You may be wondering if it’s better to buy local or organic produce. Many people choose organic as a way to avoid pesticides and support a method of agriculture that protects the environment. However, shipping organic asparagus to New England from South America in the middle of the winter undermines many of the environmental benefits of organic farming. Many experts believe that the petroleum used to truck organic vegetables thousands of miles across the country may contribute more to global warming than conventional pesticides do.

At the grocery store you are often confronted with many conflicting choices. It can be frustrating when no one product offers everything you want for your family’s health and the well-being of the planet. You have to choose between conventional tomatoes raised in a Massachusetts greenhouse or organic tomatoes from Mexico. Maybe you’re craving a green salad but all the organic lettuce on shelf was grown in California. Or perhaps someone told you never to eat conventional strawberries (“they absorb pesticides like a sponge”) but you can’t afford the premium price.

First, take a deep breath. There is no need to get worked up over a carrot. The best course of action is to educate yourself about the relative risks and benefits of your staple foods. Some conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are known to absorb more agriculture chemicals than others, and many people choose to minimize their consumption of them. For example, you could choose to abstain from apples altogether (conventional ones can carry a fair amount of pesticide residue) or pay an extra dollar a pound for organic varieties. The Environmental Working Group has published a ranked list of 45 common fruits and vegetables based on each item’s pesticide load. Peaches, apples and bell peppers appear at the top as the most commonly found with chemicals while avocados and onions land at the bottom. The complete list is available on their website: http://www.foodnews.org/

It turns out that the conventionally grown local tomato doesn’t tend to carry agricultural chemicals very much at all (the EWG ranks it #30). But things may get a little more complicated once more local vegetables start turning up the supermarket and farmer’s markets open for the season. What do you do if you find out that your favorite local pick-your-own apple orchard isn’t certified organic? Don’t turn your back on the small business owner. Ask the farmer what kind of methods he or she uses. Many responsible growers forgo the use of toxic or persistent pesticides but choose not to get USDA certified. Several New England farmers practices “Integrated Pest Management,” an environmentally sensitive approach that uses a combination of techniques to manage pests with minimal hazard to people and property. About 15 farms in Massachusetts are members of the “Certified Naturally Grown” network of growers who maintain high standards of production overseen by a not-for-profit certification agency. Purchasing certified organic is the best way to ensure that a crop is grown without toxic or persistent pesticides, but it’s important to note that many non-organic growers use these substances sparingly or not at all.

For a couple of weeks in June, you’ll be faced with the option to buy either locally grown strawberries (not certified organic) and organically grown ones from California – and both look juicy and delicious. Personally, I’d pick the local strawberries. For me, the pleasure of eating a locally grown berry, which is available for such a limited time, is just wonderful! But everyone has their own set of criteria for buying food, and you have to make your own judgment call about what’s most important for you.

Some local farms deliver produce to Whole Foods Market stores the day it is picked which translates into better tasting and more nutritious meals. We post the farm name and location on all items grown in New England and can often tell you a bit about the farmer. Please do not hesitate to ask questions while you are shopping. Making educated choices at the grocery store can have a positive impact on your family’s health, the livelihood of family farmers and the well-being of the environment. Bon Appetit!

Lauren Klatsky