Health Check: What's Wrong with Organic?

By Larissa Phillips

Have you ever spoken to the person who grew or raised the food that you eat? These days, the answer from most of us would be a resounding "no." But as the nation's factory-farm approach to food production continues to charge toward its profit margin, more and more consumers are looking for local food rather than organic. Why?

The USDA "organic" label requires strict monitoring of the use of chemicals in food crops. Foods must be grown without the aid of synthetic chemicals, in fields that have been clean of pesticides for at least three years. Farms are visited frequently by inspectors, and farmers must provide extensive paperwork.

But critics say the certification is misleading. For example, a small farm that may have been strictly organic for decades probably cannot afford to complete the vast amounts of paperwork required for certification. One farmer contends that doing so would take about two weeks of full-time work, often during harvest times.

Furthermore, the USDA label does not address issues such as environmental impact, humane treatment of animals or fair labor practices. All these concerns have led many people to decide that food being grown locally is even more important than its being certified "organic" - especially if the local farm is following organic guidelines. Although there is no hard-and-fast rule about what makes it local, a 50-mile radius is generally accepted. Better yet, try this old-fashioned approach: See if you know the name of the farm - or even the part of the country - where your food came from.

Buying locally grown food supports family farms, cuts down on transportation costs, and usually yields far greater freshness than buying organic food that was grown across the country. It can also play an important role in food safety; an outbreak of food poisoning can be traced more quickly when the producer of, say, the spinach, is known. But without official certification, it's up to the consumer to ask the farmers about their farming practices - and then to decide whether or not to trust them. Not very scientific, but that's how food has been selected for a lot longer than the USDA has been around.

How to buy locally:

- Make friends with your neighbors: If you live next door to a family who grows a garden, ask if you can purchase some of their bounty. Often, they'll have an abundance of veggies and would be happy to share.

- Head to the farmer's market: These farmers might not have the USDA Organic certification, but they're growing delicious fruit and veggies close to your home. Don't forget to check out the egg, meat, and dairy vendors - you're likely to come across something you'll love.

- Check your supermarket: More and more supermarkets are introducing locally grown foods into their produce departments. Ask your produce manager which foods are local, and select from those. 

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