Written by Kasey Yost, WVU Dietetic Intern
Understanding the Differences Between Organic and Locally Grown Food
Organic food has been growing in popularity over the last few decades and availability has become common in most major grocery stores. However, another trend you may or may not be familiar with is locally grown food. There can be a lot of confusion around the difference between locally grown and organically grown products. The differences between these products are important to understand, as both have unique context and benefits. You have likely been to a farmers’ market or seen the organic food section at your local grocery store. One may assume that all food products sold at a farmers’ market are organically grown, and while some may be, likely not all of them are. These foods are better categorized as locally grown. Food items found in the grocery stores are typically USDA approved organic. However, they likely are not grown locally and instead come from a certified organic farm that is farther away.
Organic Foods and Products
Organic is defined by the USDA as “a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used”. 4 Essentially, the term refers to the way farmers grow and process goods, such as produce and animal products, in a way that meets standardized regulations. They are grown in a way that is free of artificial chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The USDA is the certifying organization that sets these standards for organic foods and works to ensure compliance with guidelines. To be able to sell, label, or represent a product as organic, operations must follow all the specifications set forth by the USDA. Therefore, if you want to ensure that a product is organic, you need to look for the USDA organic seal signifying that it is certified organic. 4 For details on the specific standards that must be met to be certified and labeled organic go to: Organic | Agricultural Marketing Service (usda.gov).
The organic market has grown rapidly over the past few decades. Within the U.S., most organic sales come from fruits and vegetables. 6 People may choose to purchase organic foods for a variety of reasons, including concerns about the environmental impact of conventional farming, general health and well-being, animal welfare, and perceptions that organic foods are tastier and fresher than conventional non-organic alternatives. A significant factor, though, is consumer belief that organic food is healthier or has a superior nutritional profile. 1,3,6
Benefits of Organic Foods
A major benefit associated with organic foods and agriculture is the environmental factor. Organic farming is associated with lower land-use efficacy, which refers to things such as deforestation that can lead to environmental problems like loss of biodiversity and release of carbon into the atmosphere. Also, organic farming practices can lower energy uses per unit of land and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It may help with water quality by reducing nutrient leaching and pesticide pollution within bodies of water. Organic production can help with soil quality by reducing degradation. Finally, it has an environmental impact on larger biodiversity. This is related to lower pesticide use, longer crop rotations, and more semi-natural landscape elements. However, it is important to note that these benefits are significant when looking at per unit of land measurements and not per unit of output. Therefore, organic agriculture may be more suitable for addressing local environmental problems, rather than global ones. 8
There are also socioeconomic benefits associated with organic farming practices. For farmers who are producing organic products, there can be significant price premiums associated with certified organic products. Additionally, the growing marketplace for these products can have economical benefits for producers and provides them with opportunity for finical growth. Studies have suggested that organic certification helps to improve food security and dietary quality in farming households. There can also be reduced occupational health hazards associated with organic farming, as workers are less likely to be exposed to chemical pesticides. 8
Other benefits associated with organic foods are nutrition and health benefits. Regarding health, many studies conclude that organic foods contain lower levels of chemical pesticides than conventionally grown foods. 3,8 Some reviews have also found that organic foods contain lower concentrations of nitrate and cadmium. 8 Finally, research has found that conventional processing of animal products like chicken and pork is associated with a higher risk of antibiotic resistance bacteria. 3 Regarding nutritional components, most reviews found that organic plant products contain moderately higher concentrations of secondary metabolites such as phenolics and higher levels of phosphorus. 3 Research has even found higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk and chicken. 3,8
