Local Is Best! (by Julia Thorson)


julia.thorson-ThorsonThis term at Portland Community College, I had the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time working with the Portland Parks & Recreation – No Ivy League, working to clear invasive species from Forest Park in Portland. The main focus of this group is to give local volunteers an opportunity to help protect the local native species from non-native species of plants that were introduced to the park. This service is based on the belief that native species are worth preserving. Much of my time was spent clearing blackberry bushes, a plant that produces fruit that I love, but chokes out the native species of the forest. This created a bit of a dilemma for me as I began to think about local and native plants versus those introduced from abroad. I started to think about the foods that I eat and feed to my family, and the various labels that I see applied to these products; labels such as Organic, Natural, Fair Trade, Non-GMO, Local, Sustainable, and Carbon Footprint. This all helped me to formulate my research question:

Is Local better than Organic?

With the growing season winding down for many fruits and vegetables, much of the bright and flavorful produce will soon no longer be in season or available in the markets. The Farmer’s Markets only have a couple of months until they close, and the produce offered is already shifting away from bright red and green goods of summer to the brilliant oranges, yellows, and whites of the early fall harvest. Once the Farmer’s Markets close for the winter, the only produce that will be available is either grown in a greenhouse or shipped in from far away destinations. Much as the vibrant colors of fall fade to the dreary whites, grays and blacks of winter, so to do the flavors of the fruits and vegetables on sale. The meaty deep red of local heirloom tomatoes is replaced by the bland pink interiors of imports. The local fruits and vegetables will no longer be in season, but organic and conventional imports will carry the population through to the following spring. I hoped that through further research on this subject I could help others to understand that labelling an imported product as organic doesn’t always make it better than a product grown locally.


The Research Collection:

Onozaka, Yoku and Thilmany McFadden, Dawn. “Does Local Labeling Complement or Compete with Other Sustainable Labels? A Conjoint Analysis of Direct and Joint Values for Fresh Produce Claims.” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 93.3 (2011) 689–702. Print.

This article goes into an in-depth look at labels such as Organic, Fair Trade, Carbon Footprint, Local and imports to look at what meaning the claims really have and what impact they have on consumer perception of goods. They look at the combination of these labels, such as Organic outweighing the carbon footprint associated with a product that is imported from another country. This is an in-depth look at the labels which would be very beneficial from a marketing standpoint and understanding what people value when deciding on their purchases in the supermarket. The authors are both professors, one from Norway, and the second from Colorado State University, and the article is found in a peer reviewed industry publication (American Journal of Agricultural Economics). This helps article helps to examine the question as to which holds more value in the eyes of the consumer: local or organic by looking at the value that consumers place in each label.

Thompson, Gary D. and Kidwell, Julia. “Explaining the Choice of Organic Produce: Cosmetic Defects, Prices, and Consumer Preferences.” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 80.2 (1998) 277-287. Print.

The article examines the choices that people are likely to make between organic and conventional produce, looking at the location purchased, price and cosmetic appearance of the fruit. It is an interesting study, but limited in scope. The focus is primarily in Arizona, and is an older study when organic products were just starting to be marketed. This article is published in a respected peer reviewed journal (American Journal of Agricultural Economics), and is authored by an associate professor and researcher at the University of Arizona Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. This helps to illuminate some of the decisions that consumers will make based on aesthetic appearance of food and price.

Paarlberg, Robert. “ATTENTION WHOLE FOODS SHOPPERS: Stop Obsessing about Arugala, Your “Sustainable” Mantra-Organic, Local and Slow – Is No Recipe for Saving the World’s Hungry Millions.” Foreign Policy 179 (May/June 2010) 80-85. Print.

This article is a criticism of Organic, Local and Slow as being fine as a trend for the Western countries, but does not address the serious food crisis in other parts of the world, such as Africa. The article discusses how Africa has been using organic, local and slow food for some time, and it can’t meet the needs of the people. There is a point when you live in certain parts of the world, where local organic production will not produce enough food to meet the need. This is published in a respected, peer reviewed foreign affairs journal (Foreign Policy). The author is an associate professor at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs with a focus on agricultural development in developing countries.

Foxman, Kali D. “Organics Rule: Good for you, good for the planet.” Better Nutrition. Sept. 2003: 48-52. Print.

