Tag Archives: sustainable agriculture

Investing in Your (Food) Economy

13 Jun

As I begin my preparations for yet another move (this will be my seventh in as many years), and begin the process of integrating myself into yet another new community, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of investment. The various paths to community.

The very first thing I do now when I know my new location is search out the good food options — is there a co-op? What’s the farmer’s market situation? What kind of CSA options might exist in my price range? My favorite resource to start looking (as I tend to also move great distances, and so must take the first steps remotely) is the great website Local Harvest, with a complex searchable database.

My new location appears to have a lot to offer by way of good food opportunities — no co-op, but lots of markets in the area, all of which run into the fall and offer links to local producers who offer shares into the winter months as well. I’m excited by the prospects and availability. I’m thrilled to get to buy meat directly from producers, to once again have my choices of leafy greens, to taste what the grass of Pennsylvania tastes like (via the cheeses!).

And I’m feeling somewhere in my chest the best and least tangible of all the benefits of local food — the ways in which participating in a local food economy makes you feel a part of the community.

Some of it is simple and direct, in that you meet more people at a farmer’s market than in a grocery store. And of course, you feel safer knowing and seeing where your food came from. You feel you’ve made less of an environmental impact. But there is a pride to handing your money over to another member of the community that immediately draws you into that intricate web of people and place.

There is a very real economic benefit to spending your food dollars locally. Local spending boosts a community’s overall income level, as it helps create local jobs, and as local producers will tend to spend their profits locally, too. And this time, I’m finding that my tendency to support local food markets is drawing me further into the community overall.

I research local food options in advance of a move so that  I don’t become complacent — so that I don’t just make that first grocery trip, quick and easy, to the mega-chain in town. And now, this time, I don’t want to let myself do that anywhere. It’s so easy, when you move, to stick to the familiar. To run to Target for those basics, instead of checking out the local Main Street general store (yes, those places do still exist!), or to swing by Best Buy or Barnes & Noble instead of finding the local — even if used! — book or record store. To open your new bank account at the national for-profit institution that played a crucial role in the current global recession rather than joining a credit union.

Nowhere do we fall more prey to this than food. On road trips, we stop at rest area McDonald’s, rather than drive off the beaten path to find a local diner. We eat at Applebee’s and call it “the neighborhood bar and grill.” But we rob ourselves of the opportunity to discover the wonderful specificity of our place by directing our investments to the branded, the familiar.

The financial rewards of a local investment — in food or music, books or banking — pay emotional dividends. The joy of discovering the character of your community, the taste of the soil, the personalities of zip codes. I know it all sounds very old-world romantic, very Little House on the Prairie, but it’s true. You may never become friends with the people of your co-op, but you leave that store with a purchase knowing you have invested in more than a profit. You have invested in a place, and that makes it  yours.

Organic Spinach Recall

1 Jun

The other day, I was checking out at the grocery store, and when I swiped my shopper’s club card, the cashier told me there was a recall notice that would print out on my receipt.

When I got the receipt, it turned out that the brand of packaged organic baby spinach I buy on pretty much every trip was being recalled for a potential salmonella contamination. I could bring the package back to the store for a full refund.

By the time I got the recall notice, the package of spinach was already empty and in my trash, so as you may guess based on the measured nature of this post, I did not, in fact, get salmonella. Since the contamination can cause nausea, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, etc. I think I would have noticed. But of course, this brings up some interesting issues to ponder here.

First, yes, even organic vegetables are in danger of becoming contaminated. For those who haven’t heard about the salmonella spinach, listeria cantaloupe, etc. of the last year or so, a brief refresher: many packaged produce products are handled at the same facilities, or shipped in the same trucks, that transmit contaminated meat products or animals, which are rarely cleaned. All it takes is one trip for potential contamination to occur.

Second, and larger, this is an important wake-up call for someone like me. I’m stuck in a situation where I resort to buying pre-packaged organic produce shipped in from distant ports (or, you know, California). And it’s important to remember that’s truly not the same thing as buying organic, local produce. Produce from a small-scale farm that doesn’t use chemicals. A farm with a small staff and easily-observable hygiene standards. A farm far from the potential contamints of the larger food industry because it’s not a part of that industry, but rather a part of a local foodshed. Produce from people whose hands I can shake.

