Not long ago I had an apple problem. Wavering in the produce section of a Manhattan grocery store, I was unable to decide between an organic apple and a nonorganic apple (which was labeled conventional, since that sounds better than "sprayed with pesticides that might kill you"). It shouldn't have been a tough choice--who wants to eat pesticide residue?--but the organic apples had been grown in California. The conventional ones were from right here in New York State. I know I've been listening to too much npr because I started wondering: How much Middle Eastern oil did it take to get that California apple to me? Which farmer should I support--the one who rejected pesticides in California or the one who was, in some romantic sense, a neighbor? Most important, didn't the apple's taste suffer after the fruit was crated and refrigerated and jostled for thousands of miles?
In the end I bought both apples. (They were both good, although the California one had a mealy bit, possibly from its journey.) It's only recently that I had noticed more locally grown products in the supermarket, but when I got home I discovered that the organic-vs.-local debate has become one of the liveliest in the food world. Last year Wal-Mart began offering more organic products--those grown without pesticides, antibiotics, irradiation and so on--and the big company's expansion into a once alternative food culture has been a source of deep concern, and predictable backlash, among early organic adopters.
Nearly a quarter of American shoppers now buy organic products once a week, up from 17% in 2000. But for food purists, "local" is the new "organic," the new ideal that promises healthier bodies and a healthier planet. Many chefs, food writers and politically minded eaters are outraged that "Big Organic" firms now use the same industrial-size farming and long-distance-shipping methods as conventional agribusiness. "Should I assume that I have a God-given right to access the entire earth's bounty, however far away some of its produce is grown?" asks ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan in his 2002 memoir, Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods. Nabhan predicted my apple problem when he vacillated over some organic pumpkin canned hundreds of miles from his Arizona home. "If you send it halfway around the world before it is eaten," he mused, "an organic food still may be 'good' for the consumer, but is it 'good' for the food system?"
I had never really thought about how my food purchases might affect "the food system." Even now I don't share the pessimism and asceticism of the local-eating set. In her 2001 memoir, This Organic Life, Columbia University nutritionist Joan Dye Gussow writes that her commitment to eating locally "is probably driven by three things. The first is the taste of live food; the second is my relation to frugality; the third is my deep concern about the state of the planet." I don't have much relation to frugality, and, perhaps foolishly, I'm more optimistic than Gussow about our ability to develop alternative energy sources.
But I care deeply about how my food tastes, and it makes sense that a snow pea grown by a local farmer and never refrigerated will retain more of its delicate leguminous flavor than one shipped in a frigid plane from Guatemala. And I realized that if more consumers didn't become part of the local-food market, it could disappear and all our peas would be those tasteless little pods from far away.
Still, the fact that not all locally grown products are organic had me worried. Even if most Americans wanted to buy locally grown organics, they wouldn't be able to find many. In a few not-too-dry, not-too-wet, not-too-warm regions--central California is one--it is possible to find abundant organic produce grown locally. But if you live in a humid climate, say, the moisture that encourages bacteria and fungi means that growing without pesticides is much more risky, expensive and rare. Consequently, in the Hudson Valley of New York, near me, it's very difficult to find fruit that hasn't been sprayed with chemicals at least once. In other regions, like the upper Midwest, most big farms don't grow any vegetables for local markets, conventional or organic. Instead, they produce commodity crops like corn and soybeans for sale to food processors. At a large Hugo's grocery store in Jamestown, N.D., last summer, I noticed only one local product: flour, which is milled in-state from local wheat. But there were organic apples and oranges from out of state.
Farmers' markets often feature organic produce from nearby farms, but not everyone lives near a farmers' market--and most products at the markets aren't organic. "I've been to farmers' markets, and there's people hauling stuff from the truck that they got at a wholesaler," says Joseph Mendelson III, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, a liberal Washington group that supports strong organic standards. Mendelson prefers the "gold standard" of locally grown organics, but he is rather frightening on the subject of nonorganic food, whatever its origin. When I asked him whether I should favor local products, he replied, "I don't know what local means. Do they use local pesticides? Does that mean the food is better because they produce local cancers?"
All of which further tangles my original question: The organic apple or the conventionally grown local one?
It turns out to be a frustratingly layered choice, one that implicates many other questions: What's the most efficient way to grow food for all? Should farms be big or small, family- or corporate-run? How do your choices affect the planet? What tastes better? And then there's that little matter of cancer.
Let's get that one out of the way at the start. If scientists could conclusively prove that agricultural chemicals are harmful, we would all go organic. But it's not clear, for instance, that the low levels of pesticide typically found on conventional produce cause cancer. The risks of long-term exposure to those residues are still undetermined.
Even if conventional foods don't turn out to be as dangerous as organic advocates claim, several recent studies have suggested that organic foods contain higher levels of vitamins than their conventionally grown counterparts. In a paper published in October in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a team from the University of California, Davis, demonstrates that organically grown tomatoes have significantly more vitamin C than conventional tomatoes. Even so, the same study shows no significant differences between conventional and organic bell peppers.