Last fall, an outbreak of E. coli bacteria in California- grown organic spinach that left three dead and hundreds sick shone the national spotlight on the question of where food comes from. Most produce people eat, organic or not, travels thousands of miles to reach the shelves of their local supermarket. The journey exacts a huge toll on the environment as refrigerated tractor-trailers packed with green tomatoes and bananas crisscross the country, burning diesel and spewing pollution and greenhouse gas. And the potential for unsanitary handling and nutrient depletion exists at every stop along the way.
According to statistics in Brian Halweil's Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket, fruits and vegetables now travel between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to market, "an increase of roughly 20 percent in the last two decades." And that's just the produce within the U.S. Halweil says that 898 million tons of food are shipped around the planet each year, four times the amount that was shipped in 1961.
"It's amazing that you can buy organic food at Wal-Mart," says Jen Maiser, the founder of the blogs Eatlocalchallenge.com and Lifebeginsat30.com. "But some of us really wanted a better handle on our food. Now organic is so corporate." Living in the Bay Area of California with plenty of access to year-round farmer's markets, Maiser is a self-described "locavore" (others, including vegetarian cookbook guru Deborah Madison, refer to themselves as "localtarians"). They are at the forefront of a movement that stresses eating local as a way to reconnect with one's food.
The Not-So-Super Supermarket
Walk into any American supermarket and it's like entering a food Mecca. Aisle upon aisle of choices, approximately 45,000 in total, from cereals to cereal bars, canned soup to soup mixes, instant rice to rice and beans, chicken halves to chicken wings, soda to juice to energy drinks. And always right near the entrance sit the glistening mounds of produce: the green leafy lettuce and blemish-free cucumbers lightly spritzed every few minutes; the shiny apples and succulent-looking strawberries, even in the dead cold of winter. According to local eating advocates, all those perceived choices are little more than illusion.
Michael Pollan's runaway bestseller, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, taught readers that much of what's sold in the supermarket under the guise of unique food items can be traced back to a four-letter word: corn. "A chicken nugget," writes Pollan, "piles corn upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn [because that's what the chicken eats], of course, but so do most of a nugget's other constituents, including the modified corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter that coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried."
Then there are the soft drinks made with high-fructose corn syrup and the corn-containing chemical bases for all those processed foods, from Cheez Whiz to ketchup to TV dinners. It's no wonder that those accustomed to growing their own food, or buying what they can't grow in a local farmer's market, feel a shiver of trepidation upon entering a supermarket's brightly lit, overstocked aisles.
"I'm stunned to look at all that food in a supermarket," says nutritionist and Columbia professor Joan Dye Gussow, author of This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader, which eloquently describes her efforts to grow all the vegetables she eats on an oft-flooded plot of land alongside the Hudson River in Piermont, New York. "I'm so used to the idea that all my vegetables come from a garden and the meat from upstate farms. I marvel at eating these mysterious things grown from a distance."
Gussow writes of the frustration and sense of disconnect that happens when one walks through the motion sensitive supermarket doors. "How difficult and time-consuming to try to live simply in this culture of frenzied consumption," she says. "ShopRite was a kind of epiphany. I felt as if I simply didn't know how to shop there, how to make choices, how to find things. It made me feel helpless and alien."
In Gussow's view, the only way American consumers can continue to push around their oversized shopping carts loaded with foods flown in from who-knows-where is to willfully ignore reality. But as outbreaks of E. coli proliferate, more American consumers are becoming aware of the distance their food travels, and the inherent dangers in that journey. "Food is a living, perishable product," says Halweil. "The longer it's in storage, the more it deteriorates... our dependence on long-distance food makes us more susceptible to outbreaks of E. coli and meat contamination. Local food is not immune. But if there's a problem, it's likely to be isolated." And ignorance about food sources does more than allow the occasional public health disaster: it distances consumers from a connection with the things that feed them. They forget that certain plants flower and ripen in specific months, that certain vegetables and fruits proliferate in the places where they live, and they forget what fresh-picked produce tastes like.
"I was at a farmer's market [in winter], it was really cold," says New Mexico-based Madison, a vegetarian cook and author of such cookbooks as Local Eating. "I heard somebody say, 'I guess strawberries aren't in season anymore.' And not ironically. It showed how far we've come... The supermarket is the season of the world."
Growing a Happier Meal
People may be waking up to the need for more local food in their diets, but the current model of long-distance food is stubbornly established, based on an unholy trinity of cheap corn, cheap soy and (relatively) cheap oil. Farms have grown in size over the past 30 years, but simplified tremendously in terms of output. Most farms in the Midwest are dedicated to rotating two crops‹corn and soybeans‹requiring heavy amounts of pesticides between the two.
Corn now consumes 400,000 acres across the Midwest, while soybeans command more than four million acres. Nitrogen used to fertilize these crops in the absence of traditional manure creates runoff. Halweil's book details how that has damaged not only the Midwestern water supply, but wreaked environmental havoc in the Gulf of Mexico, where nitrogen feeds algae that feeds bacteria that depletes oxygen, killing huge quantities of fish and shellfish.
Meanwhile livestock, once an integral part of any farm, have been relegated to their own giant factories. The waste from these hog, poultry and cow farms creates huge levels of pollution in the form of "hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and methane gas," according to Eat Here. "One farm in Utah will raise over 1.5 million hogs a year, producing as much waste in one day as the city of Los Angeles," Halweil writes. And factory farms with animals raised in large numbers in close captivity means that livestock need a steady diet of antibiotics. And the presence of those drugs as part of the American diet, means ever-more-resistant strains of bacteria like salmonella.
Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University says that farmers are caught in the middle. Whether prices are low or high, farmers feel compelled to grow more. "When grain prices go higher, as is happening today with corn because of ethanol demand, farmers simply plant more to make up the difference with volume," Pirog says. "But with more corn on the market, the price, at least historically, will fall again. With the exception of a few good years, it usually is a zero-sum game for commodity farmers."
Government subsidies are what keep these farmers afloat, but a change in the American consciousness in which consumers seek out local food, could seriously alter the need for farmers to submit themselves to giant agribusiness. And the farmer's market is increasingly becoming a way of life for consumers across the country. According to the 2004 National Farmers Market Directory, there were 3,706 farmer's markets on record in 2004, twice as many as a decade before.
Maiser of Eatlocalchallenge.com (which challenges participants to eat almost entirely locally grown food for a month) admits that California's climate makes the challenge a little easier. But her online blog brought participants from across the U.S. and internationally, proving that eating local is possible anywhere. Fifty people participated the first year (2005), and 60 the second, posting their experiences online and joining over 700 non-blogging locavores. For September of this year, the group anticipates more than 1,000 participants.
Maiser belongs to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group, in which participants buy shares in a farm and receive regular deliveries of produce. "The farmers get steady injections of cash... which really helps farmers grow a lot of different kinds of crops," she says.
But more traditional farmer's markets are flourishing, too, and not only for the fresh, seasonal produce. As consumers begin to visit these local establishments they learn that food has a history and a taste, and that there are other members of their communities, from amateur growers to professional farmers, who are eager to talk about the food on display. "I like everything about farmers markets," says Madison. "The chaotic quality, the social quality. It's vital, it's alive, it's the best-tasting food. I feel lost in a supermarket."
Small farmers may not subject themselves to the lengthy process of certifying organic that larger farms are forced to, but the inherent trust that's bred over local farm stands makes such certifying seem inconsequential. Once organic went big, in the form of Earthbound Farm and its 25,000 organic acres in California, shipping baby field greens in ready-to-eat pre-washed plastic cartons across the country, it lost something of its "all natural" allure, even while meeting the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic standards. When major retailers like Wal-Mart sell organic, it requires the very same industrial model of farming, albeit with more Earth-friendly measures of pest control. But the need for long-distance shipping remains the same, and the overall impact on the Earth is not substantially improved once that lettuce leaves the fields. According to Cornell ecologist David Pimentel, growing, chilling, washing, packaging and transporting that box of organic salad to a plate on the East Coast takes more than 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy, or 57 calories of fossil fuel for every calorie of food.
Overall, as Peter Singer and Jim Mason point out in their book, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, "Food production, processing, manufacturing, distribution and preparation consumes somewhere between 12 and 20 percent of the U.S. energy supply." Much of that is due to transporting food via planes, which doubles the amount of energy needed to ship food via truck. And as transcontinental lettuce has become the supermarket norm, more freight-only, and food-only, aircraft flights are expected. With aviation predicted to "account for 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050," according to The Way We Eat, that dependence on out-of-season, out-of-country food could have a huge impact on the planet. The book stresses that personal decisions could have significant energy impact, too. Making fewer car trips to purchase groceries; buying in-season tomatoes as opposed to those grown in a greenhouse; reducing cooking time to minimize energy use at home.
The local eating movement is well established. What's needed now is for the government to lend its support, says Mark Ritchie, the former president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and now Minnesota's Secretary of State. "The procurement policies of the government and public institutions need to be directed toward the buying of local food," Ritchie says. "Prisons and schools and government agencies represent a large purchasing pool."
Halweil, too, sees the interest in buying locally in schools as the most promising trend in the local food movement, because it will help shape a new generation of eaters to eventually choose locally grown items. "There's not a major school district that's not experimenting with local food in the cafeterias," Halweil says. "With that, we can change eating habits. It's beginning to take root." There are currently farmer-to-cafeteria programs in 400 school districts in 22 states. Major food service suppliers to colleges and universities, such as Sodexho, Aramark and Bon Appetit have gotten on board: the latter has committed to purchasing at least 25 percent of its food from within a 150-mile radius of each campus.
Proponents hope all the attention on eating local will resonate with lawmakers shaping the 2007 Farm Bill. Such environmental interest groups as Environmental Working Group and American Farmland Trust are already pushing for a greater emphasis on protecting air, soil and water quality and supporting small farmers, and many seek an end to subsidies (totaling $9.7 billion to corn farmers in 2005) which artificially inflate markets and feed the cheap-commodity-producing machine. "The past farm bill had provisions for farmers who practice soil and water conservation," says Pirog at the Leopold Center, "but these have been pilot programs. The new farm bill should expand the programs so farmers are well regarded for being good stewards of the soil and water resources. There are also opportunities to increase locally grown produce in schools, among seniors and lower-income individuals."
If eating locally captures the national attention the way eating organic has, than the movement is poised to reinvent the model of industrial farming the way organic never could. And that would mean more money supporting local economies, more fresh produce in the high-fat American diet and a wider appreciation for the natural cycles of the Earth. "We consume as if a great food-producing machine were just over the horizon," writes Gussow. When face-to-face with farmers instead of shrink-wrapped produce, and with the taste of a just-picked strawberry in hand, it's possible that even the world's most ceaseless consumers might take pause.
BRITA BELLI is managing editor of E.
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Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture