Although there is no clear cut answer to this question, there are several factors (described below) that can help you make a more informed food choice.
Comparing Organic and Conventional Production Methods
Most U.S. farms are “conventional”, where foods are often produced using synthetic pesticides, synthetic or sewage sludge-based fertilizers, ionizing radiation, genetic modified seed, antibiotics or hormones. In contrast, in organic production, food is required to be produced without any of these substances. “Organic” refers to a process of food production that is monitored by the government and must adhere to the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) rules. The NOP rules for organic farming mandate land management practices that conserve and protect fertile soil, promote biodiversity, and keep the water clean. For more information visit the NOP web site at: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop
Comparing Carbon Footprints
Conventional farms use more energy and emit more greenhouse gases (GHG) than organic farms. Many people want to lower the “Carbon Footprint” of their food. This is a measure of carbon dioxide (the major GHG) production from field to plate. A variety of factors affect the carbon footprint, including: pesticide and synthetic fertilizer use (these are the biggest energy users), processing, travel distance and mode of transportation (plane, truck, car, boat, train). A new study finds the lion’s share of the carbon footprint occurs in food production (83%), transport accounts for only 11%. The energy used transporting organic foods is offset by the energy saved growing foods without synthetic chemicals and fertilizers. To calculate your diet’s carbon footprint go to the Bon Appetit Management Company’s website tool athttp://www.eatlowcarbon.org/# .
The Issue of Genetically Modified Food
Another consideration is the use of genetically modified (GM) seed. Some scientists and organizations are concerned with potential risks to both the environment and human health from GM foods. The NOP bans GM seed in organic farming. In contrast, GM seed is widely used in conventional farming, particularly in the production of corn and soy. Conventionally produced GM corn and soy are used extensively as livestock feed. In contrast, the NOP mandates 100% organic feed for animals used to produce organic milk, chicken, beef, and pork.
Is the Farm Sustainable?
Sustainably managed farms take care of the soil and water and treat animals humanely. A local farm does not always mean a sustainable farm, but often it is. Local, small farms tend to be more diverse and much easier on the land than large conventional farms. A good way to evaluate this is to learn about the farm that produced your food. The next time you are at the farmer’s market talk to the farmer. Even though the farm’s food is not labeled as “organic”, the farmer may not be able to afford the expense of becoming certified, the food may still be grown without synthetic chemicals and artificial synthetic fertilizers.
The Importance of Promoting a Local, Community-Based Food System
The importance of a local based community system is probably one of the most important reasons to support local food and to consider in making local food choices. Below is a table summarizing some of the key benefits of choosing local as well as a summary of the benefits for organic described above.
Reasons to Choose Local
- Support small to medium size farms versus corporate owned farms. Promotes the creation of community food systems.
- Often tastes better and may contain more nutrients because it is fresh and has not traveled as far. Foods lose flavor and nutrients over time.
- Local, small to medium size farms tend to be more diverse and plant a wider variety of food species and foods that are bred to survive best in your local community.
- Promotes an increase in the number of people with farm skills (we have had a drastic decline in this in last 50 years).
- Supports the local economy (job retention, more money flowing within the community).
- Helps keep working farmland in production rather than being developed.
- Increases local food security (in case of interruptions in supply from the global system).
Reasons to Choose Organic
- In comparison to conventional agriculture, organic does not use synthetic nitrogen or sewage-sludge based fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, ionizing radiation, antibiotics or hormones.
- Organic agriculture uses less energy and produces fewer greenhouse gases than conventional.
- Health reasons: studies have shown that pesticide residues, and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers may increase our risk for certain cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, Diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease. In addition, organic meat production may reduce the development of human antibiotic resistance.
- Organic agriculture mandates land stewardship and conserves and protects the soil. Healthy soil leads to healthier foods.
- Studies are showing that some organic fruits, vegetables and juices have more nutrients and beneficial phytochemicals than their conventionally grown counterparts.
References Carbon Footprint:
1. Weber CL, Matthews HS. Food-Miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2008:42;3508-3513.
References Genetically Modified Food:
1. Dona A, Arcanitoyannis IS. Health risks of genetically modified foods. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 2009;49:164-175.
2. American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM). Genetically Modified Foods – Position Paper. Available at: http://www.aaemonline.org/gmopost.html
3. Benachour N, Seralini G-E. Glyphosate formulations induce apoptosis and necrosis in human umbilical, embryonic, and placental cells. Chem. Res. Toxicol. 2009;22:97-105.
4. Seralini G-E, Cellier D, Spiroux de Vendomois J. New analysis of a rat feeding study with a genetically modified maize reveals signs of hepatorenal toxicity. Archives of Environmental Contamination. 2007;52:596-602.