Question: Is it better for the climate to buy locally or organically produced food?

Question mark #2This is a question that has that plagued me each time I’m in a supermarket – I like to buy organic food, because of all the good reasons one should buy organic. However, I also like to buy local food – for all the other good reasons that it’s good to buy local. So, here I am… in the shop, faced with a decision. I’ll be buying, say broccoli or apples, and all the organic ones are shipped from South Africa, New Zealand, Lebanon or some other far away place, and all the non-organic ones are from Norfolk, or Kent!

So, what’s better? To buy local, non-organic produce or organic produce shipped from the other side of the planet?

Lana Berrington, 27 September 2009

This is indeed a difficult choice! Some organic produce is flown to the UK rather than shipped and aviation is much in the news, at the moment, for its climate impact – and rightly so. However, emissions from shipping also have a significant impact.

We should certainly try to buy produce in season. That means varying our diet at different times of the year, which is no bad thing for all sorts of reasons. Then, we should try to buy locally produced food, above all, organic.

The climate impact of the transport is almost certainly going to be greater than that of intensive agriculture. Obviously, this strengthens the case for all parts of the world to go 100% organic.

There is also a real dilemma about economic development. Buying produce from Africa helps African farmers. This is why organic organisations, like the Soil Association, continue to certify air-freighted produce such as beans from Kenya. However, the greatest threat to poor people, as development groups like Oxfam now recognise, is climate change.

There is also the complication of whether we should shop locally rather than at supermarkets. In my case, I can buy at the local shop, which has organic eggs and bread but not fruit, or at the Tesco minimarket, which has more organic produce. Or I can buy online from Ocado. This company has an excellent selection of organic goods and online shopping is good for those without cars. It asks shoppers to pick a delivery time when a van is in the area anyway, to reduce transport emissions. However, shopping through Ocado is more expensive than shopping in Tesco, Sainsbury’s and so on, which adds to the additional cost of organic. 

My approach is to get a fortnightly shop from Ocado and then buy extra stuff as needed from the local shop.

Stephen Tindale, 29 September 2009

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1 Comment

  1. James Richard Tyrer

    It also depends on what is meant by ‘Organic’.

    In the USA, the USDA definition of ‘Organic’ forbids the use of artificially fixed Nitrogen, requires that Phosphate be only mined rock Phosphate, and specifically forbids any fertilizer from sewage.

    There are good things about Organic farming, but the USDA definition means that it is not sustainable.

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