Organic watermelon radishes from Hairston Creek Farm

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Local vs. Organic

Unlike most people, it is usually pretty easy for me to suddenly make a decision to make a change. Ten or so years ago I decided to start cooking healthy food after my brother gave me a collage of pictures for Christmas that included a picture of myself in a bikini when I was 16, next to another picture of myself 20 years later while wearing a very baggy sweatshirt and stuffing my face with cake. Soon after, I bought my first issue of Cooking Light and started cooking only healthy nutritious food. It took a year but I lost the 15 pounds I had gained after having children and have remained the same size ever since.
Several years ago, when organic food started becoming more available, I decided to start buying mostly organic - I am a chemist and know a little something about pesticides and herbicides. I decided to take small steps only because my husband was somewhat resistant to the change due to the increased cost, not because I had any trouble with the decision. I started with the dirty dozen, which are the 12 fruits and vegetables that contain the most pesticide residue because among these are spinach, bell peppers, apples, and strawberries which are foods we eat often in our house. Little by little I started buying more and more organic foods until it got to the point where no longer did I buy any conventional food products if I could help it. I then started to buy organic cosmetics (shampoos, face cream, etc) and household cleaners. I would say that almost everything I buy now is organic. Easy.
After reading In Defense of Food, I decided once again to make a change. With a few exceptions, our family would no longer eat processed foods. This was the most labor intensive change of all. We make our own bread, crackers, and jam. We no longer buy cereals or breakfast bars. We make our own ice cream. We spend Sundays mostly cooking and baking.
All of these decisions were easy for me to make (although not so easy for the rest of my family) because although more labor intensive and more expensive, nobody could really argue with me that I was making bad choices when making these decisions. Eating less preservatives and additives, less pesticides and herbicides, more whole, nutrient-rich foods could only be better for our health.
When I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which advocates eating locally produced foods, I jumped at the chance to make yet another change for the better. But wait...local does not necessarily mean pesticide-free. So, what is better, local or organic? Obviously, buying local organic produce will be the best choice by far. However, local organic produce is not always available. So, what to do? I started going to the local farmer's markets and talking to all of the farmers before I bought their produce. Many are not certified organic but say they grow their produce following organic practices. Buying their produce was relatively easy for me (although I had to put some trust in folks that I did not really know). Some, however, will very openly admit that they use herbicides and in some cases pesticides when they have to. Buying their produce has proven harder for me. For a few weeks, I was able to do it. Then a friend of mine gave me a book for my birthday. The book is called The Organic Manifesto and advocates, as the name implies, buying organic. I have to admit, I reverted.
You will find much information that will make a very strong case for conventionally produced, local, seasonal foods being better for the environment than organically produced foods flown in from the other end of the world. So, I try, really I do, to make the best choice that I can. I will buy organic strawberries from California before I will buy organic mangoes from Chile. California is not local but is closer to me. You see, I could argue that the carbon footprint made bringing those strawberries to me is smaller than the one made by the local farmer growing the strawberries in Marble Falls. It's not that the choice is simple, it's simply that I would prefer to eat my corn tortillas without a side of Atrazine.
So this is the best I can do: I go to the farmer's market every Saturday and buy as much produce as I can that has been produced chemically-free. I then get in my car and drive to Whole Foods and buy the rest of our food there. Not much, just some.
Sometimes I think that in my previous life I must have been a yo-yo.

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