Beyond chemical composition of foods, studies have examined possible effects of organic foods on human health. As mentioned above, most organic food sales come from fresh produce, therefore it is not surprising that regular consumption of organic food is associated with having a diet higher in whole foods. 6 Many studies suggest that organic consumption can be closely linked to other health and lifestyle indicators such as higher education and income levels, lower BMI, higher levels of physical activity, and overall healthier diets than those who do not or rarely consume organic foods. This can make it hard for researchers to determine if health outcomes associated with organic foods is related to food composition or these other factors. 1
Disadvantages of Organic Foods
There are some disadvantages to choosing organic foods or recommending them exclusively. One disadvantage is that organic foods can be more expensive than conventionally grown foods. Data has shown that on average, organic foods coast around 50% more, with some even costing double as much as conventional foods. 3,7 Another issue is that organic foods can be hard to find in some communities, especially those that are lower income or face scarcity issues. Organic foods tend to have a shorter shelf-life. This,coupled with the price, can make it hard to justify purchasing these products. Organic products are also more sensitive to environmental changes, that if left unmanaged, leads to significant losses. They also require more work to produce due to the emphasis on natural growing methods that farmers must utilize and the stricter regulations they are required to follow. The amount of physical labor needed to bring organic foods to the market is much higher because of fewer automated processes involved. Furthermore, natural fertilizers can require hand-spreading and weeding to eliminate environmental impact. All of this requires a lot of time and physical labor, which can raise the price of organic foods. 7 Finally, trying to buy organic can be confusing at times due to different forms of labeling within the industry. Items can be 100% organic, meaning all ingredients within a product are organic. Items with generic organic labels are 95% organic, and then there is “made with organic ingredients” which only requires 70% of ingredients come from an organic source. 7
The USDA defines local food “as the direct or intermediated marketing of food to consumers that is produced and distributed in a limited geographic area”. The USDA states there is no defined distance for what consumers consider “local,” but a set number of miles from a center point or state/local boundaries are often used as determination. The primary concept is that local food systems connect farms and consumers at the point of sale bringing them together directly within the food system. 5 There is some debate on an exact number value placed on distance for local food. However, most researchers will agree that eating locally means minimizing the distance between production and consumption. The 2008 Farm Act did place a numerical value on this stating that a product could be marketed as locally produced if the end-point purchase is within 400 miles from its origin, or within state boundaries. There are two primary forms local food. One is direct-to-consumer or farmer to you (e.g., farmers' markets). The other is direct-to-retail or direct-to-foodservice (e.g., farm-to-table). 2
The demand for locally grown food has risen in popularity over the past decade. This is seen with the increasing supply of and demand for local foods as evidenced by the number of farmers' markets nearly tripling. 5 Individuals may choose to buy locally grown food from places like farmers' markets for a variety of reasons. Some of the most common ones sited include freshness of products, supporting the local economy, wanting to know where products came from, perception of higher/better quality products, positive relationships with producers or farmers, and an opportunity to purchase unique/specialty products. 2 There have also been thousands of farm-to-school programs started across the U.S. 5 Farm-to-cafeteria has become a popular trend with many schools, universities and even hospitals. It has also become popular to use farm-to-table in restaurants, with many advertising locally sourced products. 5
Benefits of Buying Local
Benefits associated with buying local can be broken down into four major categories: economic, mental and physical, social, and environmental.
