by Thomas D. McCracken,
President, Green Earth, Inc., Saguache, CO
A new awareness of our carbon footprint brought about by global warming and high fuel prices has recently brought more attention to the issue of local food production and consumption. Here are some thoughts organized into five categories.
Intuitively I think most of us understand that food grown in the vicinity where we live contains more nutrients than those foods that have traveled long distances to arrive on our tables. This idea is backed by science which shows a decrease in nutritional levels in relation to the time that passes between harvest and consumption. Not so obvious is the fact that many of the fruits and vegetables we eat the most, tomatoes for example, are bred specifically to make the trip and to look good on arrival.
Shelf life and appearance are prioritized over taste and nutrition, which are often ignored entirely. Can a tomato that is picked green, shipped a thousand miles or more and then ripened with ethylene gas have the taste and nutrition of a backyard ripened tomato? The problem is that I live in Colorado and still want to have tomatoes on my burrito. Locovores commit to eating seasonally. Unless they have the benefit of season-extending greenhouses this can severely limit dietary choices. Canning, freezing and dehydration are other ways to mitigate this problem, but many of us do not have the time or energy to spend on these activities like our ancestors did.
Our country has some of the highest obesity and diabetes rates in the world. This problem exists even though we also have the best access to fresh food. Many folks do not eat fresh food even when it is readily available. Changing people’s diets may be the first issue to face so that when fresh local food becomes available there is actually a market for it. The public schools should be an area of primary focus. We can teach our children to make healthy food choices. The costs of providing fresh local foods to our schools should be part of the overall heath care plan our country is formulating. Preventative measures to ward off disease are the key to lowering health care costs. This investment will pay off many times over in reduced costs of caring for the population by teaching healthy lifestyles.
This is a buzzword that has been used by multi-national agribusiness to scare us into believing that they have all the answers. They propose that if we use GMO seeds, which require petrochemical inputs, that our wellbeing will be enhanced. And that if we follow strict hygienic practices which include the elimination of birds, insects and wildlife of any kind near farm fields we can protect ourselves from possible contamination. They assure us that by processing in FDA/HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) certified facilities we can still raise our livestock in overcrowded filthy feedlots, force feed antibiotics and growth hormones and consume with confidence.
Food safety will come when consumers get to know their local farmers and buy the food that they produce. How are terrorists going to contaminate the food supply if there are thousands of farmers selling their food to people they know in their own communities? Vulnerability comes when salad greens from one field get mixed with greens from other fields in one facility and then shipped nationwide. Or meat from 500 head of cattle gets ground and mixed in one facility and shipped all over the nation. The problem is the mass production model we have come to depend on.
Agribusiness would like to put small farmers out of business and remove the competition. Thus you have attempts to patent seeds, illegalize seed saving, eliminate liability for GMO contamination, require costly processing facilities, continued farm subsidies for huge corporate farms and the constant pressure to get big, specialize or quit.
At the Eco-Farm conference in Monterey, Ca. in January 2008, one of the presenters spoke about compliance with the recently enacted Leafy Greens Act, which purports to ensure food safety in leafy greens production. Organic farmers in California are subject to rules which require that all buffer strips surrounding fields that may harbor insects, birds or wildlife be removed. This goes directly against the principles of organic production which promote integration of vegetative wind breaks and cover cropping. He showed pictures of surrounding conventional farms that had used herbicides to kill all vegetation surrounding the fields, including all the grasses and other vegetation in the ditches that carry irrigation water. This had the immediate effect of causing significant erosion, both from wind and water movement & successfully eliminating habitat.
The science actually shows that the vegetation in the ditches helps eliminate e-coli, salmonella and other pathogens. Vegetative buffer zones stop blowing dirt which can be a source of e-coli contamination from far away animal confinement operations. The hysteria surrounding these food-borne illnesses is taking us down a road I don’t think any farmer or consumer wants to go. The Leafy Greens Act is being used by the powers that be as a template for a national law.
We reduce our carbon footprint by consuming locally produced foods thus significantly reducing the amount of emissions related to transportation. Consumers can also influence farmers in their community to diversify crops, an environmentally friendly alternative to mono-cropping, and to use other environmentally friendly farming techniques.
Buying local food can help local economies in the same way that buying hardware or other goods locally does by recycling dollars. Every dollar spent locally can have a ripple effect on other businesses as those same dollars get spent over and over again in the local economy. If a local farmer can sell his product directly to the consumer, eliminating the middleman, then those extra dollars can be used to hire more help, or build infrastructure like greenhouses, all of which are a boon to local economies.
Buying locally can be expanded regionally to include what can be called food sheds. In our area we can produce fantastic lettuce, greens, grains, potatoes and meats during season but we have a very limited time frame to produce these crops. Just over the hill they are producing melons, squash, tomatoes, eggplant, fruits and a whole variety of crops that we cannot produce, and they can grow the same crops we grow but earlier and later in the year. It is very unlikely we are going to change our lifestyles to exclude the foods we love to eat. By supporting growers throughout Colorado and New Mexico and Arizona we can significantly extend seasonal availability.
The best way to influence the food economy is to vote with your purchasing dollars. Buy locally and regionally whenever you can. You will be rewarded with taste, nutrition and variety.