Local vs. Organic: What Matters More?

When it comes to choosing between the two, what's more important: buying local, or buying organic? An expert breaks it down.
local vs organic

Every week, I sit down to create a family food menu and plan out my grocery shopping adventure. I have a few regular factors that play into my decision about where I’ll do my shopping, like price and recipe, but more and more I map out my trip according to who carries the best organic options vs. where I can buy local products.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve gone back and forth in the debate between local and organic food. Which is healthier? What’s more cost effective? And where can I get what I need, when I need it?

Rather than keep guessing at what matters more, I decided to talk to Dr. Michael Smith with The Carolinas Natural Health Center outside of Charlotte, North Carolina to get a better grasp on things.

Why the Good Stuff Matters

“The food we eat is the foundation for our health,” Dr. Smith said. “It’s where our nutrients come from and can influence so many aspect of our body, like our digestion system. We all know the digestive system is where our food is broken down, but it’s also where the nutrients are absorbed and where our immune system is regulated. So these food choices you’re making are playing a huge role in your immune functions.”

Dr. Smith also explained that our digestive system has a big impact on the neurotransmitters that affect our mood and mental functions. In fact, our intestines have the highest concentration of neurons outside of the mind—which is why they’re sometimes called the “second brain.”

Upon learning that tidbit, a few things started to make sense, like how I feel bad when I eat bad.

“So we need to pay attention to what goes in the body,” Dr. Smith continued. “A proper diet should consist of unprocessed whole foods and items that aren’t packaged and don’t have labels. Things like fruit and vegetables and lean, quality proteins. Processing foods not only strips nutrients, it also adds non-food ingredients like flavor enhancers and preservatives our bodies never had to process before. Combined, these increase the toxic load in our body and can disrupt those neurons and the delicate balance of our system.”

With your mental and physical health on the line, it’s easy to see why what you eat is a decision you shouldn’t take lightly.

The Case for Organic

“Organic allows you to limit your exposure to pesticides, herbicides, and hormones,” Dr. Smith said.

He went on to add that while many people associate produce with the word, organic animal products are a very good place to invest your grocery money. “Animals are exposed for a longer amount of time to hormones and antibiotics, “ he said. “It makes sense they’ll have a higher concentration of these toxins in their body and the products they produce.” He added that the higher on the food chain an animal is, the more exposed it will be to these toxins. In short, buying organic drastically curbs the amount of chemicals you consume.

Choosing organic can also provide you with a deeper bench of selection in off-seasons. Want strawberries in November? No doubt there’s an organic option for you at your local grocery. Foods from foreign growers are held to the same USDA standards our American farmers face, and organic food producers can often be found growing a wide variety of any one product: think of fields of a dozen different kinds of cucumbers or tomatoes. On the other hand, local farmers can be limited in space, cost, and employees, and may only grow one variety of any such item. Variety is important as it ensures the continuation of diversity in our food products.

The Argument for Local

“Foods grown locally are usually more nutritious,” explained Dr. Smith. “Fruits and vegetables are allowed to ripen on the vine and are often picked a few hours before purchase. Organic foods are picked weeks in advance, so they haven’t had a chance to mature, then they’re boxed and shipped from far off places like South America.”

If you have concerns about local vendors using pesticides, you’re in the unique position to speak with them about their growing processes. Many local growers even welcome customers to their farms so they can learn first-hand about the work that goes into producing healthy food.

What’s more, while some local growers may not label their food as USDA Organic, that doesn’t mean they aren’t growing organic products. In many instances, local farmers are going beyond the USDA standards prescribed to organics, but have not sought out the organic certification for two reasons:

  1. Massive costs associated with the USDA certification process
  2. Their own standards are so high, that saying their foods are USDA-certified organic would actually be less impressive than the reality

It should also be mentioned that the environmental footprint of local farming is dramatically lower than its organic counterpart. Driving food 20 miles instead of 10,000 miles saves on gas and transportation-related emissions.

The Verdict

If you have to choose, my advice is to buy local. When you buy local, you’re taking an active role in the consumer process by supporting regional business, and you’re getting healthier food with more nutrients. However, don’t abandon organic completely. There will be times when your eating habits don’t follow the regional growing season, and that’s when the massive organic farms will come to your rescue.

Fortunately, buying local has becoming easier in recent years, as remarkable growth in hobby and specialized farms has led to many more options from local cultivators. In 1994, there were just 1,700 registered local or farmers markets listed with the USDA Market Directory; last year, that number was closer to 9,000. Local farmers are rising to the demand of consumers while becoming more accessible.

Of course, everyone needs to choose the best food source for them, and what works one day might not be right the next. What’s most important is to do your research and choose whatever fits best with your values, budget, and health needs.

Make it WayBetter

Find a small, local farm near you to support! Whether you find them online or through a farmer's market, try to get to know the farmer and learn all you can about their process. You may be surprised at how much knowing your food changes your eating experience!