EcoBeat Staff – Just a hundred years ago, almost every one ate local. It wasn’t a trend or a restaurant fad; it just simply wasn’t possible or cost effective to eat a banana every morning with breakfast or avocados with lunch. The rise of trains and fossil fuels paved the way for refrigeration and transportation of food across distances we never believed were possible. Fresh vegetables entirely out of season were available for purchase a continent away. As the means of shipping became more and more affordable, so too did food. We were able to spend less per capita on food than ever before, and we loved it. Nutrition had the immense potential to improve, and improve it has, but not everywhere or for everyone. We now face questions such as how to deal with childhood obesity, an issue that stems fundamentally from a lack of nutrition and whether or not our food source is secure in the long term. We also need to consider the environmental sustainability, security, nutrition and economic impacts of the food we put on our plates, struggles that food from a distance have been hard pressed to address.
Historically, by producing local farmers were forced to grow within an accessible radius and with great variety. Crop failure was an ever-looming possibility (as it is today as well) and diversification was the key to ensuring that communities could continue to be fed. Today we eat less variety than ever. If you’ve watched the film Food Inc, you know. When we walk into a grocery store, we might see a few different types of tomatoes, all selected for their ability to grow fast and travel beautifully. I don’t know about you, but even I don’t look fabulous at the end of a five day train ride from California. So are we paying less cash for less variety and a little more risk? Maybe in the monetary sense, but we pay a lot more in our lack of diversity as less variety means uncertain long term food security. If only one type of tomato is grown, they are more susceptible to diseases, more likely to become resistant to the same pesticides and more likely to fail together during a drought.
Farmers who save seeds know very well that genetically modified plants, the divas of large agriculture, are playing a gambling game with nature that is entirely unnecessary. After a year of bad drought, a smart farmer might notice a plant that fared better. These “mutants” or natural genetic variations can become a saving grace. By keeping the seeds of plants with ideal features, farmers and nature together selectively evolve to become resilient. This is only possible and feasible however, on a smaller scale.
Large-scale agricultural productions are the only ones who can afford to sell food to far away places and are distorted unnaturally by subsidies. In order to keep up with the shear scale and need for quick growth, these corporations utilize synthetic fertilizers to “fix” nitrogen into the soil to assist in growing rather than doing it naturally. The natural way would be to plant a nitrogen-fixing crop such as beans before planting a heavy nitrogen-using crop like corn (see the nitrogen cycle here). This leads to imbalances in the soil due to a lack of checks and balances so to speak. Soil itself, when healthy is a complex world of microorganisms. Millions of small organisms exist within soil, a total ecosystem on to itself, but these little guys cannot survive in excessively nitrogen rich environments. When soil is properly maintained, the nutrients directly translate to the vegetables grown in it. It is proven that the healthier the soil, the better the food, in flavor and in nutrients for our bodies. The agro-ecology approach to farming emphasized in this relationship between soil and plant (the idea that farming is a part of a complicated ecosystem) is not a new phenomenon, but it has recently acquired a great deal of attention as a viable solution for sustainable and local agriculture. It also feeds (no pun intended) into the idea that biodiversity is an essential aspect of agriculture and imperative in creating a holistically healthy system.
Another issue with agriculture from a distance is the food mile, or the fossil fuel footprint food generated from being transported from farm to consumer. When bell peppers travel from California to the East Coast, we should question the 99-cent price tag. Not only was fuel used to produce the pepper, transport via truck, fly on a plane or sit on a train and then truck along again, but produce often arrives at a distribution center where it again embarks on a journey to the local grocery store. That’s a lot of fuel for a little pepper. On average, every American uses three times the amount of fossil fuel for their food as they do to power their homes (and just about as much as they put in their cars). That doesn’t include travel to and from the grocery store either. The environmental case for fossil fuels is not necessary to make here, we already know that this source of fuel contributes to global atmospheric heating (the greenhouse effect) but it seems that we also eat fuel on a daily basis as well as use it to propel us to and from our activities. By purchasing our produce locally, we limit the amount of non-renewable energy we use and contribute to the fight against global climate change.
The economic argument for eating local is similarly compelling. In simple terms, buying from your local farmer ensures the money and the jobs stay local, putting more money back into your community economy which ultimately translates to better benefits for you (Note: Make sure to ask the stand attendant where the produce was grown and if they grew it. Some have taken advantage of the recent market trends and purchase produce for resell, which deceives consumers). A community is a powerful thing, and by building connections between your neighbor and your food, you ensure long-term quality, sustainability and survival for more than just yourself. You also understand better what you are putting in your family’s body, an empowering piece of information. Big agricultural businesses drive out the small farmer and leave us increasingly more disconnected with our food, both from where our money goes and who actually produces it. Long gone is the day when farmers sit on tractors or weed the fields themselves, they have been driven out of business by the go big or go home slogan. For more labor-intensive crops, we are content to turn a blind eye to incredibly low wages for immigrant workers who face terrible conditions, frequent abuse and no right to speak up for fear of being deported. Food should not be in the business of fear, it should be the center point of our communities our culture and our body’s nourishment.
I’ve also heard the monetary complaints about buying from farmers markets. When faced with cheap alternatives in the grocery store, it’s hard to argue with busy working moms who just want to get the shopping done in one spot with a tight budget. But let’s put this into perspective. Americans spend less money on food than any other nation in the world. That means we have other priorities so even if the food is cheap, we’re still spending less on it. In part, this is a seasonal problem that can skew price perception. In the dead of winter, we are okay with paying $6 for a tiny carton of strawberries, but find the pint of them too expensive at $4 when they are in season at our local farmers market. That’s because we have grown too used to having everything whenever we want it. Buying locally and in season means that we might have to make strawberry sacrifices in the winter, but the price comparison does not lie. I recently spent $4 on a pound of fresh zucchini, far more delicious than any out of season squash and I know plenty of people who would walk into Whole Foods and pay $7 for the same thing without even batting an eye. With SNAP coupons being increasingly more accepted, Americans generated $18.8 million in SNAP benefits at farmers markets last year, even the most economically strapped can afford to purchase nutritious food for their families while supporting local farmers.
Variety, biodiversity, long-term food security, nutrition, community economics, environmental sustainability and a fair price comparison are just a few benefits of eating local. So check where your local farmer’s market is here (you have no reason to say you don’t know) and while you’re there, thank a farmer.