Tomorrow is Earth Day, and what better way to celebrate than to look out how we can contribute to the well-being of our planet with the choices we make everyday? Eating organic and local benefits the environment in a number of ways, and it just so happens that it is also good for our own personal well-being, so it’s a win-win!
First let’s look at the effects of eating organic.
Organic food is better for the soil, air and water. Pollution from non-organic farming harms not only humans, but also birds, bees and animals. Organic produce contains very few pesticides that can harm your health and in some studies have been shown to contain higher amounts of nutrients. Organic animal products do not contain growth hormones and antibiotics. Consuming antibiotics in animals contributes to antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria that are then harder to cure.
Organic foods are not grown from GMO (genetically modified organisms) seeds. Although though there is little scientific evidence that GMO foods are categorically harmful for humans, there is some evidence that glyphosate, an herbicide called Roundup, can be harmful. This weed killer pesticide is used on corn and soybeans grown from seeds that are genetically modified to survive glyphosate spray. That being said, there are some genetic modifications used to breed other crops, for example larger or sweeter apples, that may not cause harm.
Read more about what to look for when buying organic and non-GMO in our previous blogpost here.
Why buy “local”?
When you buy directly from farmers at your local farmers market, you become an empowered shopper. You can ask the farmers how their foods are grown, what type of seeds are used, if the animals such as cows and chickens are humanely raised (cage free, pasture raised, grass or grain fed). Even if crops are not “certified organic” do they use pesticides? Keep in mind that organic certification is expensive and not all small farmers bother to get this even if they do not use herbicides and pesticides in growing.
Buying local is also better for the environment:
- Poultry and livestock raised by small farms generally result in fewer health and environmental impacts. Large AFOs (animal feeding operations that cannot even be called farms at this point) for the most part disregard animal welfare, rely on chemicals, medicines and hormones that pollute the environment.
- Your carbon footprint is smaller if you eat what is in season from local sources rather than from sources that need to be transported from thousands of miles away. Also the longer the time between picked to table, the more nutrients are lost.
- Shopping at a farmers market or with a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture), you can get “farm to table” produce that is usually picked at the peak of ripeness and within a day of sale. A CSA consists of one or more farmers and many individual purchasers who pledge financial support for the farming operation, sometimes by subscribing to purchase vegetables throughout the growing season. This not only affects your carbon footprint but also your taste buds – those super-fresh fruits and veggies really do taste better and are at their peak nutrient level!
- Local foods promote a safer food supply and reduce waste. The more steps between you and the source of your food, the more chance for contamination and spoilage. The potential for contamination happens during harvesting, washing, shipping and distribution. According to the NRDC, 40% of food produced in the US is wasted. This spans the entire life cycle of the food, from farming procedures to how we throw away foods in our homes, but food lost or spoiled in transport is a meaningful part of that. One estimate shows that 1 in 7 truckloads of perishables delivered to supermarkets is thrown away. This food obviously could be going to feed millions of hungry people in the US, and this wastage also uses up water, chemicals, energy and land.
- Farmers who produce for local markets have the freedom and demand to produce a greater variety of produce and livestock, promoting biodiversity and soil health. In a mega-industrial agriculture system, less variety is grown and only fruits & veggies that are specifically bred to survive packing transport are offered.
- Local foods help build communities—at CSAs, farmers markets, farms and gardens. Farmers as well as like-minded customers all come together around growing, buying and cooking local foods. Buying local also supports the local economy and local farms, helping them to stay viable in a world dominated by large food behemoths.
Although I am an advocate of buying local for all of the above reasons, there are some disadvantages. The main reason people don’t buy local is because it is more expensive and less convenient than shopping at a grocery store. In reality, it costs more for the local farmer to grow produce or livestock than large grocery store providers, so they do charge more. In terms of convenience, shopping is limited to market or CSA days and to spring and summer season in colder climates. Buying from the farmers market usually means going to additional stores to pick up other groceries and household staples.
Overall, I’d say buy local and be adventurous as much as you can given your budget and circumstances. Some stores like Whole Foods do make a point to buy from farmers that are local to each store, so seek out those products when possible. Try new vegetables that are locally in season. Be curious about how and where your produce is grown and how animals are treated and fed. Be an informed consumer and be aware of how you can take care of yourself and take care of the planet.