Last week, I gave you the latest updates on the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean Fifteen” – the lists produced by the Environmental Working Group that rank the most and least contaminated produce items, so that shoppers know when it’s more important to purchase organic fruits or veggies, and when it doesn’t quite matter as much.

On Monday, I gave you a recipe for homemade strawberry freezer jam that I made over the weekend, using amazingly delicious berries that I picked myself at a local you-pick berry farm.  Strawberries are ranked #3 on the “Dirty Dozen.”  But guess what?  The local berries I used for jam weren’t organic. Did I make toxic, pesticide-filled concoctions?

Well, not necessarily.  It’s not quite that simple.

What Does Organic Mean?

In the US, the term “organic” can mean a few different things.  A product that was made completely with certified organic ingredients and techniques can be labeled as 100% organic, and it can bear the USDA Certified Organic label.  A product that has at least 95% organic ingredients can be labeled “organic,” and it can also display the USDA seal.  Anything with at least 70% organic ingredients in it can say “Made with Organic Ingredients,”  but it can’t display the seal.

Photo by Tim Berberich

How Does This Apply to Produce?

In order for produce to be certified organic, a farmer must meet a long list of requirements.  Of course there is the obvious elimination of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.  However, they must not only change all of their farming methods in order to come into accordance with organic standards, but they must also keep detailed records and documentation and pay required inspection fees, some of which can range upwards of $2000.

Loopholes and Exceptions

The USDA Organic Certification process was established as the demand for organics grew, and it was intended to provide uniform standards of accountability.  Unfortunately, there have been exceptions and loopholes written into the laws over the years, primarily driven by profits. For example, in 2007, the USDA released a list  of 38 non-organic ingredients that could be allowed into organic packaged/processed foods and still be labeled 100% Organic.  The list includes hops, which allows Anheuser-Busch to market its Wild Hop lager as “organic,” even though the hops are grown with pesticides. [1]

Photo by Martin Vidner

What About Local Produce?

The strawberries we picked for jam weren’t organic.  A lot of the produce that I buy at the farmers’ market is not organic, either.  Don’t gasp in horror, though – let me explain.

One of the great things about buying locally grown or locally raised food is that you can actually speak to the person who produced that food. As Katie so poetically described in her post on Wednesday, the farmers’ market provides the perfect opportunity to talk to farmers and ask them how they grow their food.  I guarantee they will be happy to tell you about it – most of them are even happy to have you come out for a visit to the farm and check it out yourself! (If they’re not too forthcoming, that’s a sign: move on!)

It doesn’t stop at farmers’ markets; if you’re part of a CSA or you buy from a local co-op, you can talk to those farmers, too, even if you might have to go to them to do so.

Local Farmers and Organic Certification

At the farmers’ market where I shop, some of the produce is “organic,” meaning that it carries an official organic certification.  The vast majority of it, though, is not certified in any way.  The organic certification process is an enormous commitment in both time and money, and most small farmers simply can’t afford it. They are not exactly rolling in the dough from selling you their zucchini each week, and instead of spending time filling out papers, they need to spend their time in the fields growing that zucchini.

So get to know them, and ask them about the methods they use to grow zucchini.  If they do use some pesticides and chemical fertilizers, ask them to tell you more about that.  Then you can make the best decision for you and your family.

Photo by Michelle Riggen-Ransom

Which Is Better, Local or Organic?

The answer is: neither (unless you grow your own!).  They both have benefits and drawbacks.  Unless you’re a very committed locavore, you’re going to buy your apples at the grocery store in Texas, because they just don’t grow here. Being #4 on the “Dirty Dozen” and one of my daughter’s favorite foods, I’ll take supermarket organic apples, thanks.  Peaches, on the other hand, are abundant in central Texas, so I will scout out some local beauties at the markets as soon as I can, and maybe if I show up late, I can take home those bruised and battered babies at a discount – perfect for a peach cobbler.

How do you handle the organic food / local food issue?