Is Organic or Local Food Better?

farmers market tomatoes

Which is best for people and the planet? 
And how do we make truly healthy food accessible to all?

You walk into the grocery store, wanting to buy some Granny Smith apples for a pie you’re planning to bake. You find there are two types—organic apples from across the country, or apples from a local farm that uses chemical pesticides and herbicides. Which do you choose?

It’s a conundrum we’ve all faced at one time or another, particularly since 2007, when a University of Alberta study announced that the climate-change benefits of organic food are almost negated when that food has traveled a long distance from farm to plate. In response, the “locavore” movement—or people dedicated to buying much of their food in season, from local farms—enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, casting doubts on the wisdom of always buying organic. And yet, even in today’s economy, US organic sales continue to grow, according to the Organic Trade Association. In 2009, as the economic crisis raged on, US organic food sales increased by 5.1 percent, totaling $24.8 billion. In contrast, total US food sales grew 1.6 percent.

Are organic shoppers making the right choices, when that food isn’t also sourced from a farm near their grocer? New research is providing more evidence to consider when choosing between organic and local, when you can’t have both.

The Case for Organic

Research that wasn’t available when the University of Alberta released its “food miles” study shows that organic farming actually sequesters more carbon in the soil than conventional chemical farming. And it uses no chemical inputs, which need to be trucked in from long distances and spread across fields using fossil-fuel-powered machinery.

The nonprofit Rodale Institute has been running a side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional farming systems for over 30 years. In 2008, Rodale reported that organically farmed soil sequesters nearly 30 percent more carbon than chemically farmed soil.

If all 3.5 billion acres of farmland on the planet were farmed organically, the soil would sequester nearly 40 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, they said. And converting all 434 million acres of US farmland to organic would sequester nearly 1.6 billion tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 800,000 cars off the road annually.

Studies from the University of California–Davis and the UK Soil Association corroborate Rodale’s research, with both finding that organically farmed soil sequesters about 28 percent more CO2. In addition, farming chemicals must be transported by air, train, or truck from factory to farm, which may be a long distance—further adding to the climate impact of conventional farms.

“The bulk of food-system emissions don’t come from food miles,” writes Anna Lappé in her book Diet for a Hot Planet (Bloombury, 2010). “Indeed, reducing our carbon footprint means considering more than just this distance from food to plate.”

Farm Chemicals Poison our Bodies

The President’s Cancer Panel Report, released in May, shocked the country by stating that 41 percent of all Americans will get cancer at some point in their lives. And, the report was the first from such a panel to link environmental causes to cancer: “The Panel was particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated,” the panelists wrote in a letter to President Obama.

Among the panel’s recommendations was one asking people to “[choose], to the extent possible, food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.”

Several studies have found possible and probable links between various pesticides and cancer. One of the most recent, published last February in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that farmers who sprayed one of six types of commonly used pesticides on their produce fields were twice as likely to contract the deadly skin cancer melanoma as those who did not. One of the six, Carbyl, is a major ingredient in the household pesticide Sevin.

In addition, parents and teachers across the country have long been scratching their heads over the rise in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). While many believe, with good cause, that doctors are simply overprescribing ADHD medication, a June 2010 study published in Pediatrics journal has found a potential link between chemical farming and the disorder.

Researchers from the University of Montreal found that children with above-average levels of organophosphate pesticides in their urine were twice as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD as those who did not. These pesticides are commonly used in chemical farming.

“An extensive body of evidence demonstrates that pesticides harm workers, damage the environment, and demonstrate toxicity to laboratory animals,” says Kari Hamerschlag, senior analyst at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG). “When you can’t find out anything about how a local food was grown, [our scientists] recommend choosing organic, which provides a guarantee that no pesticides or chemical fertilizers were used to grow it.”

Farm Chemicals Harm the Earth

The nation has been riveted to the catastrophic BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) projected that even without accounting for the spill, 2010’s “dead zone” in the Gulf would be larger than ever before.

A “dead zone” is an area of oxygen-depleted water in the ocean, caused by out-of-control algae blooms, in which practically no aquatic life can survive. The Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone has averaged about 6,000 square-miles for the past five years, but this year, it’s projected to reach anywhere from 6,500 to 7,800 square miles.

