Conservation tip: prioritize organic over local for a caprese salad


A yummy caprese salad. Local: good. Organic: Better. Local and Organic: Best

We’ve all been there. You missed the weekend farmer’s market and are standing at the supermarket salivating for a caprese salad trying to decide between locally-grown non-organic tomatoes and the organic tomatoes shipped from some far-off place. Which one do you grab?

Well, new research from the University of Wales (academic citation, Guardian article) suggests that in general, the food miles are actually a minor portion of the total ecological footprint of food. In the study of a basket of foods in Cardiff, transport amounted to only 2% of the total environmental cost. Growing conditions, packaging and processing made up the bulk of the impact. In fact, a separate article in the same journal shows that local food systems actually have slightly higher carbon emissions!

This contradicts the claimed benefits of the 100-mile diet. The 100 mile diet is clearly aspirational for most Americans. If you live in California, its a reasonable goal. But if you’re in Minnesota, just how appetizing is a six month diet of turnips and cabbage? And what is the benefit of all that suffering if there aren’t carbon savings? Hmm. Maybe the organic asparagus in February is not the Beelzebub of the fridge.

Adding fuel to the fire is the border-on-protectionist proposal by the UK Soil Association (the certification agency for UK organics) to strip the organic label from foreign produced certified organic goods that are flown in. It’s bad enough that the world’s poor farmers get dinged with high tax bills, but without the support of consumers, now it seems they’ll have little incentive to make the push to organic, which is a shame.

So, to return to the original dilemma, I’ll let you decide which tomatoes are best, and just inspire you with a caprese recipe.

Ingredients: (serves 4)

2 lbs tomatos (see discussion above)
1 lb fresh mozzerella (don’t go for the packaged stuff)
Handful of fresh basil or arugula
Olive oil for drizzling
Salt and Pepper to taste


  1. Cut the tomatoes and cheese into chunky slices about half an inch thick.
  2. On a large platter, start alternating slices of cheese, basil, and tomato. Bonus points for designs that replicate the TerraPass logo.
  3. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper.


  • Don’t skimp on the quality of the olive oil. A good spicy one like Trader Joe’s Estate Grown Organic is well worth your time here.
  • Don’t skimp on the cheese. Fresh only!
  • If you’re using wild arugula be careful — some varieties are nuclear hot. Taste first.
  • If you use arugula rather than basil, consider sprinkling some oregano on as well.

Author Bio


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  1. keith beveridge - July 11, 2007

    If you are saying that buying local organics, or just local, is just a tiny bit better than purchasing foods from around the world, I think you are a bit off on your research or study. I can assure you that purchasing goods at my local co-op, goods that are mostly unpackeged, or that are shipped in bulk have a much less impact.
    If I purchase everything I use in my house, which believe it or not can easily be done in most parts of the country that I have traveled and lived, my overall impact will be far less than people who shop at big box stores and people who purchase items shipped around the world for their consumption.

  2. Brad - July 11, 2007

    I think it really depends on the method of production of the non-organic product. If the product is manufactured to poor standards in terms of energy usage and emissions, the emissions of that product related to transport may pale in comparison to the total emissions of production. If I understand it correctly, I think the research Tom refers to is saying that in the end, an organic product that has traveled a longer distance actually may have produced fewer emissions than an inefficiently produced one that traveled a shorter distance; i.e., transport is not the only, and in many cases may not even be the prime, source of emissions.

  3. Anonymous - July 11, 2007

    One study convinced you? Did you just happen across it or did they send it to you?

  4. Anonymous - July 11, 2007

    Thanks for the discussion stimulant on organic vs. local. It seems obvious that we need to strive for organic and local all over the world. I wonder if TerraPass’s dependence on folks traveling by air informs the articles and the research you choose to run or at least the slant that comes out. This is the dilemma of our society. I’m as busy as the next guy and would love to leave the research up to others (like you) and therefore leave the forming of my choices to others. Unfortunately it’s not that easy. I can’t give you that much influence over me and I encourage you to look beyond your own needs and promote the needs of communities all over this beautiful, resourceful planet. Both organic food and air travel will soon become irrelavent when we believe that we can’t do better than to encourage the freshest, most nutritious food possible being moved from the smallest farms to the nearest plates all over the world. Blessings.