Oh, how I wish all the produce was that kind of produce. Until we get there as a nation, let’s all of us, individually, remember to prioritize the local and transparent above all else, and not be lulled into the false sense of security a USDA organic label can give us. Organic is vitally important, especially from a larger environmental perspective, but organic can still be industrial.

Basically, the reminder here is to wash your veggies, even if you buy organic (whether for this reason, or just ot rinse of the lovely local dirt that comes with fresh farmer’s market produce!), and to keep yourself in the loop to advocate for stricter health and safety standards on a food industry way out of control.

We’re In This Together

11 May

The recent NYTimes contest calling for essays advocating for the ethics of eating meat produced some interesting responses. My take on it was similar in thought process to the winning entry. But for now, I’m interested in the reactions from around the world of food to the very idea of the contest.

In peoples’ responses, I saw evidence of the beginning of a splintering in the food movement, between those who advocate a vegetarian or vegan diet, and those of us becoming known as “selective omnivores”–who advocate a diet that includes meat but focuses on local and sustainable sourcing.

Here’s an example of the take that ethical vegetarians seemed to have to the contest:

Do ethical vegetarians…pose such a “threat” to the meat and dairy industries that the Times Magazine must now invite its millions of readers to shout them down? … We find it disturbing that the Magazine would organize such a one-sided contest, and moreover that Ariel Kaminer should introduce it with such frivolity. “Ethically speaking, vegetables get all the glory,” Kaminer writes, caricaturing vegans as members of a “hard-core inner circle” who have “dominated the discussion.” With her very breeziness (“Bon appetit!”), Kaminer seems intent on trivializing the warrant for ethical veganism.”

Michele Simon, a public health lawyer whose work I normally greatly admire had a similarly dismissive take on the notion that the ethics of meat eating are worth discussing:

Was this really a burning problem that needed solving, the lack of justifications to eat meat? What do you suppose has caused America’s love affair with meat in the first place? …  It saddens me that given all the pressing problems of our day, many of which caused by excessive meat eating (global warming, contaminated air and water, chronic disease, worker injury, and yes, animal suffering, just to name a few) the Times is promoting such a self-indulgent contest.

I’ve heard similar rumblings from some of the sustainable meat producers I know — those who raise grass-fed cattle or run small-scale slaughter operations — that the push for meatlessness is misdirected, and hurts those who are striving for a more sustainable, animal-friendly meat. One farmer friend suggested that “Meatless Mondays” should be renamed “Pasture-Raised Meat Mondays” to better support his business, and draw the line where it should be placed.

Ironically, after calling the contest self-indulent and accusing meat-eaters of being brainwashed by industry, Simon  finishes her entry by saying:

Moreover, we don’t need even more ways to polarize people over personal dietary choices. Let’s stop the infighting and focus on the core of the problem: corporate control of the food supply.

Overall, I find the notion of criticizing what the Ethicist column chooses to devote a contest to a bit frivolous in itself. But the end of Simon’s letter makes a good point, and is my point in this post: staying strong and united is in our best interests.

Ultimately, ethical vegetarians and ethical omnivores want the same things, and we need to spend more time thinking about what we have in common than on what divides us. Just as the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movements, and now, the LGBQT movement have all struggled with this kind of splintering, the new movement of food advocacy will likely occasionally butt heads over territory or priority.

Advocating for a decrease in overall meat consumption is good for all of us. Most ethical vegetarians believe that we should eat less meat overall, and while sustainable meat producers may bristle at this initially, it’s in their best interests, too. Aside from being better for our health to consume less meat than we currently do, and better for the land overall, a smaller national hankering for meat is one that can be met exclusively by small-scale, pasture-raised operations.

When I met with Bartlet Duran of Black Earth Meats a few years ago, he made an interesting point by saying that his operation isn’t interested in getting into the large chain grocery stores. To produce enough to meet the demands of a Wal-Mart, or Safeway, or Hy-Vee, they would have to scale up. And they like doing things on their scale, because it allows for ultimate control over the animals’ diets, living conditions, slaughterhouse conditions and worker pay. Direct marketing to consumers makes more sense, and that requires being a smaller operation. So if ethical vegetarians get their way, and can convince Americans to eat less meat overall, small-scale producers will be uniquely suited to meet those demands at the most competitive price point.

