Local versus Organic Food… which to choose?

Ever since a celebrated “100 Mile Diet” experiment, eating local has become more and more popular. Another fad to some – a responsible and purposeful decision by others. I myself didn’t really realize the benefits of eating local until a visit to my doctor a number of years ago. When we were talking about fruits and veggies, I proudly announced my commitment to buy mostly (not all) certified organic. I think I expected his response to be one of pride, something like, “wow, that’s great! I wish all my patients would recognize how important it is to eat organic.” But to my surprise, his response was slightly more tame as he told me that it’s always a fine balance and difficult decision to make between eating local and eating organic, because while organic may have fewer pesticides, local will have greater nutritional value.

Why Eat Organic?

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG),

 The growing consensus among scientists is that small doses of pesticides and other chemicals can cause lasting damage to human health, especially during fetal development and early childhood.

An aquaintance of mine who works in the regulatory compliance field once tried to convince me that Canadian produce contains such minute traces of pesticides, that it couldn’t possibly have any adverse effects on your health. This is totally false in my opinion, based on first hand experience. As a child, I broke out in full body hives from eating berries, which an allergist later confirmed was due to pesticide allergies. And to this day, conventionally grown celery makes my mouth and tongue numb. (I even ate “organic” celery once that made my tongue numb… reason being that it was not “certified organic” and likely still had pesticides or was from a transitional farm.)

Even beyond the direct benefits to our health, organically grown produce removes a lot of crap from our environment upstream. Tons and tons of chemicals, pesticides and toxins are used to spray conventionally grown produce; much of which ends up washed into our rivers, lakes and oceans where they can wreak havok on wildlife and marine life. You see, organic is not only about you – it’s about our planet too. (As a side note, cotton is one of the biggest pesticide hogs in agriculture today.)

So, now that we’ve established that yes, indeed, there is a difference between conventionally grown and organically grown food… and even that there is a difference between organic and certified organic. How about local?

Why buy local?

There are so many reasons to buy local, that I hardly even know where to start. For one, it travels shorter distances, which means less fuel has been used to transport it. Since it spends less time in transit before meeting your scrutinizing gaze, it can be picked later in its life when it is more ripe and has greater nutritional value. And of course, it has lost fewer nutrients in its shorter trip to the table.

Buying local also supports your local economy, your local farmers, and your local community. Let’s face it, oil is not an infinite resource, and it is only getting more expensive. Eventually, we will have to change the way that we live, and the world will be getting a whole lot smaller. Why not be ahead of the game, and support it now?

Finally, when produce is grown in foreign countries like Mexico, Argentina or Columbia, then exported to North America, those countries are not only exporting fruits and veggies… they are exporting precious water. Food exportation is contributing to the depletion of local aquifer systems and to the global water crisis. So from this point of view, it’s not even good enough to buy BC apples when you live in Toronto… you in fact want to search for produce that was grown on the same aquifer system as you.

So now what? Local or organic?

I’m fortunate enough to live in Toronto where, if you look hard enough, you can actually find local organic produce. But when it comes down to deciding between one or the other, I generally refer to the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list. This is a list of the 12 fruits and veggies with the heaviest average pesticide load. Next to this list is also the “Clean 15” which lists 15 fruits and veggies with the lowest average pesticide load.

If you choose certified organic varieties of the dirty dozen, and enjoy local clean 15’s, you’re pretty much set with a good balance of both organic and local. And, as I recommend in my book, Where Do I Start?, one great way to avoid developing food sensitivities is to eat a variety of food. So be daring once in a while and try that fruit, veggie, or grain that you’ve never had before. Most importantly, enjoy your food in good company and good humour :)

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