  5. Sorina - July 11, 2007

    It is one study is true, and we need to see more of this kind of research. It starts the discussion and dialog is always constructive.

    I try to buy local and from a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) organic farm. I like this idea of supporting the local farmer, and I believe in having farmland near cities instead of sprawling urban islands.

    Adam, thanks for providing the citation for the article. It was really helpful since the Guardian piece said the research was published in the “journal Sustainable Food Consumption”. I work in a University so I have access to large database of journals, and this one doesn’t seem to exist. Adam, your points are great, but mentioning the Guardian piece undermines the credibility of the message. Keep up the good work.

  6. JML - July 11, 2007

    It’s good to view stories like these with skepticism and to investigate the sources and authors. However, a quick check shows that the Guardian article seems to have a mis-print: The article is _titled_ “Sustainable Food Consumption…” and was published in the “Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning,” a publication of Routledge, a (seemingly) large and legitimate journal publishing house.
    Would be good to see the whole article to understand the assumptions, and to see follow-up studies on this issue!

  7. Sally - July 11, 2007

    Hmmm. The study was done in Wales but you didn’t specifically state that the study covered conditions in the USA. From ecological footprint studies, it’s clear that different locales have different ecologocal impacts, so a study that covers conditions in the UK and/or Europe cannot necessarily draw the same conclusions in the USA. I’d have to know alot more about the study and it’s methodology to say whether I believe this one study applies to me here in the USA. (And by the way, I do believe in buying organic and local, and also try to grow my own veggies.)

  8. Anne - July 11, 2007

    I know Terrapass is about energy consumption, but There is so much more to this debate of local v. organic than just carbon footprints. When I buy local food from a farmers market, or pick up my CSA share, i’m keeping dollars in my community, cutting down on packaging, keeping land in my region (which has great development pressure) in agriculture, supporting farmers, and ensuring that the food itself has the highest nutritional value that it can – many foods begin to lose nutritional value the moment they are picked. I’d much rather support a local farmer who I know and trust, than an organic farmer from 3000 miles away who may be doing monoculture and actually abusing the land in many ways (not to mention farm workers on some of the big organic farms). And let’s not even get into the issue of the many ecologically minded farmers who farm “organically” or even beyond organic, but dont’ certify for financial or political reasons. Bottom line, KNOW YOUR FARMER! We’re too divorced from the sources of our food, and that’s the big loss here.

  9. Tom Arnold - July 11, 2007

    Good discussion and points.
    For those looking for the actual study, sorry I still don’t have it (pesky interlibrary loan, will be here in 2 weeks). And yes, the Guardian, flubbed the reference, but some foodie blogs corrected them. Surely someone in our community has access to it and can give us a lowdown on the assumptions before it arrives in snail mail? I am sure the math is very different for both location and crop grown.
    I agree that organic and local is best, both for climate and for those of us that want to keep money in our communities, which is I tried to point out the situational dilemma as where you’ve already missed the farmer’s market.
    Anne: great points about other reasons to eat local. Also, no-one has mentioned it, but of course many very small farmers don’t bother with the organic certification because so many of their customers know them.

  10. Jacquie - July 11, 2007

    Nothing taste better then homegrown. Every single person can try and grow tomatoes. You may not grown enough to feed the family, but the challange and reward is awesome and fun.

  11. Green Jersey Girl - July 11, 2007

    My first impulse is to choose organic over non-organic local, unless I know enough about the farm that produced the local produce. There are many farms now in New Jersey that are not certified organic but are in a transitional stage and I happily support them. It takes a little more work to learn about the local farmers, but there are usually organizations that can help if you don\’t have direct access at the farmer\’s market.

