What are conventional, organic, and local foods?

Farm Forum

BROOKINGS — Not all fruits and vegetables are grown the same way.

“Farming methods used to produce fruits and vegetables for retail sale vary from conventional to organic. They can be grown and shipped hundreds if not thousands of miles or grown locally. All the descriptive terms can leave consumers confused,” said Suzanne Stluka, Registered Dietitian and SDSU Extension Food & Families Program Director.

Below, Stluka lays out some clear definitions to help explain what various production terms mean.

• Conventional farming: May utilize synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to control any diseases or pests that may damage the plants. There are government limits that set safe levels of pesticide use allowed on all foods.

• Organic farming: Organic is a labeling term that specifies that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through accepted methods using cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. If a food item has the USDA organic seal on it, it has been certified by an independent agency as having been produced using organic practices.

The term organic cannot be legally used without following a strict set of practices, which include multiple year plans.

• Local Foods: A consensus has not been reached on the definition in terms of the geographic distance between production and consumption. Local is typically based on marketing arrangement, such as farmers selling directly to consumers at farmers markets, to area grocers or to schools.

Local foods can be grown with both conventional and organic methods.

What method is best for human consumption?

Conventional and organic methods have been analyzed in research studies more than locally grown foods, explained Stluka. “Research results have been mixed, depending on the specific questions and protocols used by the researchers. What is clear is that eating more fruits and vegetables, regardless of whether conventionally, organically or locally produced, is very beneficial.”

She added that many studies that have analyzed fruit have shown that most nutrients begin to degrade the moment a fresh piece of produce is picked – organic or not – so, the sooner produce gets to the consumer, the better – provided it is stored at optimal conditions.

At the retail level, most consumers are familiar with the fact that organic produce receives significant price premiums over conventionally grown products. “Conventional, organic and local are all good healthy options, but knowing the difference is important, especially when you consider the cost that can be attached to all of these choices,” she said.

The choice is ultimately up to the consumer, Stluka said, but remember, whether organically, conventionally, or locally grown, just consuming the suggested amounts of fruits and vegetables is important for overall health.

To learn more, visit the Local Foods community on iGrow.org.