The Burden of Choice: On Buying Squash in the Grocery Store

I stood in the produce section, in front of the squash, a tall pile of butternut, acorn and spaghetti, torn between the organic selection from Mexico or the locally grown from Colorado. I care about where my food comes from but didn’t know which was better, for my body, for the planet, for our food system. I thought about greenhouse gas emissions and about pesticides, and I ultimately grabbed an organic butternut and a local acorn to cover all bases.

But the dilemma stuck with me. I’m a big believer in policy solutions and generally skeptical of the impact of personal choice. Sure, I use reusable bags, turn off the lights and try to minimize driving, but I’m cognizant that really we need a ban on plastic bags, improved energy efficiency and more transit. My individual decision to buy a single acorn squash from Colorado likely won’t impact local farming, but it’s one of many decisions we face every day, hoping to make the world a bit better yet unsure how.

What is better? Local or organic? Here are some fact-based considerations:

  • While organic farming uses less energy than conventional farming, that organic Mexican squash had to travel more than 1,000 miles to Denver.
  • Organic produce can contain pesticides derived from natural ingredients and the label says nothing else people might care about, like growing practices or how workers are treated. When produce is shipped from other countries, these details become particularly hard to know.
  • Organic produce hasn’t been found to be any more nutritious than conventionally-grown food, however there is evidence that local, seasonal food may retain nutrients better than produce that’s been shipped around the country or the globe.

In the end, relying on me – an ordinary consumer with little detailed understanding of food production and virtually no information – to use my decision-making power to move the food system toward greater sustainability is absurd. Don’t get me wrong: I'm glad that consumers are being given more choices and that food producers are beginning to respond. But successful widespread change can't happen like this.

We're given a false choice: local or organic, when really we need a food system that grows more food closer to home while also reducing our reliance on pesticides. We know our current system is wildly unsustainable: pesticides are killing bees, pollution from poultry farms is contaminating waterways, growing food in deserts is exacerbating water shortages, and food production is contributing to global warming, not to mention making us fat. The choice we make among a series of imperfect options in Aisle 5 is not an adequate or effective response to those problems.

I expect that I’ll keep struggling to make the best decision I can when standing in the squash aisle. But we also need to understand that it’ll take something much more profound to get our food system on track – and that it will require the work of all of us working together, not each of us acting separately.

All the choices... 



Photo Credit (top to bottom): Flickr user Tim Evanson; Flickr user Lyza