  12. Laurie - July 11, 2007

    There\’s another point that I think we\’re missing here, which is that healthy local food systems create and sustain healthy local communities. Unfortunately, monocropping and industrial agriculture have decimated many farming communities around the world. I agree with the author of this article that at this point, protectionism can be devastating to farmers who produce for international markets, especially those in the developing world who are hoping to provide for niche markets in the industrial world. Still, I think there is an argument for local food that does not rely on scientific calculation of footprints and miles. Rather, it has to do with rebuilding and sustaining communities and cultures. I buy local because I want to ensure that the farms around my city don\’t get swallowed up by suburban sprawl. I don\’t think that argument is captured by a calculation of food miles or carbon footprint.

  13. Sat - July 11, 2007

    Good points, interesting though that you mention Trader Joes. What is their carbon footprint?

  14. John - July 11, 2007

    I find it interesting that the article claims that processing and packaging account for a larger enviro impact than transport, yet supports non-local organic. Inveritably produce that is shipped all over the world requires more packaging and processing than locally produced items– how else do they keep it “fresh” in spite of the travel? For instance, the transport cost of leafy greens from CA may only be that 2%, but what impact do the large harvesting machines and plastic bagging have? I suggest much more than a locally farmed product that may not be “certified” organic, that I can buy bunched not bagged, that has been hand-picked within a day of purchase. Add in the fact that I would much rather give my money to a family farmer than a million dollar corporation, the choice is easy for this consumer.

  15. Chad - July 11, 2007

    There have been other studies in the past that have largely been in line with the conclusions found in this one. It is not clear at all that “buying local” has a positive impact on the environment. It may even be negative.
    I think what people forget (especially around here) is that, well, economies of scale work. There is a reason it is proportionately easier to cook for four rather than cook for yourself. The same reasoning holds when applied to a mega-corporation vs an independant. What this studies appears to have found is that the economies of scale offset transportation costs. This should not be hard to understand or particularly surprising.

  16. Elizabeth - July 11, 2007

    Adding to the points some have made, some small farms elect not to get the organic certification because it is very expensive, though they may go above and beyond what’s required.
    What’s most important is the access to information as a consumer. The ability to know your local growers, ask them questions, etc. vs. buying from what may be a mega-farm that does have the organic label but doesn’t pay their workers a fair wage, etc. (and to not have the ability to find out) is critical.

  17. Drew - July 11, 2007

    Let me start with something anyone commenting on this article should also mention- location: I live in the Washington, DC area. Certainly, local and organic is the best. Around here you can do that pretty well for most things from April to October or so and you have the money for the premium (often astronomical)prices. Then it gets sparse. We do have real winter here and the farmers markets close. Anything locally grown disappears. Should we emit extra carbon driving dozens of miles around my area looking for anyone who might have some locally grown lettuce, root vegetables or other “cold season” stuff; or just stop eating fruit and vegetables to prove we are stil carbon conscious? By the way, there is no such thing as locally grown citrus in most of the country. Are we polluters for avoiding scurvy and (gasp!) the decadence?
    Let’s look at this from a 30,000 foot viewpoint. 1) Carbon footprints of petroleum based pesticides and fertilizers are enormous, aside from the other environmental issues where they leave huge bootprints. 2) Large scale farming is here to stay- like it or not- for many reasons.
    We can’t all enjoy a Sebastapol-like existence with year round local, organic produce grown on small farms. Given that most of the non-local produce in this country travels by diesel truck/locomotive- not airplane (where did that assumption come from?)- I am willing to trust for now that organic produce from anywhere has a lower- no worse than equal- carbon footprint than locally grown stuff with all the fertilizer and organophosphates. The overall environmental impact outside just carbon is definitely lower.
    And- when you consider that sustainability has social and economic aspects, you really can’t avoid asking yourself about the health impacts of fewer chemicals produced (components of/all of which- in far away places under less-stringent if any environmental regulation), transported and used in the mid-long run. This driven by market forces dictating to the farming industry that they need to dedicate a lot more land to meeting the organic demand.
    Absolutely- more studies to gather all the information and know the total truth. But let’s not poo-poo a quite plausible idea just because it isn’t what we may want to hear. I am actually happy that there is enough organic produce making its way into the mainstream food market that this argument is even happening. Why aren’t the naysayers? Can’t we find a better, less beneficial thing to attack than organic produce?

