I’ve been thinking about food lately. Perhaps because I get hungry around dinner time and that’s often when I write posts. Anyways, I’ve been thinking about organic, sugar-free, fat-free, no-trans-fats, free-range, low-in-sodium, and everything else they write on food labels to convince you that it’s better for you. There’s one big one that seems to be ignored and that I thought ought to be the most important of them all: locally grown. So I decided to pose a questions. Which one is actually better if you had to choose: organic or local?
First lets talk about organic. Many people believe that organic food is more nutritious. It’s not. Stanford did a study compiling the results of 237 studies which showed that besides slight increases in phosphorus and omega 3 fatty acids, organic food is no more nutritious than it’s non-organic counterparts. You can read about that study here. It’s a common misconception that organic food is more nourishing but it seems to be completely untrue.
The primary benefit of eating organic food seems to be a reduced intake of hormones and pesticides which scientists suspect may cause long term health problems. Similarly, the overuse of antibiotics in farming has the potential to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria and cause illness in humans. The one group that is effected immediately is pregnant women whose exposure to pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones can cause premature birth and lowered IQs in their offspring. This is a very serious concern.
Now lets talk about buying local. Local food, because it can be picked when it’s ripe, tastes better and is more nutritious than food that traveled a long way. Thus it is both healthier and more delicious to eat locally grown produce.
More important is the environmental impact. There is a metric called “food miles” which measures the distance a product travelled to get to your kitchen table. According to the people at Sustainable Table, the average grocery store item in the USA travels nearly 1500 miles to reach the grocery store. That apple probably isn’t going to be nearly as delicious or nutritious as a local apple. But the real crime is that someone had to hire a big diesel truck to drive my apple 1500 miles. Admittedly, transport makes up only a small part of the total carbon emissions from food production, (something like 12% in Britain) but it still must be taken seriously. We should all pay the extra few cents to get food from as close to home as possible. We also need to stop buying things out of season just because we like them. Canadians want oranges in November? Suck it up and have pumpkin. As Bill Gates pointed out to me in a harsh but clear TED talk, carbon emissions have to reach zero or we all die, probably in my lifetime.
In conclusion: when you’re at the supermarket, look for organic and local foods to buy. If you have to choose, choose local. If you choose organic over local, you’re trading a decreased risk of health problems later in life for the death of us all and that is rather selfish wouldn’t you say?