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Local Food for National Security and Public Health
Sarah Rich, 20 Oct 06

appler.jpg A few years ago when I was doing a lot of work in the sustainable food world and "local" was becoming as much of a buzz word as "organic," I found myself frequently asking people which of the two they felt was more of a priority. From a whole-systems perspective, it makes sense that an organic apple flown in from New Zealand and sold at Whole Foods ultimately has a much higher impact on the planet than a conventional apple from a nearby orchard sold at the farmer's market.

While most people reading this are probably inclined to think of the fossil fuels and carbon emissions (and compromised freshness) implicit in an imported apple, the majority of consumers still don't. The majority of consumers also don't consider the farmer's market a staple food source, and even if they did, many don't have one close by.

But farmer's markets are on the rise, and while they generally have a reputation for high prices and a gourmand patronage, they are increasingly accessible to people on limited incomes, and many accept food stamps. Successfully widening the customer base is not just a question of affordability, though, it's a question of really wanting to choose the market option. There are lots of reasons to do it: it supports local economies, it fosters community interaction, the food tastes superior, and the market usually makes weekly shopping feel more like a celebration than a chore. But many of these reasons, as Michael Pollan points out, are "sentimental." In a recent article in the New York Times, Pollan lays down the pragmatism of local food systems from the perspective of our long-term safety.

It stems, unsurprisingly, from last month's E.coli outbreak, and the astonishingly illogical tactics industrial food suppliers have taken (both prior to the outbreak and in its wake) to combat bacterial contamination -- rather than remove the threat, they'll simply irradiate our food, sterilize the manure that contaminates the supply, and enforce regulations on food producers large and small. E.coli comes from cow manure, which sits of feedlots that lie adjacent to vegetable farms and water sources.

Industrial animal agriculture produces more than a billion tons of manure every year, manure that, besides being full of nasty microbes like E. coli 0157:H7 (not to mention high concentrations of the pharmaceuticals animals must receive so they can tolerate the feedlot lifestyle), often ends up in places it shouldn’t be, rather than in pastures, where it would not only be harmless but also actually do some good. To think of animal manure as pollution rather than fertility is a relatively new (and industrial) idea.

Alex talked about the spinach ordeal several weeks ago in terms of the need for a backstory about the things we eat. Besides being simply useful, backstory has caché in haute cuisine, where menus now have anecdotes about ingredients; but again, Pollan might call that a sentimental argument for knowing more. We get backstory by having relationships with the creators of the story. You can't have a relationships with the Natural Selection foods employee who picked the spinach, nor the one who washed it in a million-gallon vat, nor the one who packed it or shipped it or delivered it. I'd venture to say that there are only two ways to trace your food's history: grow it yourself, or buy from local farmers and producers. In my old haunts at the Berkeley farmer's market, Pollan confirmed the sense of security that comes from knowing your grower:

The week of the E. coli outbreak, washed spinach was on sale at my local farmers’ market, and at the Blue Heron Farms stand, where I usually buy my greens, the spinach appeared to be moving briskly. I tasted a leaf and wondered why I didn’t think twice about it. I guess it’s because I’ve just always trusted these guys; I buy from them every week. The spinach was probably cut and washed that morning or the night before — it hasn’t been sitting around in a bag on a truck for a week. And if there ever is any sort of problem, I know exactly who is responsible. Whatever the risk, and I’m sure there is some, it seems manageable.

The point is that our food system is increasingly vulnerable to an increasing risk of terrorism. Much as scare tactics may be exaggerating the danger, it's a fact that the centralization and industrialization of the supply is the opposite of the direction we want to go if we're concerned about safety and security. Surely this won't be the last time that one of our staple foods gets swept off every shelf and menu across the nation for fear of outbreak. But where those shelves and menus are stocked with goods from twenty miles away, the community will be chowing worry-free.

Michael Pollan will be giving an address this morning at the Bioneers Conference and speaking this afternoon on a panel about the "Globalocal Food Movement." We're attending and will follow up with more...

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Here in Oregon an organization called Food Alliance promotes sustainable agriculture, and in doing so helps local farms by certifying growers and creating markets for their products. It operates a voluntary certification and eco-labeling program based on standards developed to define socially and environmentally responsible agricultural practices. They have done brilliant work.

Posted by: Kit Seeborg on 20 Oct 06

There are now estimated to be over 3700 farmers markets in the USA. When we started the local agriculture push here in MA in the 1970s, there were maybe 18 farmers markets in the state. Now there are over 100.

The local growers I see at the various farmers markets I go to have tended to become more low spray, IPM, and organic. They learned quickly to grow new crops and specialty crops from each other. One grower brings in callaloo and the next year three farmers are selling it. One farmer starts selling garlic starts or pea tendrils and others begin to do so too. They react quickly to the demands of the customers and the marketplace and organic is another good way to generate more value for their produce.

In the early 1990s, I tried to get the local ag folks to begin the process of mapping the food infrastructure and make the linkages explicit. We had built an alternative economic system and need to recognize that fact in order to expand it. No interest and no takers.

I would also suggest that farmers market customers are a core constituency for a wide variety of other green products like solar. I took my Solar Survival Show to YearlyKos in order to encourage political activists to do public demonstrations of solar and energy technology at such events as farmers markets. I've done it myself ( ). So far, to my knowledge, nobody has gone and done likewise. Too bad. Maybe next year.

Posted by: gmoke on 20 Oct 06

A very interesting site, I think. The Idea of Technometry was new for me but worth to be read and thought abot it (although I'm not a native english-speaker and have some difficulties whith this language)

Posted by: Onlineshop Optimierung on 20 Oct 06

I hope local food grows faster than H5N1. Has anyone covered "emergency agriculture"? How fast can human dwellings grow community gardens and other models of local food?

We at fluwikie (called "the Influenza Encyclopedia" by Science, I believe) think this does matter. A lot. But we need your help! Please come with your insight and information to our forum!


Posted by: lugon on 21 Oct 06

Choosing Local vs. Imported Apples

This problem is not a simple as it seems.. First of all most apples from New Zealand are not "flown in"... they are transported on large ships. I keep seeing comments about fruits and vegetables being "flown in"... where is this coming from? Although this is true of some highly perishable products most produce is transported via water. It just doesn't make economic sense to ship apples which are relatively heavy and low-priced via air.

Second, apple production in the US is concentrated in a few states. So that apple you pick up in your local store may have been trucked a long way to reach its destination. The fuel/environmental cost per apple may be higher for this trucked American apple versus the shipped New Zealand apple.

So, by all means buy those truly local apples at your farmer's market. But when buying at your local grocery store don't assume that the US apple is a more environmentally sound choice verus the import.

Posted by: Joe Deely on 21 Oct 06

The answer to the food miles is simple - globally raise the price of energy. That way energy wasteful systems fold and energy efficient ones flourish. The article talked about apples flown from New Zealand as energy wasteful. Actually they are probably lower in total energy use. They are shipped which is a low energy transport system and grown in energy efficient systems. A recent study showed lambs grown and shippped to the UK had one quarter the impact on global warming as lamb grown in Britain. Only an energy tax to take account of the real cost of energy will sort out what is energy efficient rather than consumers guessing.

Posted by: Deb Gilbertson on 22 Oct 06



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