One of the great joys of summer is the abundance of fresh produce that is available in supermarkets, on farm stands, and at farmers’ markets.

But the joy can quickly turn to confusion as consumers wonder whether to buy local, organic or just plain regular produce.

Although organic farmers, environmentalists and raw foodists should not be contaminated with harsh pesticides, even many organic farmers use “natural pesticides,” which may also be hazardous to the environment and the body.

Most consumers believe that the produce they buy at the local farmers’ market is organic and locally grown, that isn’t necessarily true.

Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, said consumers need to look for certified organically grown produce to be sure what they are buying is truly organic. The certification, given by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), demonstrates that organic farmers have met the stringent requirement set by the government.

According to Cummins, some farmers’ markets require the vendors to be the producers, which allows consumers on the spot to determine if the food is grown locally and organically. But other markets allow brokers to sell growers’ produce, which makes it difficult for the buyer to know where the produce has come from.

When all else fails, consumers should ask vendors where the produce has come from.

Organic vs. Traditional Farming

Cummins said the practices employed by conventional farmers include using pesticides, which leave residues on the produce, as well as using chemical fertilizers, which impact the purity of ground water tables.

There is agreement among members of the scientific community that small doses of pesticides and other chemicals can adversely affect both fetal and childhood development.

“A non-organic apple has several pesticides,” said Cummins. “One in eight times that a child reaches for an apple, that child is getting a troublesome amount of pesticide residue.”

The problem of pesticide residue is of such concern to proponents of organic growing, that the Environmental Working Group has developed a list of 43 fruits and vegetables and their respective residue levels.

Click here for the list

Chemical fertilizers, which require petroleum to produce, run off of farmland during periods of heavy rain and contaminate ground water. They also emit green house gases that blanket the earth. Cummins believes that 20 percent of the green house gases emitted into the air come from chemical fertilizers.

Jeff Hollenback, director of research and development for Glory Foods, said farmers could decrease the amount of pesticides needed by planting perimeter crops.

He said that planting a perimeter crop around a field encourages beneficial insects to enter the field and draws harmful insects away from it into the perimeter crop, effectively eliminating the need for spraying with pesticides.

Even though the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration monitor the use of pesticides and herbicides, Hollenback said the food industry itself is more stringent than the government agencies.

The agencies, he said, often do not have enough agents on the payroll to help them enforce policy. The food industry, on the other hand, has imposed enough checks and balances on itself to reduce the use of pesticides.

Farmers currently keep spray logs that are presented when food is sold to food product companies, Hollenback said.

It also is more economically advantageous for farmers to use fewer pesticides, which keeps growing costs down and increases profitability.

He added that crops like corn and soybeans that are relatively low value per acre are genetically engineered to allow them to be sprayed with a number of different types of pesticides. That’s because farmers need the best possible yield to make growing them profitable.

The Road Less Traveled

Hollenback raised the issue of “food miles,” that is how many miles it takes to get the produce from the farm to the point of sale.

He said “local” organic farmers would like consumers to believe they sell the majority of their produce to farmers’ markets within 25 to 50 miles of their farms. But, doing so is often difficult to accommodatebecausethe overall market for local produce is quite small.

Hollenback said Glory Foods builds manufacturing plants as close to the growers as possible because of factors like the high cost of transportation and quality control. He said produce, whether organic or not, is at its best when it hasn’t traveled long distances, such as cross-country. However, sometimes this is unavoidable.

The key to success in the food production industry, Hollenback said, is to deliver the highest quality products to the customer, while still remaining environmentally friendly.