  18. Beth - July 11, 2007

    I certainly have the best options, living near the Salinas Valley in California, but once in a while I find myself at Trader Joes looking at the produce… from CHILE! My question: Is it better to buy organic produce from South America, or US grown produce not labelled organic? I’d rather support Washington apple growers, even if their apples aren’t organic, than purchase organic apples from Chile.

  19. Jane - July 11, 2007

    “I’d rather support Washington apple growers, even if their apples aren’t organic, than purchase organic apples from Chile.”
    Why? I don’t understand.
    Buy local vs buy from afar seems like a complicated question that defies a black-and-white, all-encompassing answer.
    Lowering carbon footprints, avoiding and discouraging pesticides and herbicides, supporting developing countries, appreciating the comparative advantages of various regions the world (French wine, Italian olives, Alaskan salmon, English cheese, etc), knowing the source of your food, having access to foods that cannot be produced locally — they all seem to be factors worth taking into account when buying your food.
    What I don’t get is the assumption that 1) personal suffering automatically produces the greatest environmental benefit; 2) that a shopping center in your area is environmentally worse than a shopping center somewhere else; 3) that a world without trade is a better world.

  20. Emily - July 11, 2007

    It seems to me that the lesson here is simply that there are no absolutes. In most regions, an environmentally “perfect” diet simply isn’t an option, and you’re frequently left to choose the lesser of two evils (or, in this case, the better of two pretty good choices).
    There are no absolutes.
    The garden in my back yard is not 100 percent organic. I’m sure there’s some Roundup drifting over from the fence line, where my neighbor sprayed for poison ivy. But I am willing to bet my house — and the solar array being installed on its roof this month — that a salad made out of cucumbers and tomatoes harvested from my own garden is infinitely better for the environment than a plastic bag full of certified organic tomatoes trucked in from Mexico and cucumbers trucked in from California. How local is your local produce, and how conventional are your conventional farmers?
    And what of the widely held belief that a vegan diet is better for the environment than a diet that includes a few animal products? While that’s probably true as a general rule, I can think of two obvious exceptions in my own life: Honey harvested from the beehive in my garden has a much smaller footprint than organic sugar made from heavily processed cane or beets shipped in from some exotic locale, and scrambled eggs from my beloved backyard hens (who till and fertilize my garden, provide all-natural pest control, recycle my grass clippings and kitchen scraps, and provide me with constant entertainment that doesn’t require me to plug in the TV or VCR) have a much smaller footprint than scrambled tofu made from soybeans grown in the Midwest and then shipped for California for processing before being packed into foil-lined, plasticized cartons and shipped back to the Midwest for consumption.
    Moral of the story: Do what makes sense, think about your choices, and let it go. If you make it too complicated, you won’t stick with it. Keep it simple, do the best you can, and spread the word. It’s that last bit that will ultimately have the greatest impact.

  21. Mike - July 11, 2007

    I think the underlying problem with our industrial food chain is not an Organic vs. Local debate, but the over-consumption mentality of the consumer. (as exemplified by “salivating for a caprese salad “) We are in this environmental mess because we as consumers demand asparagus in February. Asparagus flown in form Argentina even if it is Organic is not the answer, the answer is to skip the asparagus and eat what is available seasonably, locally and organically with no compromises. And for those of us in Minnesota it does not mean six months of turnips and cabbage!
    Also, I don’t think the debate of Organic vs. Local can be made on one environmental parameter such as in the study and the article. Eating Local moves beyond the transportation issue as many posts have indicated. It also moves into the realm of social justice issues including that of the “world’s poor farmers”. You can see examples all over the world where consumer demand (from the U.S. and Europe) shifts sustainable, populous feeding crops to high demand cash crops. So, the consumer support of the “poor farmer” in any developing part of the world does not reduce poverty or hunger, but exacerbates it.

  22. Anonymous - July 11, 2007

    Thank you for this information because this is a dilemma that has been on my mind a great deal. I currently live in British Columbia where it is easy to find locally grown organic food but I grew up in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories where the only thing that grows is lichen and literally everything has to be brought in from a great distance. For those of you sticking your nose up at this problem believe me it is a reality for many people in the world. Not everyone can grow their own food – why make them feel bad for that.