On the other hand, supporting sustainable meat operations is in the best interest of veg*ns, too. In every conversation I’ve ever had with a vegetarian (including with myself) about her reasons for being one — be they environmental, economic, labor-rights, or ethical — those reasons can be nearly universally addressed by the sustainable meat industry. Every problem a vegan or vegetarian has with meat is actually one they have with the industrial meat complex.

Even vegetarians who are not personally comfortable with a reversal of their diet surely can admit that if some Americans want or need to eat meat, they would rather they come from family-owned, biodynamic operations than anywhere else. In advocating for those operations, no one is suggesting that we force anyone to eat meat — just that we all work to make sure the meat that is available comes from the best possible source.

So rather than fighting with each other, let’s turn our joint attention outward to our common enemy, the industrial food complex. Let’s focus on our common ground, and we can get some real work done.

To Feed

4 May

A few months back, I had an essay contemplating fertility and motherhood on The Nervous Breakdown. But when I initially conceptualized that essay, it had a much stronger agricultural connection than the final version. In light of recent posts here about parenthood and feeding our children, I thought I’d resurrect some of the scraps of that essay into a short, meditative post on motherhood and feeding.

In describing the sand dunes in the desert in her book, Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams writes “[t]here is musculature in dunes. And they are female. Sensuous curves—the small of a woman’s back. Breasts. Buttocks. Hips and pelvis. They are the natural shape of the earth.”

The earth and the body, shaped by the same forces of biology, and in many ways servicing the same greater purpose. We, the land and the woman, are the providers of food.

*

In order to maintain its fertility—the word fertility itself here is a reminder of the links between land and body. Fertile, noun, meaning: capable of sustaining abundant plant growth; producing or bearing fruit in great quantities; capable of breeding or reproducing. In which of these definitions is the woman, in which is the land?—the soil’s nutrient cycle must be strong, constant.

Soil requires a healthy, vigorous root structure, the silken threads of dangling plants umbilical cords, flowing nutrients to the stalk, above the surface. The methods for transferring food from soil to plant to eater. Soil must be fed to be healthy enough to feed.

Soil must also be maintained. Prone to erosion, the ground itself can be swept away by too much wind, water. A soil particle can become detached, dislodged, can become an individual separate from the entity we call land. The roots and the living elements bind soil particles together into an aggregate. Healthy farming practices that reduce tillage, that use the decay of organisms to create nutrients, that limit water runoff by planting only on strong, aggregate soil, all create the elements of this bond.

And because the soil is strong, the plants have food, we have food.

But, in the name of producing food, we are poisoning the food providers. The land is sick. The women are dying.

*

Between the 1940s and the 1970s, agriculture was revolutionized—that is, agriculture underwent what is now known as “the Green Revolution” which is also known as the widespread decimation of industrial agriculture technology. Words crop up in repetition here: modern, developed, improved, synthetic, science-based.

Mostly these technologies consisted of chemicals, and of mechanisms for distributing chemicals. Pesticides to increase per acre yields. Nitrogen fertilizer to eliminate the need for soil recovery time. Plants genetically altered to grow closer together, grow with less water, grow in spite of the pesticides. What we hoped, what the whole hungry starving unequal world of food hoped, was that all these chemicals would feed more and more and more people, that all these chemicals would stop so many from going hungry. We mixed and we doused and we prayed.

We were wrong.

And we’ve known for some time now that we were wrong. We’ve known that instead of nurturing the soil, that instead of feeding the plants that would become food, chemicals are poisoning the soil, are poisoning our food.

Herbicides, meant to protect plants by eliminating weeds, are gradually destroying plant root structures, causing fungal root diseases, reducing the plants’ abilities to absorb micronutrients from the soil.

All these chemicals, too, are creating monsters. Monster weeds and monster bugs capable of withstanding the poison of the chemical. Evolving past death by chemical. So we mix more and we douse more and we pray more even though it’s not working.

Even though we know these chemicals we thought would protect our food are killing it.

*

Author, researcher, cancer survivor, Sandra Steingraber writes, upon holding a vial of her own amniotic fluid, “It contains the sap of apples, the juice of oranges, the tea I drank a few hours earlier, and the milk I poured over my cereal that morning.” The food is the land is the body.

Rivers and creeks pass from the land sprayed, so quietly, with pesticides and planted with fertilizers, into reservoirs into tap water. Pregnant women are routinely advised not to drink the water in high-agricultural use areas. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma occurrence rates are highest over the Midwest and Great Plains, the region of highest use of agricultural pesticides.

Our bodies tell us the story, if we are willing to listen. Pesticide residue is detected in body fat, umbilical cords, placentas, breast milk. Pesticides that crumple our genes to damaged shells of themselves, that erect walls around hormone production systems in our bodies, that smother healthy cells, that nourish and encourage tumor growth.

*

Feed is a verb. To feed. To give food to; supply with nourishment. To serve as food for. To produce food for.

Or perhaps, to feed must mean more than simply to produce a commodity that can be ingested. Perhaps to feed has come too much to mean to become a good, consumed.

Perhaps: To supply with something essential for growth. To nourish. To nurture. To sustain.

The Kashi Controversy, Or, Know ALL Your Farmers

27 Apr

A weird new trend is springing up on the internet,  a trend I think of as “viral images.” Not videos. Just single photos that twelve or seventeen of my Facebook friends will post in a 24-hour window. Yesterday’s was the image below, of some Rhode Island grocery store’s sign explaining their decision to stop stocking Kashi.

I promise I’m going to work very hard to make sure the rest of this post doesn’t come off as a lecture. I know a lot of people — you, me, us, the average consumer — may genuinely not be aware of the Kashi-GMO connection, or any of the others that I will detail here. But an organic grocery store just now finding out? Ok, nevermind that.

So I take this as a teachable moment, and the teach is this (in case you don’t feel like reading the rest of the post): All processed food should be treated as suspect.

This doesn’t mean all processed food is bad. But it does mean we need to start changing our definition of “processed.” Most people tend to think that if a food is labeled as organic, natural, containing all-natural ingredients, containing no artificial ingredients, containing whole grains, etc etc etc. then that’s good enough.

But I tend to judge food based on the package it comes in. If you can pick up the ingredient by itself (like a vegetable or piece of fruit) you’re golden. If it’s in a box, a bag, or the freezer section, you should start checking ingredients lists. Sometimes you will find just one or two things — still golden! Frozen fruits and veggies, a bag of plain pita chips, etc.

The real lesson to me, of the Kashi controversy though, is not the length of the ingredients list. The presence of GMO ingredients, as of right now, is not a labelling requirement, so you wouldn’t see those by reading the package. The reason I wasn’t surprised by this revelation from Kashi (aside from knowing about it for some time) is that I know Kashi is owned by Kellogg’s.

Click to view image larger

Yes. Kellogg’s, the 12th largest food processing company in the world. Producer of many fine sugary cereals, currently lobbying against the FDA’s voluntary regulatory guidelines for marketing those same cereal to children Kellogg’s. Kellogg’s, who also, by the way, owns MorningStar and Gardenburger brands.

Like I said, I’m not here to lecture, or to wag my finger and say you should’ve known better.

Because I didn’t used to know either.

Here’s how I wrote about my moment of discovery in The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat:

Boca burger, according to their website, was founded in the 1970s by a chef determined to make the vegetarian hamburger taste good. What the website doesn’t mention is that Boca was acquired in 2000 by Kraft Foods, the largest food processing company in North America. Up until 2007, Kraft was owned by Altria Group—the new and improved name of the public-relations challenged Phillip Morris, USA.

When I started picking away at the corporate connections in the food industry, I began to feel like an internet crazy. The more I dug, the more I convinced myself maybe I was just making mountains out of molehills—maybe I was looking too hard for something not really there. Maybe it didn’t have to be so hard. Maybe I could just turn away, go back to my old, easy vegetarian diet.

