I walked into my local grocery store over the weekend, and was faced with the very dilemma—organic or local? — we’ve been wrestlingwithforawhile.
On one table: fresh local strawberries, grown conventionally (ie., with pesticides and artificial fertilizers). On an adjacent table: organic strawberries shipped all the way from California. I looked, but couldn’t find any that were both local and organic.
The question: which to buy?
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Now, if it were just for me, I’d probably choose local. All things considered, local strawberries likely use less energy. Of course, I’m concerned about the effects of pesticides on farmworkers and water quality. That said, I’m at the end of my reproductive life, so I’m a little less worried than I used to be about the health effects of whatever fungicide residues might be on the strawberries (though perhaps that’s a mistake).
Also, supporting local farmers may help preserve farmland and green space near Seattle; and buying local would keep more of my money circulating locally, between local businesses and residents, rather than being siphoned off to another part of the country. Plus, local strawberries are just plain tastier. (That alone would probably have tipped me in favor of local.)
But I wasn’t buying for myself. My two daughters will likely eat the lion’s share—they’re both on a strawberry kick. The younger is at the tail-end of the period of rapid brain growth that lasts, typically, from the 3rd trimester of pregnancy to age 2. I certainly wouldn’t want to expose her to anything that might interfere, even subtly, with a sensitive stage in development. Sure, they’re already both exposed to plenty of hazardous substances—from lead paint dust to bus exhaust—every day. But why add to the risk?
Plus, I like the idea of boosting organic strawberry production in California. Conventional strawberry production in California uses copious amounts of methyl bromide, which is poisonous to the human nervous system and depletes the ozone layer.
In the end, I chose organic.
The berries looked good on the outside—nice and red. But when I got them home and cut them up for my daughters’ lunches, they were white, starchy, and dry inside, rather than the rich, juicy burgundy of a local berry. The kids might not notice the difference; but I will.
And the next time I can get my hands on some organic, local strawberries, I’ll be sure to get some—so the kids get to experience a berry the way it was meant to be eaten.
Big rigs are actually pretty efficient. They get 4 miles to the gallon but they can carry 50,000 pounds. So it might use 250 gallons to go from California to Seattle, but a pound of whatever represents about a tablespoon of diesel. This might be a lot worse if strawberries are too bulky to carry a full weight load. Then, the energy costs of refrigeration need to be added. If it was organic rice from Sacramento, I wouldn’t worry about the energy cost.
If it were just fuel energy that needed to be considered, I might be inclined to agree with SF… Shouldn’t we add the pollution the truck exhausts, traffic congestion, highway maintenance, and leaking engine lubricants that invariably end up in our waterways to the matrix? Granted, each pound of berries represents a small portion of the problem, but our warehouse on wheels business model only works if there is a demand for the product.
Big rigs are only efficient when externalities aren’t counted. When the entire system is examined using embodied energy (emergy), organic is far more efficient.
You could get your berries from a local farmer’s market and have both local and organic berries. Every Saturday I visit the University Farmers Market in Seattle and do just so. And, as posted last spring on this blog, the number of US farmers markets has doubled in the past 10 years, with 90 in Washington alone.
Good points all.Couldn’t make it to the farmer’s market this weekend, unfortunately. One girl had to take an early nap, the other had dance class—leaving no parents left to go to the market. I expect that, oh, by the time the girls go to college I’ll get enough free time to make a quick run to the farmer’s market. :)On transport efficiency—I have no idea where I come down on this. I generally agree with sf about energy costs of truck freight. Trucks are pretty inefficient, compared with rail or barges—but nobody ships strawberries by rail or barge, for good reason. And from what I can tell, the direct, per-unit energy costs from truck shipping seem much smaller than I would have expected. Plus, it’s not really clear whether it’s more efficient to move 15 tons of California produce 800 miles at ~4 mpg, or 300 pounds of local produce 40 miles at ~20 mpg. They’re pretty close.Externalities obviously bump up the cost of truck travel quite a bit, though. Plus, I’ve seen a bunch of studies that have found that, if you have to make the choice, local trumps organic—perhaps they find that the difference in energy inputs for organic v. conventional aren’t all that great. So far, I haven’t had time to delve into all the assumptions and methods; and which answer you believe—organic vs. local—is probably largely driven by accounting conventions, treatment of uncertainty, and the like. There’s probably no clear answer; and probably never would be, until you could increase the cost of both transport and farm inputs to cover all externalities.
Local vs. organic is a tough choice to make (when you can’t have both local and organic). Perhaps this study that tested a large amount of conventionally grown produce for pesticides can influence the decision, http://www.foodnews.org/fulldataset.php. It seems to make the case that buying local vs. organic might really depend on the food since some foods test for high amounts of pesticide residue and others have almost no detectible amounts. In the case of strawberries, they ranked the second highest in terms of amount of pesticides detected. Perhaps organic was the healthier choice this time.
Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too—secretly! I recently picked over 40 pounds of strawberries (at $0.79 a pound, beat that Whole Foods!) at Remlinger Farms in Carnation, WA, after making sure that these berries had nothing more harmful on them than dirt. I was directed there by a friend who formerly worked for Pioneer Organics and who herself made sure that this farm was up to her standards. Here’s the trick: Remlinger, and many other local farms like it, are not “certified organic” but, in their own words, they are “as close to organic as you can get without being organic.” Why wouldn’t a farm go that extra 2 or 5 per cent for a “Certified Organic” endorsement? I’m not sure about all the reasons, but after having worked for a well-known organic Seattle Farmers’ Market vendor, I realized that earning an organic certification can be a tough and nitpicky process. Some of their items were transitional, or didn’t make the organic grade because a neighbor’s spray blew onto their crop three years ago and they were still trying to recover their certification. I still strongly support organics whenever possible, but if that means organic apples from Argentina, then I say, “no thanks.” Each purchase, though, is a discrete act, its consequences to be weighed on an individual basis. I still don’t buy non-organic dairy even if it’s stocked by PCC and comes from Woodinville, but I know where I’m going once raspberry season gets going.
I am new here on your blog and to organic produce. You said you have a source for Raspberries and you know where you are going. Can you share this information? I live in the Puyallup Valley and drove by a man on a tractor with his bunny suit on, spraying pesticides in full force. UGH!! Local to me = death! I am willing to drive and pick a whole load organic, even close to organic then freeze. The sources for organic u-pick berries in Western WA are difficult to find. There is Terry Berry’s but I wanted more options as well. Thanks in advance.
To me it’s not a tough choice at all. It’s organic all the way. There is no way that I’m going to support farmers that use pesticides even if they are local. My health and my family’s health is too important. Pesticides have already caused a lot of damages in my body and I’ve been trying to recover for a year. Don’t make that mistake.