Buying local can have economic benefits when farmers sell directly to you. By purchasing from the farmer, you remove the middleman and help to increase their overall profit yield. These farmers often live within the community and spend their money in it as well. This means when you shop locally, more of that money remains within your community. It has been estimated that buying local keeps approximately 65% of your dollar within the community, verses shopping at large chain stores which keeps only 40%. Furthermore, shopping locally helps to support small businesses which are one of the largest employers providing more job opportunities. Buying local can even increase food security which is a major positive when thinking about a lot of the shortages faced during COVID-19. 2
There can also be some mental and physical benefits associated with eating local. It has been correlated to improved nutrition, diet quality, obesity prevention, and reduced risk of diet-related chronic disease. These benefits are related to the increased likelihood of making healthier food choices. Local products tend to be fresher and less processed, potentially explaining these correlations. 2 Foods grown locally are not inherently healthier. Instead, they are simply fresher and are primarily whole foods which can lead to improved intake of nutrient dense foods in those who choose to shop locally. Furthermore, eating local foods can be mentally beneficial as it is linked to reducing food safety risks through production decentralization. This means foods are grown in one location that is easier to control, reducing risk of contamination. Finally, eating local can even mean growing it yourself. Doing this can help combat food insecurity. As well as increase consumption of fruits and vegetables and improve physical activity levels among all ages leading to significant health benefits. 2
Eating locally can also be beneficial for the environment, as it helps to preserve farmland and cultivated plant genetic diversity. It also helps to reduce the distance food travels, cutting down on associated fossil fuel consumption, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, even though farmers that sell their products locally are not necessarily required to use organic or suitable farming practices, they are more likely to engage in environmentally friendly production practices. 2
Lastly, one of the biggest benefits of shopping local is the social aspect. You can gain insight into where your food comes from by talking with the people who grew and/or made it. This connection can help build a sense of community between farmers/producers and their customers. Getting to know your local producers can help give you a stronger sense of place, relationships, trust, and pride within your community. 2 Even the venues for locally grown foods such as farmers' markets are great for building a sense of community. Going to the weekly markets can become tradition for some families and there are even community-based programs integrated into some. Other farmers' markets will also have community resources linked to them like SNAP and WIC.
Overall, buying organic or locally grown food can have some environmental, social and health advantages. Organic is primarily associated with minor nutrient benefits and environmental sustainability. Whereas buying local can be more sustainable, foster a sense of community and help support local economies. Buying these products can be a good option for those who desire fresher products and want to support local businesses. However, their cost and availability can be major deterrents for some individuals. So, even though there have been some documented benefits, compositional differences with these foods are not significant enough to conclusively state that either organic or local foods are better for you. Furthermore, if you are unable to purchase these products, it is important to understand you can still live a healthy lifestyle when consuming conventionally grown foods.
- Brantsæter, A. L., Ydersbond, T. A., Hoppin, J. A., Haugen, M., & Meltzer, H. M. (2017). Organic Food in the Diet: Exposure and Health Implications. Annual review of public health, 38, 295–313. https://doi-org.wvu.idm.oclc.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031816-044437.
- Brain, R. (2012). The Local Food Movement: Definitions, Benefits & Resources. Utah State University Extension Sustainability. 1-4. From: The Local Food Movement: Definitions, Benefits & Resources (usu.edu).
- Smith-Spangler, C., Brandeau, M. L., Hunter, G. E., Bavinger, J. C., Pearson, M., Eschbach, P. J., Sundaram, V., Liu, H., Schirmer, P., Stave, C., Olkin, I., & Bravata, D. M. (2012). Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review. Annals of internal medicine, 157(5), 348–366. https://doi-org.wvu.idm.oclc.org/10.7326/0003-4819-157-5-201209040-00007.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2011). What is Organic? USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. Retrieved November 17, 2021, from What is Organic.pdf (usda.gov).
- U.S. Department of Agriculture . (n.d.). Local Foods. USDA National Agricultural Library. Retrieved November 17, 2021, from https://www.nal.usda.gov/aglaw/local-foods#quicktabs-aglaw_pathfinder=1.
- Vigar, V., Myers, S., Oliver, C., Arellano, J., Robinson, S., & Leifert, C. (2019). A Systematic Review of Organic Versus Conventional Food Consumption: Is There a Measurable Benefit on Human Health?. Nutrients, 12(1), 7. https://doi-org.wvu.idm.oclc.org/10.3390/nu12010007.
- Miller, B. (2019, March 19). 23 advantages and disadvantages of Organic Food. Green Garage. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://greengarageblog.org/23-advantages-and-disadvantages-of-organic-food.
- Meemken, E. & Qaim, M. (2018). Organic Agriculture, Food Security, and the Environment. Annual Review of Resource Economics, 10, 39-63. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-resource-100517-023252.