Until I read that in 2001, a U.S. jury ordered Philip Morris to pay three billion dollars in damages to a smoker suffering terminal cancer, a landmark legal victory for the anti-tobacco movement. Phillip Morris appealed the decision, but the next week they went out and raised nine billion dollars, by selling just 16 percent of Kraft Foods. Suddenly, my purchase of a Boca Burger, supposedly free from the stains of corporate greed, just went to helping an evil tobacco corporation from sinking into bankruptcy.

The point is: if the all natural brand is owned by the same multinational corporation that makes the mainstream product you are avoiding, you have reason to distrust their ingredients list, their treatment of workers and animals, and their environmental record.

When I said something like this on Facebook yesterday,  my friend Lindsey made a good point in asking what this all actually means. How can we tell which brands are “good” and which are “evil”? Or at least, which to actually buy.

My short answer there, was, half-jokingly: Organic/natural foods are not all made on communal love-farms.

But the good, well-developed answer isn’t that you must simply avoid any and all corporate products. I still buy mayonnaise and pasta that have been industrially-produced. But being aware of the corporate connections and therefore, potential health, safety, and environmental issues for even our “natural” food products is important if for no other reason than it reinforces an emphasis on whole foods, and on foods made with our own hands, as much as possible.

What are your thoughts on the Kashi controversy? Did any of the connections on the chart above surprise you? Do you remember your moment of realization? Leave a comment and share your story with us!

Hope & Fear in the New Food World

14 Mar

The weather’s turning warm here, warm enough that it’s actually freaking me out a little. Kansan temperatures will get into the 80s this week, and for a child of New England, with its April snow days, a girl of the mountains with snow caps all year round — I can’t help but feel the warmth as a harbinger of the new world, the post-climate change world, in which the havoc we have wrecked is upon us.

But still, there is so much joy in warm weather, in windows open, rolled down, sleeves up, legs bare. As I walked home from school this afternoon, sweating lightly in my short-sleeved dress, I thought about holding on to this dual sense of hope and doom, the equal promise of spring and the fear of global warming. And I thought about food.

I thought of how food offers us both the same reasons to be both hopeful and afraid. Nearly every day, stories pass in front of my eyes that give me cause to shake my head with indignation. Stories about pink slime (demystified well here) and locust-like plagues of corn rootworm from GE seeds. This is the stuff of apocalypse — and that statement grows less hyperbolic each day, in a world where whole countries are relocating to avoid the effects of climate change.

But there is cause for hope, too. There are myriad stories of good news, like the slow and long-overdue phasing-out of the pork gestation crate. But more than tangible, hard news, I see mounting evidence of a sea change in the way people think of food.

I see hope in Seattle, where the city plans to construct a seven-acre public-access food forest.

I see hope in central Iowa, where customers at my old co-op can now buy locally-grown aquaponic tilapia, and the greens fertilized with their waste.

I even see hope in the Twitter debate over banning pink slime from school lunches — where even those from the beef industry are forced to refer to the substance as pink slime, which they would prefer we call “lean finely-texture beef.” Just as with the — in my view — failure of the corn industry’s rebranding campaign of high fructose corn syrup as corn sugar, people are no longer fooled.

We are no longer fooled and we no longer want to be. We know there is much to be afraid of in the world of food – or in this unseasonably warm March weather. But we refuse any longer to turn away from what those dangerous signs are telling us. That is cause for hope — but soon, we must turn it into action.

What’s Conventional About This Agriculture?

2 Feb

About a year ago, Whole Foods Market announced its decision to end a nearly twelve-year battle against the contamination of organic crops by genetically-engineered crops. At the time, this was seen by many in the sustainable food community as a cave from a major player in the natural foods market to industry pressure.

But the reason this is news now is that on January 31, family farmers took part in the first phase of a court case filed to protect farmers from genetic trespass by Monsanto’s GMO seed, which contaminates organic and non-GMO farmer’s crops and opens them up to abusive lawsuits.

You can learn more about the problem of GMO-contaminated crops in this great article from TIME. But for now, I think that it’s important to see all the ways this particular conflict mirrors the bigger one, the enduring agricultural struggle of our time.

Big vs. small.