Why? NOAA scientists point to the excess nitrogen and phosphorus run-off into the Mississippi River from fertilizers used on farms, as well as sewage and animal waste contamination, all of which contribute to algae blooms.

That’s just one example out of the many studies on how chemical farming pollutes ecosystems, making it clear that the planet can’t sustain chemical farming indefinitely.

Organic Could Feed the World 

One of the main arguments against a worldwide shift to organics is the allegation that organic farms can’t possibly feed the world. However, a 2007 University of Michigan study looked at yield rates for different types of food grown both organically and non-organically. It found that “organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current population, and potentially even a larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base.” Part of the reason is that the average agricultural yield around the world is much lower than that of state-of the-art organic farming.

Plus, notes The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan in the New York Times, “40 percent of the world’s grain output today is fed to animals; 11 percent of the world’s corn and soybean crop is fed to cars and trucks, in the form of biofuels. Provided the developed world can cut its consumption of grain-based animal protein and ethanol, there should be plenty of food for everyone.”

Organic Just May Be Healthier 

A June 2009 study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine gave the chemical industry a boost by citing that organic food is nutritionally no better than conventional food. However, the EWG and the Organic Center separately reviewed the study and concluded that the London scientists were wrong.

The London scientists downplayed their findings that organics came out significantly better in three of the 13 nutrient categories they studied: Organics contained more beneficial phosphorus and titratable acids. And conventional foods contained more nitrogen, which may be linked to cancer. The London study also failed to take into account the health effects of additives and pesticide residues in conventional produce.

And other studies, such as 2003 research from the University of California–Davis, have found that some types of organic produce have been found to contain “significantly more” cancer-fighting antioxidants than conventional produce. 

Where Local Fits In

The local food movement isn’t just about food miles—it’s about the importance of asking questions about where your food comes from, and really connecting with your food and how it impacts your community. It’s a way to break free from corporate agriculture—and its chemicals and processed corn and soy end products—and support family farmers.

Green America has been a longtime advocate of local, independent businesses, and the reasons for that support hold true when it comes to local, independent farms: Buying local strengthens local communities.

Buying local is important, says Maria Rodale, author of Organic Manifesto (Rodale Books, 2010) and CEO of Rodale, Inc. But when it comes to food, buying organic has the edge—for now.

“Intellectual debate is hugely important, and the freedom to debate is what is great about America. But that freedom shouldn’t ever be at the expense of poisoning our children and the environment with farm chemicals,” says Rodale. “There comes a time when we all have to agree—or agree to agree on major points. There’s enough evidence to know that embracing organic is the right thing.”

Organic standards are strong enough, she says, that shoppers can trust the label when it comes to toxins.

It’s not perfect. The reality is that certified organic food can come from big agribusinesses, some of which have many of the problems of industrial agriculture—from the loss of biodiversity to raising animals on crowded fields. This may be organic, but it is not sustainable. To have a truly restorative and healthy food system, it must be organic and local.

However, because of the seriousness of the toxic chemical burden and climate footprint from conventional agriculture, Green America advises choosing organic when you can’t have it both ways.

“While organic standards are good, we must make them better,” says Rodale. “We must work together to create the best definition of what organic means, to include social justice and Fair Trade standards and humanely raised animals and more.”

When You Buy Food

Uniting behind organic doesn’t mean everyone should avoid non-organic food at farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangements. While a family farmer may not run a certified organic farm, s/he may come close. Many small-scale farmers work hard to minimize pesticide and fertilizer use, and some types of produce need very few chemicals to grow, even conventionally.

Ask questions, and write down the answers. Get the names of specific pesticides, look them up later on databases like and, and decide for yourself if these substances are things you want to eat.

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture says that income from CSAs and farmers’ markets help family farmers grow and diversify. With your encouragement, they might just use that income to travel further down the path to organic.

For the climate, the environment, and our health, it’s vital that the fractured factions of the sustainable food movement unite behind the organic banner. Then, one day, when we buy local to foster community resilience, we’ll also inevitably be buying organic—and everyone will have truly healthy, affordable, delicious food, grown without poisons.

From Green American Magazine Issue