There is much confusion surrounding the debate between conventional, local, and organic produce. There is no “right” answer, per se; the choice is more personal. In a perfect world, the ideal strategy is to exclusively eat locally grown organic produce. But the reality is, most of us lack access to local organic food. And the cost can be prohibitive. Create a produce-purchasing strategy that takes into consideration your life: your access to local and organic produce, your food budget and, perhaps most importantly, your personal health goals. This will cut the confusion and give you peace of mind about what you’re putting in your body.
Begin to craft your own personalized strategy with a produce education. Let’s start with basic definitions. Conventional produce is grown on a farm that depends on synthetic chemicals, such as pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, ionizing radiation or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), to grow their crop. Organic produce is grown on a farm that joins with nature to conserve and maintain water and soil quality, minimize health threats to farm workers, and encourage biodiversity (in which a natural variety of plant life positively affects the soil) and a sustainable biosystem, without altering or controlling natural processes with synthetic chemicals. Local produce is a bit trickier, as it lacks an official definition. Generally, local food is grown or produced, processed, and then sold within a specific radius of the farm. Companies and individuals define local food on their own terms. Some may define the distance by miles, for example, 100 miles between farm and table; while others may specify that the food should stay within state lines from growth to sale. Regardless of the specific definition, local food indicates the shortest time possible between farm and table.
It’s also important to learn about synthetic chemicals and their effects on farming and the produce you eat. Conventional farms have depended on synthetic chemicals to grow produce since the advent of widespread chemical farming. These chemicals kill plant pests and disease to mitigate crop damage and increase crop production. This is effective in increasing crop production and decreasing a farmer’s workload, but the chemicals often leech into the flesh of the produce, and pollute the soil and groundwater in which the produce grows. The tainted soil and water goes on to pollute future crops grown in that soil. The effect of chemicals on produce is widely debated. However, various studies reveal that chemicals used on conventional farms, most specifically pesticides, are linked to a vast array of health hazards ranging from headaches, skin irritation and nausea all the way to cancer, ADHD, and infertility.
Organic farms are held to strict and regularly monitored standards to maintain their status, so there is no question—organic produce is practically free from chemical-related health concerns. In contrast, the use of chemicals varies on local farms. Many local farmers are not officially certified as organic due to the costs involved in achieving this certification; however, they often follow organic-like practices. One of the perks of buying produce from a farmer’s market is the opportunity to speak to the farmers directly about their growing practices. If local produce is sold at your local health or specialty store, often you can check on the farm through its website. In my experience, local farms are more than happy to answer questions over the phone or by email.
Another consideration is the nutritional value of produce. Nutrients differ between conventional and organic produce as well as organic and local produce. Chemicals at conventional farms may deplete many important minerals and nutrients in produce. Recent studies published in peer-reviewed journals indicate that conventional farming practices negatively affect nutrient values. Specifically, organic produce shows a 60% increase in key antioxidants, and significantly lower levels of toxic heavy metals. It can be assumed that local food grown with fewer or no chemicals also have higher nutritional value than conventional produce.
Local food comes out on top—over both conventional and organic produce—when the organic produce is shipped from abroad. All produce grown abroad—organic included—is picked, washed, and often sealed prior to the journey to its international destination. This preparation, plus transit, time spent in the store, then in the refrigerator, adds up to a significant time from farm to table. As produce ages, the nutrient value declines. One of the key benefits of local food is the short time from farm to market to table. Think about it: an organic tomato from Mexico may have been picked a week prior to reaching your grocery store, while a local tomato was most likely picked the day before reaching your grocery store or farmer’s market. So when comparing nutrient value between local produce and organic produce shipped from abroad, local produce wins as the most nutrient-dense choice.
Finding a balance between the least chemical-laden produce and the most nutrient-rich produce is a solid strategy. Make your own strategy or use my produce-buying formula as inspiration to simplify your produce plan, support your health, and keep your wallet happy.
- When buying conventional, seek items least affected by pesticides. The Environmental Worker’s Group (EWG), an environmental health advocacy and research organization in the United States, publishes a list that defines this produce. Find the “Clean Fifteen” list on the EWG website or download the app for your phone.
- For produce most affected by pesticides, buy organic. The EWG publishes a list that defines the “Dirty Dozen” (produce most affected by pesticides). Find this list on the EWG website or download the app on your phone for handy referral in the store.
- Buy local produce from trusted farmers. The most healthy and cost-effective strategy is to buy in-season produce from farmers who use organic-like growing practices. This way, you benefit from maximum nutrients and minimal chemicals, while supporting your local farmer.