Organic vs local food – which is best?

We buy and consume every day a large variety of foods: fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, bakery, drinks, frozen foods, yogurts, preserves, and so on. The USDA calculated in 2011 that the average American ate 1996lbs (905kg) of food per year. This is about 38lbs (17kg) of food per week and per person, around 6% of our expenses and $2,392 per year on food. In other words, buying food is big business!

Food shopping is also an opportunity to question how we should shop, especially when trying to be a responsible consumer.

How can I buy better, to suit my lifestyle and my family?
Which one is best, organic vs local food?
Is organic really better for health?
Are organic products more expensive?
How to identify the exact source of fresh produce?
Have they been treated with pesticides?
Should I choose honey from my home country or South America?
Or just from anywhere, as long as it’s fair trade?
Is it sensible to buy organic green beans from Kenya?
Are there producers who can supply me in my area?
How to be sure that fair trade money goes to the producer?

And many, many more questions.

In this post, we’re trying to shed some light on buying sustainable food, organic farming, local production, and we’ll add fair trade here. The idea is to give you, as a consumer, the tools to be able to make the best choice for you and your family. Based on where you live, what is available around and how you eat. Based also on your individual choices and the importance you give to the environmental and/or ethical and/or health aspects.

What is organic food?

Organic farming is a mode of production based on cultural and livestock practices respectful of natural balances. Thus, it excludes the use of synthetic chemicals, GMOs, and limits the use of non-organic inputs. “Inputs” means anything added to the land: fertilizers, pesticides… Organic farming follows strict specifications. Those favor, at all stages, the respect of the farmer, of nature, of the animals, of our environment and of the general health.

In organic agriculture, synthetic chemicals are not allowed, animals have enough space to live, the systematic addition of antibiotics to animal feed is prohibited, and so on. In practice, organic producers will use the following:

  • Long and varied rotations, food autonomy for their herds (link to the ground),
  • The economy of inputs,
  • Risk prevention, for animal and crop health or weed control.
USDA organic logoCertification and labeling

Products from organic farming are controlled and can be identified thanks to specific labels.

Organic labels differ depending on:

  • the type of products they cover (food, textiles, etc.),
  • the social, ecological and economic criteria checked,
  • the inspection body granting the certification.

Other private logos identify “brands” of organic products.

Us organic logoSome numbers. Organic represents between 1 and 3% of the total cultivated surfaces in the US. This may not sound like much, but organic farmland experienced a double-digit growth over the last few years. And the sales of organic products, food and non-food, have grown much faster than standard products overall.

Side note – However, the demand for organic products far exceeds the current 1-3% of certified organic soil in the US. To be certified organic, a produce farmer will have to transition for 3 years. This period is required to allow for the soil to be rid of any chemical residues and to go back to an organic state of health. This deters a lot of farmers, and a large proportion of organic food is imported to meet consumer demand.

 Some large producers, like General Mills, have heard their consumers demand for more organic products. They are now increasing their range, encouraging more farmers to make the transition to organic.

Is organic more expensive?

Yes, organic products are usually more expensive, but not always. Let’s clarify this:

  • The extra cost is due to a smaller production scale and sometimes increased labor costs. Indeed, the cost of transporting imported products is sometimes offset by cheaper labor. A fair trade label could guarantee the social conditions of production, at increased cost.
  • Studies show that households who shop in specialized organic grocery stores or directly from the producer spend less money on food. Why? Because they are more in tune with their real needs.
  • We underestimate the price of conventional foods because it does not take into account their environmental and health impacts. For example, organic foods contain fewer pesticides, residues of veterinary drugs and nitrates. This reduces their water pollution control costs. Source – FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).
  • Some organic products are more expensive than their non-organic counterparts, like meat. The solution here might be to consume less meat but of much better quality!
  • Organic meat and vegetables do not melt or dry up like “traditional” foods and are richer in nutrients, containing from 20% to 75% extra vitamins, proteins, trace elements, mineral salts…

Related: the Dirty Dozen list or when to buy organic


The case for local food

Fruit and vegetable marketThe “ideal” product would be a product where the raw material would be produced and processed locally. It would be directly sold by the producer to consumers according to the concept of “short food supply chain”. This makes it possible:

  • to reduce the transport and storage of the products,
  • to better remunerate the producer, since there are no intermediaries,
  • and to create a direct contact as well as a relation of trust with the producer.
Local food can take many forms.

The most common is probably the purchase of local products through conventional distribution channels (grocery stores, supermarkets, etc.). To promote the short food supply chain, we can turn to:

  • collective purchase groups, who collectively manage the purchase of local products.
  • solidarity purchase groups who voluntarily support certain producers.
  • direct purchase from the producer on a market or at the place of production.



What is fair trade?

