Ask Mr. Green: Local vs. Organic
Several of my acquaintances are obsessive locavores who buy and eat only locally grown food. They prefer organic to nonorganic food, but when local organic options aren't available, they opt for the local nonorganic stuff. So what's best: local nonorganic or out-of-state organic?
--John in Salem, Oregon
Though I support locavores and admire their fierce dedication--some would rather starve than eat an imported apple--I think your friends may be a bit too doctrinaire.
A locavore's transportation footprint can actually be comparatively large, depending on loads and vehicles. Hauling 500 pounds of cabbage 50 miles in a small pickup, for instance, can burn about the same amount of fuel per pound of cargo as trucking 50,000 pounds 1,500 miles in an 18-wheeler. Plus, if the semi backhauls food, then it can be twice as efficient as a pickup that's returning empty or partially full.
Transport the food by rail, which can be up to four times more efficient than long-haul trucking, and you could conceivably move a cabbage halfway around the world on the same amount of fuel as a local grower might need.
The greatest advantage of local production is that you can talk directly to farmers and ranchers. But you need to ask the right questions. Were pesticides used on those local tomatoes? Was that local steer fed alfalfa grown with water-squandering irrigation practices and fattened on trucked-in nonorganic grain? Given such complex questions, organic usually gets my nod, even if it's from another time zone. Why? Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture's organic standards are national. And supporting organic farming anywhere can have a strong influence on cleaning up agriculture everywhere.
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