Not too many years ago, buying products labeled "organic" was about as much as you could do to cast a vote for planetary health.

But as organic produce has become more widely available, much of it also is being produced on an industrial scale many thousands of miles from its final destination - your mouth.

On the local front, there's been an explosion of farmers' markets, as well as the steady growth of grocery chains committed to sustainable products, such as Whole Foods, Wild by Nature and Trader Joe's. The Internet also has become a valuable resource.

But with more choices has come more confusion. How do you navigate the thicket of products that purport to be sustainable? How do you choose between organic mesclun from California and conventional arugula from Riverhead? What's natural about natural beef? Where do free-range chickens roam?

In honor of Earth Day, we offer this sustainability primer.

LEARN THE LINGO

Organic

Plants grown without proscribed chemical pesticides and fertilizers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Organic meats are from animals that were fed organically grown feed. Genetically modified plants (and animals fed genetically modified plants) cannot be labeled as organic. The opposite of "organic" is "conventional," or "conventionally grown."

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Natural

Essentially meaningless. According to the USDA, it means minimally processed, but virtually anything you would recognize as raw meat is considered natural.

Free-range

Federal regulations require "free-range" poultry to have access to the outdoors. This does not mean the birds in question took advantage of the access.

Grass-fed | Pastured

No federal regulations exist, but the terms connote an animal that lives outdoors and eats the grass (and whatever else) it finds there. The animal's diet can be supplemented with grain feed. Some beef cattle that are raised on grass are "finished" on grain to fatten them up.

Sustainable

No legal meaning, but the idea is that the food in question should sustain the planet (by not depleting or polluting the soil or water supply), the people who eat it (by being whole and healthful) and the people who produce it (by affording them a living wage and a healthy environment).

FRUITS AND VEGETABLES

The issues

In a perfect world, all produce would be organic and local, but if you live in the Northeast, eating locally means asparagus in spring, tomatoes in late summer and early fall, and only cabbage during the winter. With big agribusiness getting into the organic game, much organic produce is produced on a huge scale in factory farms many thousands of miles away. From an environmental standpoint, the fuel it takes to transport organic lettuce from California (or Chile) to Long Island may outweigh the virtues of growing it without pesticides and fertilizers. Then again, many worthy small local farms are not necessarily organic.

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How to navigate

SHOP AROUND Ann Rathkopf, co-leader of Slow Food's Huntington chapter, belongs to a Community Supported Agriculture program, frequents her local farmers' market and also shops at the supermarket. "I try not to buy things that come from very far away," she said.


ASK QUESTIONS According to Alexandra Zissu, author of "The Conscious Kitchen" (Potter, $13.99), "One great thing about a farm stand is that there's someone to ask." A local farm that is not certified organic may well use very minimal pesticides, something you can discover by talking to the farmer. Even at the supermarket, feel free to collar the produce manager and interrogate him or her (nicely).


DON'T DISREGARD PACKAGING "When I see organic salad greens in those bulky plastic containers," Rathkopf said, "I won't buy it, no matter how good it looks."


SPEND YOUR ORGANIC MONEY WISELY The nonprofit Environmental Working Group publishes a list of the most and least pesticide-laden conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. The so-called "dirty dozen" are peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, kale, lettuce, imported grapes, carrots and pears. Spend the extra money to buy these organic. The conventional fruits and vegetables with the lowest pesticide residue are onions, avocados, frozen corn, pineapple, mangos, asparagus, frozen peas, kiwi, cabbage and eggplant. Buying these organic may not be worth the money. See the full list at foodnews.org.

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MEAT, POULTRY AND DAIRY

The issues

When it comes to sustainable meat and dairy, it's difficult to find products that satisfy every concern. If your main goal is that the animals not be fed conventionally grown or genetically modified feed, look for meat labeled "USDA Certified Organic." If how the animals were raised and slaughtered is important, look for a label bearing a third-party certification such as "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" or "Animal Welfare Approved." If you're looking for meat raised on grass (as opposed to grain), you'll have to do some digging around on the company's Web site or phone customer service.

How to navigate

BE MINDFUL OF YOUR PLACE IN THE FOOD CHAIN "If you saw what they fed to a conventional chicken," Zissu said, "you'd never eat that stuff. But, in effect, that's what you're eating when you eat the chicken." She observed that the higher up on the food chain a product is, the more risky it can be. A cow that's been eating nothing but conventionally grown grain for its whole life may yield beef and milk that are more compromised than conventional broccoli that was only in the ground for a few months.


