When Michelle Obama planted an organic garden at the White House this spring—and President Obama appointed organic-advocate Kathleen Merrigan as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture—organic farmers and food activists let out a collective cheer. What victories! And yet, listening to friends, coworkers, and the media over the ensuing months, it was clear to me that there is still a great deal of confusion—dare I say hesitancy?—over organics. Reports on food safety, disquieting environmental news, a rough economy—even the inspiring local-food movement sweeping the U.S.—make choices complicated.

If all of the noise leaves you a bit befuddled, you’re not alone. Every week as I navigate the aisles of the local natural foods store, I consider the effects on personal and environmental health—and the ethical implications—of the many foods my family and I love. Should I buy organic if it isn’t locally produced? Is it worth the extra cost? Seeking a clearer picture, I reached out to experts in the field. What did they think about some of the tough issues and prevailing skepticism surrounding organic? And does organic really live up to its promises? Here’s what I learned.