Imagine you are at the supermarket and there are three groups of grapes displayed in front of you. The first is Organic, grown in California. The second is imported from Chile. The third is from a local farm in Connecticut. Which would you choose? Many people would instinctually pick the organic grapes as the best choice, but may only have a vague idea as to why. Read on for some thought-provoking reasons to buy not only organic, but local food, as well.
Let’s first consider organically grown food and what that means. In order for agricultural products to carry the “organic” seal, the land they are grown on must have gone through a three-year transition period to ensure that crops are free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. In addition, the use of irradiation, sewage sludge, and genetically modified organisms is strictly prohibited.
The most obvious reason to buy organically-grown food is that is it is not sprayed with pesticides. In order to avoid ingesting these toxic chemicals, ourselves, it is not entirely a matter of washing them off the produce (although this is always helpful and should be done) because the pesticides can be absorbed into the food, leaving trace residues.
Another important and perhaps lesser-known reason to buy organic food is for nutritional superiority. Studies show that organic produce can contain significantly higher levels of some nutrients (including vitamin C, zinc and iron) and antioxidants than its conventional counterparts. This difference in nutritional quality may come down to the soil fertility of organically-grown foods.
The nitrogen present in composted soil is released slowly, allowing plants to grow at a normal rate, with their nutrients in balance. In contrast, conventional fertilizers used on commercial farms will cause produce to grow very rapidly, but with lower levels of some nutrients.
Although it may not always be possible to buy organic, you can still shop wisely by avoiding conventional produce that are most heavily contaminated with pesticides, aptly called the “dirty dozen.” See the list, below, as well as the 12 least contaminated crops:
12 Most Contaminated
Peach (highest pesticide load)
Sweet Bell Pepper
12 Least Contaminated
Onion (lowest pesticide load)
Sweet Corn (frozen)
Sweet Peas (frozen)
Now let us consider the “local” part of the equation. Several studies have shown that food travels an average distance of 1,500 miles from farm to store shelf to plate. In a week-long delay (or longer) from harvest to dinner table, the nutritional content of produce sharply plummets. The produce sold at local farms and farmer’s markets is often harvested within a day or two, if not the same day, providing superior freshness, taste and nutritional quality. Buying locally also offers great variety. Large farms that ship long distances grow only tougher varieties that are known to better withstand packing and shipping and that have a long shelf life. Many varieties of plants don’t meet these requirements, so there is little genetic diversity in the produce that you’ll find on the store shelf. Local farms, in contrast, grow many different and unusual varieties of plants with their outstanding flavors and vibrant colors.
It is worth noting that although not every local farm can call themselves organic due to the standards mentioned above, many local growers do not use the kinds of chemicals that big commercial farms do, and when they do use pesticides, they do so sparingly. At the very least, when you are buying from a local farm you can find out first hand about their growing and spraying methods.
Lastly (but certainly not least!), buying from local and organic growers is one important way to contribute to the increasingly urgent issues of energy conservation and environmental protection. Buying locally grown, organic food decreases dependence on petroleum–a non-renewable energy source–by negating the need for petroleum-derived pesticides and fertilizers, and by lowering the need for gasoline used to truck produce thousands of miles. Additionally, soil erosion; pesticide contamination of soil, air and water, and nitrate loading of waterways and wells are just some of the problems associated with modern predominate farming methods. Organic growers and well-managed local farms use specific practices that protect the soil, air and water, as well as sequestering a notable percentage of carbon emissions from automobiles and industry.
To return to the question about which grapes are best, above, the conventional Chilean group is clearly the worst choice, as it is one of the “dirty dozen.” From there, it is not as clear and depends on several factors. The good news is, there are local and organic growers right here in CT!
For a list of Connecticut’s organic farmer’s markets, go to http://www.ctnofa.org/FarmersMarkets.htm. For a more comprehensive list of CT Farmers’ markets, visit www.ctgrown.gov. Click “Farmers’ Markets by County,” and “Winter Farmers’ Markets.”