Many call this conventional vs. organic. But at a conference a few years ago, a fellow writer (and therefore, analyzer of words) commented to me how strange it was that organic — the natural process unimpeded by human-made chemicals — would be considered unconventional.

The question of Whole Foods not being able to protect organic farmers from Monsanto, to me, echoes the question that has been more recently explore by Tom Philpott and Andrew Revkin of whether Wal-Mart can play a role in the sustainability movement. Or the question of organic subsidary brands owned by multi-national food corporations.

The real question is: Can industrial and natural agricultural practices co-exist in the same food system? Or do we need a new one all together?

I don’t know the answer, but I’ve always sort of leaned towards revolution… What do you think?


Nibbles: What We Didn’t Eat This Week 12/15

16 Dec

I owe all you We*Meat*Again readers an apology. In the whirlwind of new job, new place and new revisions on the book that has been this semester, and especially the last month or so, my blogging performance has been spotty. As I head into winter “break” (during which I have to plan three new classes for spring semester and continue said revisions) I promise to focus on quality, even if that means a solid, consistent three posts a week instead of five short, fragmented ones.

If you haven’t noticed a change in the blog, well, then, nevermind.

The first things I want to shape up are my sadly out-of-date “What I’m Reading” page, which I will tackle this weekend, and to get into a more consistent rhythm with the end of the week links roundup posts. There is a lot of great writing out there on food, and when I miss a links post, you all miss a lot, too.

So here are some things worth checking out between/instead of holiday shopping this weekend.

A cool NPR feature on an increasing focus on the local in America — while not exclusively a food-related story, I think the food movement deserves a lion’s share of credit for re-popularizing small, local businesses.

Related: a reminder from the USDA blog that many farmers’ markets are still open throughout the winter (maybe even at a different/indoor location) so check your local listings.

In rabble-rouser news, AlterNet has good coverage of the food movement on Occupy Wall Street that I wrote about earlier this week. Barry Estabrook’s (always) gorgeous prose in the latest Gastronomica describes some of the ecological innovations of the San Joaquin Valley.

And in rabbles that need rousing news, Perennial Plate continues its online documentary series with a subtle, powerful photo essay of tomato workers in Florida.

Food Safety News’ Michele Simon writes on Grist in response to the First Lady’s recent decision to shift the “Let’s Move” campaign focus back onto exercise and away from eating habits (a decision I personally feel is largely motivated by politics–rather than engage in a national conversation, the Obama administration wants to shy away from accusations of becoming a “nanny state” during an election cycle).

This is particularly relevant in light of recent findings detailing just how cozy the national school lunch program is with the food processing industry, and the serious health consequences this relationship is having on our children. I’m ALL for increased activity in youth, but to very pointedly ignore diet in favor of exercise only is disingenuous.

Do We Need a “Green Revolution” in the Global South?

15 Dec

First, a point of clarification. When I refer to the green revolution in the title here, I mean the commonplace thinking of the Borlaug-era use of agricultural technology like genetic modification to produce higher-yielding crops. As I’ve already expressed on the blog, I don’t actually believe the green revolution was all that green or productive–which is why I wanted to round up some information on a new series of debates being waged over what the “right” kind of agriculture to practice in developing nations will be to meet the needs of an increasing global population.

Last week, Andrew Revkin posted on his NYT blog about a disconnect over the proper use of patented seeds between farmers and city dwellers in Nepal, where Monsanto is making in-roads. It’s clear from the post that Revkin’s views are that modern technology will be necessary to feed the world.

This isn’t only happening in Asia. Monsanto is a global powerhouse, looking to market their seeds worldwide. They’ve gotten some help from the Gates Foundation in Africa, a program criticized this week on 60 Minutes by Howard Buffet (Warren’s son) as following in the mistaken footsteps of American agriculture.

There are several separate issues of concern when it comes to making use of high-tech ag solutions in developing nations. Tom Philpott has taken both the Gates Foundation and Howard Buffet to task in the past for this strategy, specifically for the “get big or get out” mentality behind scaling-up to be globally competitive, and for the devastating environmental effects high-yield agriculture is responsible for producing.