KNOW YOUR FARMERS "I try to be on a first-name basis with the people who raise the animals I eat," says Rathkopf, who has been enjoying the chickens and beef she buys at the farmers' market from Ed Leonardi of Wildcraft Farms. If you can't know your farmer, try to establish a relationship with your butcher. He knows where his meat comes from.


KEEP THE PRESSURE ON Rathkopf is a fan of the Forest Pork Store, the German butcher in Huntington Station, and every time she goes in she says, "What do you have that's pasture-raised?" The answer, so far, has been "Nothing," but she figures that if enough people ask at Forest Pork (or other butchers), they may oblige.


WATCH OUT FOR ANTIBIOTICS, HORMONES AND HORMONE LABELS USDA organic standards prohibit the use of antibiotics and hormones, but the former are often used to treat conventionally raised animals, and the latter are given to cattle to help them gain weight and produce more milk. Thus nonorganic beef or milk labeled "hormone-free" or "rBGH-free" or "rBST-free" is something to look for. Federal regulations, however, forbid administering hormones to poultry and pigs so their "hormone-free" labels are about as laudable as "arsenic-free."

A buyer's guide

MILK Rathkopf buys Organic Valley milk (organicvalley.coop), whose cows are largely pastured and located in the region. Zissu recommends Natural by Nature (natural-by-nature.com), since its cows are grass-fed and its milk not ultra-high-temperature pasteurized. It is available at many natural food stores and Fairway in Plainview.


EGGS Local eggs are available at most farmers' markets, many farm stands and, of course, most poultry farms. Most supermarkets carry organic eggs, though "cage-free" claims are almost impossible to verify.


POULTRY In addition to these venerable poultry farms - Raleigh's in Kings Park (631-269-4428), Makinajian's in Huntington (631-368-9320) and Miloski's in Calverton (631-727-0239) Ed Leonardi of Wildcraft Farms (wildcraftfarms.com), in upstate Swan Lake, sells his pastured chickens at some Long Island farmers' markets. Holly and Chris Browder (browdersbirds.com) have just started raising pastured chickens on the North Fork and expect to have their first "crop" in June. As for the supermarket, while Zissu does not buy supermarket chickens, she conceded that she has been impressed by Murray's efforts to let the public see how their chickens are raised and processed.


GOAT Meet the goats whose milk makes the cheese at Catapano Dairy in Peconic (catapanodairyfarm.com). No goat meat.


RED MEAT While the USDA's definition of "natural" is so broad as to be meaningless, some brands of natural meat, such as Certified Angus Beef's "Natural," adhere to a so-called "never never never" standard, which means the producer never uses antibiotics, never uses hormones and never feeds the animals anything but a vegetarian diet. Niman Ranch, another national brand, goes beyond "never never never" by not using ionophores (additives that behave like antibiotics but, technically, are not) or urea (a synthetic supplement) or milk or whey in their animal feed. Health food stores, CSAs and the Internet are good sources for sustainably raised meats. North Quarter Farm raises bison in Riverhead, and its ground bison steak is available at Tweeds, the restaurant with the the same owners. Order at least 24 hours ahead; 631-208-3151.

WHO SELLS WHAT?

SUPERMARKETS Most supermarkets now carry organic produce and dairy products, though sustainably raised meats are harder to find. Whole Foods, Wild by Nature, Trader Joe's and Fairway have particularly good selections.


NATURAL FOOD STORES These independently owned groceries, such as Jandi's Natural Market in Oceanside and Dr. B Well Naturally in Plainview, are usually excellent sources for organic products, sustainably raised meats and dairy, as well as information.


FARMERS' MARKETS AND FARM STANDS Local, organic and nearly-organic produce is the norm at Long Island's growers' markets and farm stands, and many of them now carry meat, dairy and eggs. Look on exploreLI.com/green for lists of local markets and farms.

Buying a share in a Community Supported Agriculture program gives you access to farm-fresh produce for much of the year. Also meat and dairy. Look on exploreLI.com/green for CSAs on Long Island.


THE INTERNET If you are interested in buying sustainably raised meat directly from farmers, some good starting points are the Weston A. Price Foundation (westonaprice.org), eatwild.com, farmtotable.org and localharvest.org.