Fair trade USAFair Trade products counted just a few thousands of products 20 years ago. You can now count over 200 million fairly traded products in multiple stores and outlets. They can be now found through fair trade organizations, committed stores, or even supermarkets.

According to the World Fair Trade Organization:

“Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency, and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South.

 Fair Trade organizations have a clear commitment to Fair Trade as the principal core of their mission. They, backed by consumers, are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade.”

Fair Trade AmericaThe basic principle of fair trade…

is the guarantee given to small producers to commercialize their products at prices that cover the costs of sustainable production from both a social and environmental point of view.

It is also a guarantee of relative price stability. As well as the implementation of favorable conditions of payment. And even pre-financing opportunities. These prevent farmers and tradesmen from having to sell their products short or getting loans from predatory lenders.

Fair Trade products and organizations follow a set of criteria. They are also recognizable by specific labels, logos, and brands (see opposite).

Tips for a sustainable clean diet

The good news is, you don’t have to choose between the three. Organic farming, fair trade and a diet based on local products are an integral part of a sustainable diet. These concepts reinforce each other.

The notion of fair trade implies requirements of economic and social guarantees for small producers. Like the payment of a fair price, multi-annual commercial contracts or the granting of development premiums. Those requirements go in parallel with strict environmental practices (ban on GMOs, environmental impact reduction, sustainable management of natural resources, etc.).

The term “local product” refers only to the notion of proximity from the place of production. Despite common beliefs, a local product provides no environmental, health and social guarantees. Unfortunately, the environmental impact of agricultural food products depends more on the mode of production than the transport itself.

This goes in favor of organic products:

  • They do not require fertilizers or synthetic pesticides (whose production generates significant greenhouse gas emissions),
  • and preserve water quality and biodiversity.



The optimal solution is the one that works for you

Fresh marketIt is less a question of “choosing” between these products than “reconciling” these products. Based on your personal values and realistic opportunities in your area. The valorization of organic, equitable and local products is also a great way to encourage family production methods and small-scale agriculture.

For example, you could try prioritizing your clean shopping like this:

  • Think before you buy…

    to match quantities to your needs, do a shopping list, use up leftovers, etc. to avoid waste. That’s when real savings happen. It is also a chance to identify seasonal fruits and vegetables, or to consider a small kitchen or backyard garden to grow your own produce.

  • Prefer organic products…

    that are at the same time local products, when possible. Transportation is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions. Long distances between the grower and the consumer also mean long storage. Your products are less likely to have been picked at their ultimate level of ripeness, but rather green and left to ripen in containers. Bulk products should also have your preferences to reduce packaging waste.

  • For products from the Southern hemisphere…

    opt for organic and fair trade products: coffee, bananas, oranges, tea, etc.

  • Be choosy! 😉

    Be more picky about your food. Prefer quality over quantity. Spend a bit more on better quality products, and learn to savor every mouthful, rather than devour. Your taste buds (and your waistline) will thank you for it.

And you? How do you decide whether to spend your hard-earned money needs on organic, local or fair trade products? Please share your tips in the comments below for your fellow readers. 🙂

3 Comments

  1. Irma

    September 6, 2018 at 8:57 pm

    Great post Isabel. We have several farmers markets nearby so it is easy to find good quality organic and local fresh produce and meats.
    I like to buy things like local celery and carrots and then chop it up and freeze it for use over the winter months.
    In our house we are trying to stay away from imported foods from outside of North America, mostly because it has lost most of its nutrition in shipping as well as unknowns about the food is produced.
    I know that my mom and brother all think that organic is just a way to get extra money, but I find that organic tastes better and so is worth the price.

    1. Isabel

      September 7, 2018 at 7:18 am

      Thanks for your comments, Irma, your consumer habits ring true to me! I know that it’s not always easy to find local sources of food nearby, but I think it’s worth it, even if it’s only for a portion of the food we consume.
      I also try to stick with indigenous varieties of food here in SA, we buy venison meat rather than beef, for example (grass fed and extensive farming) local yellow corn, rather than rice, and local varieties of fruits and vegetables.
      And I believe that buying organic goes beyond simply buying better-tasting food, it’s also encouraging less harmful agricultural practices for the long run. Of course, we have to pay it forward, as the rewards might only be for our children and their children, but I reckon we just have to do it. 🙂

  2. Joo

    September 12, 2018 at 7:46 am

    Hi Isabel,
    Wow this is such an informative piece on organic produce, local produce, and fair trade. I have learnt a lot from it. I always have this idea that many farmers actually can qualify for being certified as organic, due to their own beliefs and principles in farming and giving the best to their consumers. But somehow, maybe to save on the hassle, they have never applied to be certified. So in fact many local markets carry produce that are of high quality, comparable to organic. If we talk to the farmers about their farming methods, we can probably gather which are the ones that would meet our needs for clean produce and sustainable farming methods.

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