Do you like the taste of juicy organic apples from Washington? They're not bad, but they could taste sweeter if each one didn't involve a cup of gasoline.
In your quest to eat healthier food and do better by the environment, you might want to place more value on local food products than on organic foods.
It might seem sacrilegious to pooh-pooh organic food—that is, food grown in pooh-pooh as opposed to synthesized fertilizers and pesticides. But as revealed in the June issue of Sierra magazine, the environmental price for organic foods is sometimes hidden.
Simply put, one must consider transportation costs. Apples grown in the state of Washington are trucked, on average, more than 1,700 miles. That adds up to a cup of gasoline used to ship each apple. California grapes require up to 4 cups of gasoline per bunch when shipped across the country. And so on.
These calculations were originally published in 2004 in a book chapter in "Environment Development and Sustainability 6," by David Pimentel of Cornell University and his colleagues.
Also, mass-produced foods, either grown by organic or conventional methods, are usually picked well before ripening to prevent rotting during shipping. They are less tasty and contain fewer vitamins and minerals compared to local varieties. In fact, this summer is a good time to visit a local farmers' market and talk to the sellers about these issues.
I'm not anti-organic. I need to state that up front considering the angry email I received after I suggested that visiting untrained, unlicensed naturopaths practicing medicine based on medieval superstition could harm your health. I am, after all, reading Sierra, the pro-environmental magazine of the Sierra Club.
I merely hope to point out that blindly buying organically can be foolhardy.
Consider that unless you are eating rocks, all food is organic. Technically, organic refers to anything with a chain of hydrogen and carbon atoms. All living organisms are organic. So is gasoline. So is dry-cleaning fluid, which I now see advertised as "organic" by unscrupulous merchants capitalizing on the public perception that "organic" equals "safe."
What's in a word
The word "organic" has come to mean plant-based food grown without synthetic fertilizers, as well as animals fed organic food during the few months to few years they were alive. It doesn't inherently mean healthy or fair.
Organic manure could contain lead and cadmium, naturally. Organic junk foods can be just as unhealthy as conventional junk food, albeit with organic fat and sugar. The organic label says nothing about the rights of Central American workers growing organic bananas in squalid conditions, nor is it concerned with the similarly disgusting conditions in which organic meat, eggs and dairy products are often manufactured.
After all, organic is big business these days—nearly $14 billion in 2005, according to the Organic Trade Association—and big business is often business as usual.
Not so with local farming.
Local almost always means small-scale and thus more environmentally benign, fresher, healthier and cruelty-free. Talk to the farmer at the farmers' market. He might use a little pesticide but likely not much because the food product is well-suited to the environment.
The apples I buy at a farmers' market in Baltimore are grown less than 50 miles away, and each apple "consumes" less than a teaspoon of gas on its journey to the market. Unlike the strangely happy cow on a carton of Horizon organic milk, the cows producing the (non-organic but hormone-free) milk sold locally walk freely and feed on grass and hay; they're not pen-raised and fed organic grains they cannot digest, as can be the case with some organic milks. [Related story: Even the Cows are Unhappy]
With support of local farms, fewer farms get turned into asphalt-covered shopping malls and housing complexes, which in turn means fewer natural wetlands, forests and deserts are turned into mass-commercial farms. Supporting local farms, organic or not, also fights our perverse global food market in which $20 million in U.S.-grown lettuce is exported to Mexico while $20 million Mexican-grown lettuce is imported to the United States each year, as reported in the May-June issue of Mother Jones.
Some of the food at my farmers' market is organic; other food is not. I don't worry so much, as long as it is local. I can trust the food because I'm buying it from the person who produced it.
Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books “Bad Medicine” and “Food At Work.” Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LIveScience.
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Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.