simply taking the time to consider where your food comes from and how it is grown will lead you and the planet to better health

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