We Get Letters – v. 14: Organic vs. Local

James weighs in with a thought provoking question:

Hello Kate,

I regularly read your site and have always found your thoughts very insightful. Anyways, I’m a college student and I’m currently taking a public speaking class. For the class, we pick a theme and then deliver an informative speech, a persuasive speach, and then an action speach on
that theme. Well I picked GMO food. I am currently researching for the action speech. I just talked with the manager of my school’s main cafeteria, Goudy. I found out that about 60% of the food is from local sources, which is about the same price as other food, while only about 10% of the food is organic, which is more expensive. They usually label all the food as local, organic, vegeterian, vegan, etc. with stickers (Bon Appetite is my school’s catering service). I was planning on the theme of the speach being that you should eat more local organic food to
avoid gmo’s and then tell the audience about the options at goudy. Well, what I was wondering do you think it’s worth it to just focus on local food, given the limited and more expensive options for organic? Is organic not that important compared to local? Is it more important to
set an action that would be easier to follow (especially considering that these are college students I’m talking to) by exluding organic and just focusing on local? Or would organic be as important part of the equation as local? Thanks a lot.


Jamie, this is a great question, and I appreciate you asking it. Please note that what I’m about to say is my opinion, and so not to take it as gospel. When it comes to food philosophies, many people have differing opinions and agendas, and it’s difficult to claim that one is more valid than another.

When it comes to the organic vs. Local debate, I fall more onto the local side of the equation. But to explain this position, I have to take a step back and move beyond what we here in America deal with in regard to our food choices.

We’re lucky to be living in America. I don’t say that as a flag-waving Toby-Keith-Listening type of patriot, but as a matter of practical fact. We can, for the most part, feed ourselves. In fact, our local food delivery infrastructure is so efficient and so plentiful that it allows us to ask questions about food that other countries cannot afford to.

Such as “How do Organic Foods fit into the equation?” When you have a country that can only deliver 1500 calories, on average, to your citizens, you’re not overly concerned about which chemicals are used, nor how animals are treated, nor which foods are genetically modified. These are the problems faced every day in several countries in Africa, as well as most assuredly North Korea. Granted, I’m simplifying the geo-political landscape here, but the point is still valid.

So from a global aspect, local far outweighs organic. If you can’t grow food at home, it has to be imported (at additional cost) or given freely (often in times of famine). Not being able to produce food locally carries with it tremendous problems. Encouraging folks to grow locally helps alleviate those problems.

Let’s focus on America now, where we do have the luxury of asking more of our food – Which is more important: Organic versus Local? My answer? It depends.

Some foods have been so destroyed by corporate farming that organics are really the only option when it comes to taste. Apples come directly to mind, as well as tomatoes.

However, when it comes to meats, such as beef or poultry, I choose local farms as I want to ensure that I know where my food has come from, for reasons far too scary and too numerous to bring up in this post. That a great majority of these farms can be considered “organic” os not coincidental, as most farms who are transparent enough to advertise where they originate also are usually transparent enough to let you know how they treat their animals.

I could go down, item by item, on how I make my food choices in a store, but that’d be boring. What it comes down to are the following questions:

  • Which product has the superior tastes?
  • What process was used in order to develop this product? Does a company use lesser or untested ingredients? How does a company treat their animals?
  • Is the company local or not?

I ask these questions in differing order depending upon my basic knowledge of product. Eggs and Milk? I ask about processes. Broccoli or meats? I ask about proximity. Apples and Oranges? Organic or not.

I realize an answer of “It depends” doesn’t lend itself to a great paper or speech, but there is a larger meta-aspect to this. I can ask these questions because of where we live and how much money I make. In many places of the world, people don’t have this luxury.

Good luck in your class.

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