The article discusses some of the confusion around, what were at the time new labels for organic foods and what the labels mean. It also talks about organic foods being competitive in price with foods grown using conventional methods, when the foods are in season. This article provides some education on Organics and the labelling at a time when both were new to the market. The author was an editorial intern at the time of writing this article, and it is published in a health and nutrition magazine (Better Nutrition). The magazine is not scientific, but does provide some information on foods that are found to have higher levels of pesticides.

Dimitri, Carolyn. “Use of Local Markets By Organic Producers: The Economics of the Organic Food System.” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 94.2 (2011) 301–306. Print.

This article looks at the use of local markets as being important for smaller organic farms to make money. Many of the farms operate on a small scale and cannot provide supermarket chains with sufficient supplies to sell their goods, so they depend on the local markets and farmers markets to sell the goods. She discusses how the larger producers of organic goods are more likely to not use the local supply chains to sell their products. This article helps to explain that some products that are mass produced organically may not end up in local markets because of the limited selling power. This article is published in a respected peer reviewed industry journal (American Journal of Agricultural Economics) and the author is a Research Associate Professor at New York University in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health.


The Public Writing:

August 11, 2014

Senator Ron Wyden

911 NE 11th Ave., Suite 630

Portland, OR 97232

Dear Senator Wyden,

My name is Julia N. Thorson and I currently reside in Multnomah County in that state that you represent. I was very pleased to learn that you, and Senator Merkley, stood up for clear labeling of our food products. I am specifically referring to the vote for the Sander’s amendment to clearly label GMO food products.

As an immigrant to this great country, and a non-native English speaker, it is very important to me to understand what is in the food products that I purchase. I remember when I first arrived to the United States how amazed I was by the variety of products that were for sale in the supermarkets. This variety was not available in my native country, the Former Soviet Republic of Georgia. However, with this variety also came a number of ingredients that I had never seen before in the food I was purchasing. I was also not aware of the engineering that was going into the foods at the genetic level to make the foods look more appealing, stay fresh longer, and become resistant to harsh herbicides and pesticides.

It was difficult for me to understand what exactly it was that I was buying, but the Nutritional Facts Label helped to a certain extent. The USDA Organic label has also helped me to know which products are grown using natural means free of harmful chemicals. In recent years I have found the Non-GMO Verified label to be helpful to identify products that are verified to not have genetically modified ingredients, but there are few products with this label. Which of the products that don’t have this label have a GMO ingredient, and which ingredient is it?

Senator, I ask that you continue to support the drive to label GMO products for the sake of my own health, my family’s, and that of my community. I also ask you to support the FDAs proposed new Nutritional Facts Label to help consumers make educated decisions about the food products that they purchase. I also wish that this label was required on all consumable goods, including alcoholic products.

With the United States struggling to battle the obesity epidemic, it is vital that consumers are fully aware of all of the ingredients in the foods that they ingest. Please continue in work that you do to support Oregonian’s interests both locally and in Washington D.C.

Thank you for all that you do.


Julia N. Thorson (formerly Yuliya Plotnikova)



One comment

  1. Holly

    Hi Julia – I chose to read your paper because I know nothing about organic foods and the list of terms in your first paragraph: Organic, Natural, Fair Trade, Non-GMO, Local, Sustainable, and Carbon Footprint – are like a foreign language to me. I was interested to learn more about your subject “local vs organic” and get some information about it!

    I believe it is important for people to know what is in the food that they are buying but even well-educated people can become confused about the number of terms that are used to label foods. What does it all mean? I think there needs to be a straightforward and easy-to-understand way to label foods so consumers understand the terms and know what it is that they are purchasing and eating. I especially liked the article by Carolyn Dimitri because I had previously thought that “organic” and “local” were the same thing but now I understand what those terms mean and how they can be supportive of each other. Without really realizing it, I have been supporting our own local farmers and organic food producers because I belong to the Astoria Co-Operative grocery and I get many of my fresh fruits and vegetables there, especially in the winter when our wonderful Farmers Market is no longer an option.

    I think the article you chose by Robert Paarlberg is very interesting and informative. Reading that article has really changed my perspective on the ability of local food producers to sustain their communities. Although I really like the idea of communities producing their own foods, it may be unfeasible for local farmers to produce the quantity of foods needed. I am interested to research this further and discover if there are ways to support communities who wish to produce the majority of the foods that are consumed.

    I like the variety of articles that you have chosen to support your paper and I enjoyed reading the letter that you wrote to Senator Wyden. I now know much more about foods and food labeling and I thank you for that! Best wishes!

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