ACORN the blog

Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network

Debunking local vs organic


This week marks the third annual Organic Week in Canada. Events and promotions are happening from coast to coast in celebration of organic food and farming in this country.

Is it local or organic? It’s local AND organic!

As an organization promoting both organic and local food and agriculture, ACORN wanted to take this opportunity to provide a detailed response to a question we are often asked: is organic better than local or is local better than organic?

We summed up our response years ago when we developed our long-standing “Local and organic…better together!” motto, but even we recognize that a catchy slogan only goes so far in communicating the complexity of our food system.

The crux of the matter really is that “local versus organic” is a mismatched comparison. “Local” and “organic” have had the misfortune of entering the mainstream as separate concepts and then getting jumbled up into one, unclear concept. To clarify, local and organic are distinct food labels that deal with different aspects of the food chain – distribution and production, respectively. They both have their merits and their limits; one is not morally superior to the other.

“Local” indicates where food is produced, while also providing us with opportunities to better understand seasonal availability, benefit from eating more fresh foods, get to know our farming community, and support our local economies.

All of this is essential to rebuilding our food system, but it does not speak to how the food is produced. It doesn’t mention whether the food was produced with any synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), sewage sludge, antibiotics, or hormones – or whether it was produced in a way that emphasizes diversity, health, environmental protection, and humane treatment of animals. This is when the organic label comes in handy – one word communicates (with the guarantee of a third-party inspection to boot) that the food has been produced without any of those unnatural substances and in a way that promotes all those good things just mentioned.

While these clarifications are conveniently clear, they still do not address the fact that shoppers find themselves struggling to choose between local or organic. To borrow wisdom from Maria Rodale, author of The Organic Manifesto, “local is great but organic is better.” We prefer to view it as a “different but equal” situation, but her hierarchal thinking does seem to bring some clarity to such a complex issue. She goes on to explain, “Local chemical agriculture contaminates local communities. But local organic agriculture heals and cleanses local communities.” It raises a very valid point about relationships: while you may feel good buying local because it supports your community, it’s worthwhile to consider what impact the farm is having on your community beyond the economy. Are they feeding their livestock genetically modified crops, which threaten the future of food as we know it? Are they fumigating soils, effectively killing all soil life? Or maybe they’re giving their chickens medicated feed and thereby contributing to antibiotic resistance?

As Maria Rodale describes, “Organic AND local is the gold standard.” Not always achievable, but most definitely worth it in order to have a positive impact not only on our local economies, but also on our local environment and communities.

For further clarification on the benefits of local and organic, check out this resource developed by Canadian Organic Growers: Regain Control of Your Food Choices: Build Your Local Organic Food Strategy.


Author: acornorganic

Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network. Vision ACORN aims to enhance the viability and growth of the Atlantic Canadian organic agricultural community through a unified regional network. Mission Statement ACORN is a non-profit organization that promotes organic agriculture by: Facilitating information exchange between and amongst organizations and individuals Coordinating non-formal education for producers through to consumers Networking with all interested parties both regionally and nationally Structure ACORN is a membership-based non-profit incorporated cooperative with an eleven member Board of Directors and an Executive Director.

2 thoughts on “Debunking local vs organic

  1. I think that it’s important to add another dimension to this article. Much of the organic foods that the average shopper buys at a centralized distribution centre such as Superstore or Sobey’s come from large-scale and unsustainable “organic” production.

    The issue is that many large-scale agribusinesses are growing organic food using many conventional and industrial practices. Issues such as aquifer depletion, soil compaction, nutrient depletion, erosion, and intensive fossil fuel use for both production and transportation are not solved by the “organic” label.

    I believe that it is incredibly important to add a third dimension to this mix: small-scale. Small-scale infers characteristics such as hands-on, human inclusion, low fossil fuel use, diversity of production, resilience to stresses, and lower environmental impact.

    Small-scale, local, and organic comprise the gold standard. No one is better than the other, and no one can hold up on its own, but all three are absolutely needed if any farm is to be considered truly sustainable. Where can you buy such food? At farmers’ markets, locally sourced health food stores, and the farm gate, or through CSAs and food boxes. Getting to know your farmers is the first step.

  2. Pingback: The value of organic certification « ACORN the blog

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