Farm Fresh Perspectives: Face-off: Local vs. organic

You’ve heard me talk a lot about the benefits of organic food and agriculture—decreased agrochemical inputs, increased biodiversity and improved farm profitability. Last week, I talked a lot about eating locally—knowing how your food was raised, supporting the farm economy in your immediate area and reducing your environmental footprint. The reasons sound pretty similar, and both local and organic foods are becoming increasingly available at farmers’ markets and quality natural foods retailers. So, if faced with the choice, should one decide to buy local or to buy organic? Well, as usual, the answer isn’t quite that simple.

Organic foods are required by law to be certified as such by a USDA-accredited certification agency. These agencies, for a fee, provide for inspection and monitoring of individual farms and food handling operations, such as food transporters, manufacturers and retailers, wishing to be approved for certified organic operation. The agency awards its clients a legal document as proof of organic certification, which helps allow for extensive traceability of food products from the farm to the consumer.

In theory, every person, object, or substance that comes in contact with an organic food product should be approvable for organic food handling, and cleaned to a certain specification.

For instance, to produce a certified organic meat product, the animal must have certified organic pastures, feed and health products, be slaughtered in a processing plant that is certified organic, and transported in ways that will not compromise the animal’s organic integrity. Retail stores are seldom certified organic, but they are expected to comply with certain handling standards for organic items, or they could be subject to hefty fines.

Now, locally-grown foods, if not certified organic, are not subjected to the same kind of third-party, federally-mandated scrutiny as their organic counterparts. However, if something is raised nearby, it is often quite easy to do your own inspection and “certification” of quality. Farmers are generally quite agreeable to having visitors on their farms at convenient times, especially if they are growing food products they will be selling directly to consumers.

As a matter of fact, many farmers in the direct and local marketing business are quite excited to have visitors to their farms. It allows farmers to educate their customers about the practices used to grow their food, provides positive word-of-mouth publicity from satisfied visitors, and it gives them a chance to show off their farmstead. Customers can then provide the farmer feedback. This way, customers can choose to personally vouch for particular farmers as sources of quality food, but the farm does not incur the cost, paperwork and inconvenience of organic certification.

Some of the more exclusive stores, restaurants, and markets will only allow a farmer to sell his or her products if they are certified organic by the USDA. However, the majority of consumers and food businesspeople are more concerned with high-quality taste and freshness of food products, along with a certain standard of environmental stewardship, than they are with organic certification. Some of these people do choose organic products because they contend that organic products do indeed taste better, but foods that are sourced locally can prove to be even fresher and tastier.

For example, let’s say a restaurateur is looking for wonderful Brandywine tomatoes, an heirloom tomato variety that has been selected for its great taste and pink coloration. However, heirloom tomatoes are very easily bruised and are notoriously susceptible to plant diseases. So, if the restaurateur decides to buy organic tomatoes from a corporate vendor in another part of the country, it is highly unlikely that he or she will be able to find Brandywines because they are too fragile to stand up to the stresses of transport. The tomatoes that are available for sale are probably picked at an immature stage, so they bruise less easily and will have a longer shelf life.

If sourced locally, Brandywines are much more likely to be harvested at their peak of ripeness, thus guaranteeing the best flavor, and transported carefully and immediately to the restaurant by the farmer. Still, are those tomatoes guaranteed to be produced without most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers? You see, it is a trade-off.

So, organic food from any part of the world supports certain improvements to our global agriculture system, while local food improves the viability of nearby farmers and communities. Therefore, local conventional food is good, and “global” organic food is good, but if you can find food that is both organic and locally-grown, that ought to get you the best food with the most overall benefits for yourself and for your neighbors.

Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or

From the March 1-7, 2006, issue

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