How To Buy Sustainable Produce

The best fresh produce is local, seasonal and organically grown…but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be sporting an organic label.

Learn about the issues facing sustainable, local food production and how to evaluate and purchase clean, sustainable produce.

Organically grown vs certified organic

Certified organic produce is grown in a way that conforms with organic standards set by the government. Buying produce that is certified organic gives you the assurance that your food was grown without most synthetic pesticides, fertilizers (some synthetic fertilizer additives are on the list of allowed substances) or sewage sludge. Farmers are not allowed to use GMO seeds, though cross contamination from nearby fields is always an issue, especially for certain crops such as corn and soy. Farmers are required to manage land to improve the fertility and quality of the soil, as well as minimize erosion.

The government certification, or USDA Certified Organic, is the lowest standard of organic available. There are other accredited certifiers that use the USDA regulations as a baseline, but have more rigorous requirements and testing. Look for CCOF, Oregon Tilth or QAI logos.

Buying certified organic produce is a good choice, especially when you are in a situation where you don’t know anything about the farms that produce your food…for instance, if you are shopping in a supermarket.

However, there are many small, local, family run farms that grow their crops organically, and aren’t certified. In fact, some of these farmers use higher standards of land management than national organic standards require.

There are many legitimate reasons for farmers to elect not to get certified. So don’t avoid produce without an organic seal. Get to know your local farmers, go on farm tours in your area, talk to them at the farmers market. With a little work, you can buy excellent organic produce while supporting local farmers who are growing responsibly and with integrity. Sometimes it’s even a little less expensive, since farmers do not have to bear the cost of certification.

Heirloom varieties

In the last hundred years, over 75% of food crop biodiversity has been lost. When you go to the grocery store to buy apples, you may find four or five varieties available, when in fact there used to be thousands of apple varieties.

How do farmers decide what to grow? In this era of mechanized, industrial farming where produce needs to survive the rigors of long distance shipping, crop varieties are chosen based on such criteria as size and shape uniformity (to make harvesting by machine possible), and thickness of the skin (to survive shipping).

Once crop varieties disappear, they are gone forever. So choose heirloom varieties when they are available.

Say no to GMO

Make sure your produce was not grown from genetically modified seed. The majority of corn, soy and canola crops are genetically modified. Other produce, such as papaya, potatoes and zucchini may be genetically modified.

Does your produce have a label? If it is five numbers long and starts with an 8, it is a GMO. However, GMO labelling in the US is voluntary, so the absence of labelling does not guarantee that the produce isn’t a GMO.

Since there is no requirement in the US to label GMOs, and there is possibility of cross contamination for crops such as corn, avoiding GMOs is not an easy task, even if you buy certified organic food.

Beyond the Dirty Dozen

When sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, some vegetables and fruits have more chemical residue than others. Apples retain a high level of residue, while grapefruit does not. While this is interesting and useful information, the idea of insisting on organically grown produce based primarily on how much residue remains on the final product misses the big picture.

When synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are used on crops, they negatively affect the health of farm workers, degrade the fertility and biodiversity of the soil, sicken and kill beneficial insects, amphibians and birds, and contaminate local watersheds, making the world you live in a little more toxic, a little less alive and fertile.

Less pesticide residue on your food is preferable, of course. But when you step back and look at the larger reality, when pesticides and toxic chemicals are used, they don’t just disappear after the harvest. You are going to have to pay the price for this one way or another.

So rather than being selective about which foods you bother to buy organic, it’s time to be realistic about having no part in releasing toxic chemicals into the environment. It’s worth the effort and the expense.

Choose whole, unprocessed food

Nutrients are lost in food processing, chemicals are added and the more food is handled, the more opportunities for contamination are created. Skip the bagged prewashed lettuce, pre-cut butternut squash, etc.

Whole foods will be fresher, less expensive, and require less packaging.

Buy local, buy in season

When you buy certified organic produce, it may be out of season and flown in from another country. Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s sustainable or nutritious.

Buying local produce pretty much guarantees you are buying foods in season, unless they are grown in hothouses. Why does buying local matter?

There has been much talk about food miles and how much fuel it takes to fly and truck food all over. While it’s a valid point, it also takes a lot of fuel to truck food to farmers markets, and the transport methods available to small farmers are often not very fuel efficient. But there are many other reasons to prefer local food in season.

Local produce is fresher, which makes it more nutritious. Food that needs to survive extensive travel is picked before it is ripe. Some foods are gassed to keep them from ripening too fast and some are gassed at the end of transport to make them appear more ripe. Farmers markets feature produce that has been picked usually that same morning, or within 24 hours.

Creating a diverse local food economy is good for your community financially and also creates resilience in the face of climate change. When farmers are a part of the community they serve, accountability is easier to achieve.

Wild foods

While foraging is not for everyone, wild foods can be foraged just about everywhere. With a little education and a good guidebook, you can let Nature do the work while you do the harvest.

You can join a foraging group in your area, or use a guidebook. You’ll need to learn how to identify safe foods, avoid poisonous ones and adhere to foraging etiquette.

What to buy

  • Whole, unprocessed food
  • Local producers
  • Heirloom and open pollinated varieties
  • Non-GMO
  • Organically grown (certified or not)
  • Foods in season

Where to buy

  • Farmers market
  • CSA
  • Co-op
  • Small local grocer
  • Supermarket
  • Community food exchange
  • Local farm exchanges, such as
  • Foraging
  • Grow your own

Checklist to evaluate certified organic produce

  • Is it local? Where is this food grown? Prefer local or regional producers. Buying imported produce from China or Chile, even if it is certified organic, is not a sustainable practice.
  • Who owns this farm? Prefer a person, a family or a co-op. Make sure there is a real person behind the farm, not a faceless corporation.
  • What grows on the farm? Avoid monocropped farms and look for growers that practice companion planting, rotational planting, low or no-till methods.
  • Look for farmers who are growing heirloom and open pollinated varieties. The good thing is that certified organic produce is never grown from GMO seed. But they still may be using hybrids or industry standard varieties. Farmers that are keeping genetic diversity alive by growing heirlooms deserve support.

Checklist to evaluate non-certified produce

  • What do you use to fertilize your crops? Do you use petrochemical fertilizers, or sewage sludge?
  • Do you use synthetic herbicides or pesticides? If not, how do you manage weeds and pests?
  • Do you integrate wild spaces, such as hedgerows and riparian buffer zones, into your farm to support animal and insect life?
  • Do you grow GMO seeds? Do you grow open pollinated seeds or heirloom varieties?
  • Is your farm monocropped or do you grow a variety of crops?
  • Who owns your farm? Is it a person, a family, a co-operative?
  • Is the farm local or regional?

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