The greenest choice for produce? Grow your own or buy organic produce from local farmers. But if you can’t do that, consider choosing foods with the following labels.
Locally sourced food can mean just about anything—your backyard, your county, your state, 50 miles, 100 miles, 200 miles and so on. Many state labels (e.g., Colorado Proud) mandate only that food is grown and processed within the state.
Health benefits: Locally grown foods are often picked when they are riper (since they take less time to travel to market) and can be richer in nutrients because of this.
Eco-benefits: Buying locally can conserve fuel (that would be used to transport food long distances). According to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State (www.leopold.iastate.edu ), if Iowans purchased only 10 percent more of their food from within their home states, it would result in as much as a 7.9 million pound reduction in carbon emissions annually. However, research out of the UK and New Zealand suggests that, in some cases, imported foods may be kinder to the environment because they originate in countries that use simpler farming methods (think: ox cart versus a tractor) or more fuel-efficient transportation systems.
Is it regulated? No.
Keep in mind: “Local” doesn’t necessarily mean a farm is small, organic or sustainable.
Certified organic fruits and vegetables are grown without the use of pesticides and herbicides, genetically modified seeds or sewage sludge fertilizers. Farmers must conserve soil quality and often use non-toxic Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques, such as using ladybugs to control aphids or mint oils and cloves to deter pests.
Health benefits: Some preliminary research suggests that organic farming may, in some cases, increase the concentration of certain nutrients, such as antioxidants. It also reduces the chance of consuming minimal amounts of pesticide residues that can accumulate in fruits and vegetables.
Eco-benefits: Organic farming eliminates the pesticides and herbicides that can impact groundwater and aquatic plants, fish, birds or other wildlife. It also bans genetically modified crops, some of which can cross-pollinate and ultimately destroy the reproduction systems of non-GMO plants. Per bushel of corn, organic farming takes about 30 percent less energy than conventional farming, according to a recent review published by the Organic Center, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit.
Is it regulated? Yes, USDA monitors products with Certified Organic labels.
Keep in mind: Organic standards apply only to farming methods and do not regulate a sustainable production or packaging program and place no limitations on farm size. Also, many small farms may be organic but cannot afford the elaborate USDA certification process needed to get an official label.
Biodynamic is one of several farming practices that take the basics of organic farming a step further and look at a farm as a self-sustaining organism that thrives on the integration of crops and livestock, recycling of nutrients, maintenance of soil, and the well-being of entire ecosystems and communities. One of the best-known, Biodynamic is one of the few that is labeled and certified.
Health benefits: The same as organic.
Eco-benefits: Everything from water collection and runoff to distribution is done following the best practices for sustainability. A 1993 study of 16 farms in New Zealand showed the Demeter-certified biodynamic farms to be equally productive but to have much higher soil quality than their conventional counterparts.
Is it regulated? Yes, by the independent Demeter Association.
Keep in mind: Biodynamic principles extend to distribution (which is primarily local) so products are usually available only through co-ops, CSAs and farmers’ markets.