  23. Tara - July 11, 2007

    Great discussion. I especially like the point from Mike about just how farming hurts farmers other places in the world – you can’t assume that what you are buying is a healthy, sustainable crop for them. If you haven’t seen it, by the way, rent The Future of Food.
    I haven’t seen it here yet, but I’ve read some good information about what TYPES of food you absolutely should buy organic if you can afford it, and which foods aren’t as necessary. For instance, any food where you eat the whole thing, peel/skin/rind and all (e.g. strawberries), it is best to get organic. HOWEVER, I think you should buy local as much as possible. If your local isn’t grown organic or without pesticides, then maybe you should just consume less of certain foods. And we all need to support farmers and work with policy-makers so that going organic isn’t so onerous, expensive, or otherwise difficult.

  24. Deanna L Nichols - July 11, 2007

    As Tara states, there are no absolutes, and it is good to look at all the parameters, including that *in some cases* certified organic non-local food may be a better choice than non-certified local food.
    What I would ask the write to consider in the future is avoiding reductionist summaries, like the title of this article “Conservation Tip: Prioritize Organic over Local.” Too many people, not having the wherewithal to dig into the research themselves, or even to read an article fully, make decisions based on “thought-bites” like this.
    It happens all the time when scientific research is reported in the popular press. I’d urge you not to buy into the same style of journalism that allows people to substitute thought-bites for actual thinking.

  25. Aaron A. - July 11, 2007

    I hear you, #22. Anchorage is a little better; we have an embarrassment of produce during the summer, but September through May, there\’s barely any ground in which to grow vegetables.

    For me, this brings up another choice: storage. Is it worth buying and maintaining a chest freezer, so that I can buy local/organic in season, then can, pickle, or freeze everything so it will last the rest of the year? In a town where a single bell pepper costs $2.49 and had to fly 2,000 miles to get here, the effects can be significant financially as well as ecologically.

  26. Tom H - July 12, 2007

    I have read a lot of different sides of this debate (Pollan vs. Mackey, for one) and, like all good scientific debate, there are many perspectives and ways of deciding which is “better”.
    I have also read a lot of progressive debate on other important issues. There’s one thing I think is important to remember: issues that become polarized in the public view become fodder for the conservative “divide and conquer” machine that has ruled our political landscape for a good deal of the last 30 years. And yes, the press, enlightened or otherwise.
    I think this is a great commentary, and important for me, since it really is a bummer to see that all the fruit I might eat now (in MA) comes from 3000 miles away. Adding in the impact of the carbon footprint of non-organic farming changes the dynamic dramatically.
    But we must be careful top present this not as a “good vs. bad” argument, but a “which is better” argument. Certainly no one would argue that non-local, non-organic food is better than either other option!
    So I strongly support Deanna’s comment. It’s important not to reduce the argument. TerraPass has a lot to prove to the world, and it’s not everyone who can grasp the complicated economic mechanisms that make it all work. Keep your views positive and presented in a way that shows, even if we have different views, we agree on the main points completely.
    Organic or Local: Both a better option than conventional!

  27. alan wagner - July 13, 2007

    I agree with some of the comments about how the local food is produced versus organic from long ways off affects the carbon costs. Local farmers markets, tailgate markets and co-ops offer a lot of food with no packaging and very small transport cost. From California to Asheville, NC (my home) is a goodly distance. The produce has to be packaged for long shipment in refrigerated train cars or trucks. How about adding the total cost of additional wear and tear on trucks and rail cars for 2500 miles to your carbon mix? I am all for local and organic, but let’s keep the comparison fair.

  28. Deanna L Nichols - July 22, 2007

    The more I read, the more I would refute the findings of this study. In fact, the study itself would seem to me to lead to an opposite conclusion, considering that the packaging and processing that is cited as the largest environmental impact is way higher for food shipped from a long way off. Also, local foods growing on small farms are not as likely to have the high footprint growing conditions of industrialized systems.
    Michal Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy have me convinced that local is the direction to move for both community health and global survival.