But there’s an issue of secondary concern here, which the original Revkin post ignored, in my opinion. Revkin posted in a follow-up comment a response from Matt Liebman, the H.A. Wallace Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University (go Cyclones!) which addressing the issue head-on: how much corporate control do we want to encourage in the developing world?

In a time of growing poverty, in parts of the world that are the most vulnerable to the immediate negative impacts of climate change, I am deeply concerned about attempting to replicate American-style industrial agriculture around the world. Setting aside for a moment all that we know about the actual dangers of transgenic plants (the superweeds & superbugs modification produces) and their devastating environmental effects, and their carcinogenic properties, the real danger, as I see it, is the debt incurred by small farmers in developing nations who take out loans against their land to buy these patented seeds.

In 2008, more than 1,000 farmers in India committed suicide because these expensive crops failed to produce the yields promised, and left them with mountains of debt, facing the loss of all their land and livelihood. Monsanto sold them the seeds. THAT’s why it’s a problem.

Especially when faced with a growing body of evidence that organic, sustainable agriculture can actually feed the growing demands of our planet–can’t we now try to find a better way forward?

Why Local Food Works (And Doesn’t)

6 Dec

When you spend as much time reading food news coverage, you start to see the same stories cycling through over and over again. Not through any fault of the food writers or activists, but from persistant misconceptions about local/organic/vegetarian issues. One of the stories that just won’t seem to die is the myth that organic sustainable agriculture can’t feed the world. But as I reported last week, local food gets a similar bad rap. So I thought I would gather together some of the information available from food policy experts to explain why local food does work as a systematic means for feeding many.

First, let’s look at the basics of demand, the backbone of any sound economic decision. The USDA reports a consistent rise in the number of farmer’s markets operating across the nation, which certainly has risen to meet demand.

Given this reality, the USDA has commissioned some recent great research as to the limitations of local food markets. Why, the research asks, if demand is increasing, does local food still account for a relatively small segment of the food market? First, the report discovers that the share of the market is growing even more exponentially than the number of markets (so the number of markets are increasing, but so is the amount of money spent per market).

The smaller trends that emerge from this report, however, are where the most promising aspects of local food systems live:

  • 81 percent of the farm selling directly to consumers are small farms (making less than $50,000 a year) — so locally spent food dollars are more likely to support a small business
  • Farms that sell locally employ an average of 13 fulltime employees for every $1 million in sales, as opposed to just 3 fulltime employees per million in a globally-producing farm. So locally spent food dollars support four times as many workers (who, given the above, are also more likely to be members of the local spending economy as well).
  • Vegetable, fruit and nut farms dominate the local food markets. Not corn farms. Or soybean operations. So a locally spent food dollar is more likely to be spent on actual food, not global commodities trading.

Finally, the USDA report also addresses the main causes of hinderance on the local food economy, all of which can be addressed, and many of which would have additional positive economic and environmental benefits. Primary among these are access issues. Local producers are hampered by a shortage of processing facilities — an issue that especially affects local meat producers who often have standards for their meat processing. But potential customers for local foods are hindered both by an absence of information networks to find the local food and of transportation to the market or farm stand.

Which means local food has the potential to expand into other local industries, to encourage investment in the local economy and to increase community connection and involvement. These are the “inefficiencies” that concern local food nonbelievers–but they are actually opportunities.

Mark Bittman’s column this week illustrates a great example of how all this potential can come together to begin to shape an entirely new way of thinking about food. Local sourcing gives us the ability to reimagine our food system — to find new models for producer and consumer communication, or to work with integrative, biodynamic growing practices. These new models of buying and selling and growing food will be the future of a world with less oil.

I think the people who assert that local food can’t possibly be a solution are the same people who say we shouldn’t invest in renewable alternative sources of energy because none of them are efficient, affordable, or high-yielding enough to replace fossil fuels. We’re dealing with a paridigm disconnect. I don’t want the industrial food system to just be replace with a locally-source food system that produces and distributes the same products in the same way anymore than I want enough solar panels to power the entire United States.

Local food activists, just as renewable energy researchers, want a new system, a decentralized, smaller-scale system that never has to utter the phrase “too big to fail.”

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