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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.
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