America’s Growing Food Revolution - An Insider’s Guide to Sustainable Choices
Mar 23, 2011 09:24PM
by Lisa Marshall
We’ve heard the buzz. America is in the midst of a food revolution. Sales of natural and organic foods are up by double digits. The once-obscure Locavore (eat local) movement has become a national phenomenon. Community supported agriculture (CSA) initiatives and farmers’ markets are proliferating. Even the federal government and some of the country’s largest grocery retailers have jumped on board, with First Lady Michelle Obama helping to plant the first garden on White House grounds since World War II, and Walmart vowing in January to double the percentage of locally grown produce it sells to 9 percent.
The statistics are motivating indeed: According to University of Wisconsin researchers, produce travels an average of 1,500 miles from farmland to plate today, up 22 percent from 1981. Half of our land and 80 percent of our water is used for agriculture, reports The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and pesticide use has increased 33-fold since the 1940s. Meanwhile, health problems associated with agricultural chemicals are on the rise.
“We have been through 100 years of industrialization of our food supply, and consumers have begun to wake up and realize they have no idea how their food is made,” says historian and food policy writer James McWilliams, an associate professor at Texas State University. “Historians will look back on this time as momentous.”
But with every revolution come tough questions—and fiery debate—on how best to participate. Is it better to buy “organic,” “natural” or “local”? Is shopping at a farmers’ market inherently more green? Are there other ways, such as planting a garden or eschewing meat, that can make an even bigger impact?
In reality, there are no easy answers, but, “Consumers need to be prepared to take on a bit more complexity in how we think about food, and not fall so easily for simple mantras (like Eat Local and Buy Organic),” advises McWilliams.
The Case for Organic
Ask Rodale Inc. CEO Maria Rodale what consumers can do to improve their health and environment, and her answer is unequivocal. “If you do just one thing—make one conscious choice—that can change the world, go organic,” she writes in her new book, Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe.
Rodale’s grandfather founded Organic Farming and Gardening magazine (today’s Organic Gardening) in the 1940s, jump-starting an organic movement that by the 1960s was nearly synonymous with environmentalism. But today, Rodale concedes, the organic industry faces a public relations challenge, as consumers trade from USDA Organic-certified foods to “locally grown” or cheaper “natural” options.
One 2009 survey by The Shelton Group found that out of 1,000 shoppers, 31 percent looked for the “natural” label, while 11 percent looked for “organic.” “There is a giant misperception among consumers that somehow natural is the word that is regulated and organic is not. In fact, it is actually the other way around,” says CEO Suzanne Shelton.
Law mandates that U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) products labeled organic be free of pesticides, hormones and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and that animals be given access to the outdoors.
By contrast, the Food and Drug Administration vaguely describes natural as, “Nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in, or has been added to a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.” With the exception of meat, it is up to the manufacturer to define what natural means. (In 2009, the USDA defined “naturally raised” meat as, “… raised entirely without growth promoters, antibiotics, and never been fed animal byproducts.” It says nothing about GMOs or humane animal treatment.)
Organic advocates point out that a genetically modified animal could be fed genetically modified feed and confined to a narrow pen and still be billed as natural. A loaf of natural bread could be made with grains repeatedly sprayed with pesticides and man-made fertilizer. “Natural refers to the end product,” explains the Organic Trade Association. “It does not provide any information about how the product was produced.”
What about buying local? Rodale argues that, while focusing on local is great for reducing farm-to-plate miles, if it isn’t organic, it isn’t necessarily addressing the larger issue of pesticide and antibiotic use.
Noting that more than 4 billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the United States, she points to studies from the National Institutes of Health and the Mount Sinai Medical Center Children’s Environmental Health Center that suggest links between agricultural antibiotic use and the rise in drug-resistant staph infections in humans, and between oganophosphate pesticides and cancer and diabetes. “It is fine to buy local, but if there are chemicals in it, then the farmer is contaminating your own community,” Rodale says. “That’s even worse.”
The Locavore Way
In early 2005, Jennifer Maiser and a handful of friends in San Francisco decided to limit what they ate for a month to what was produced within 100 miles of home base. By August, 1,000 people had signed on at Maiser’s EatLocal Challenge.com. By 2007, “locavore” was the Word of the Year of the New Oxford American Dictionary.
“It just snowballed,” recalls Maiser. “I think it had a lot to do with changes in the organic movement. In the 1990s, if you were eating organic, you pretty much were eating food from a local farmer. But when the big companies came in and you could get organic produce grown in Mexico, it wasn’t the same anymore. We still wanted to know where our food was coming from.”
Professional dancer-turned-ethnobotanist Leda Meredith started a 250-mile challenge in 2007, in part to see if a time-crunched professional in wintery Brooklyn could achieve what Locavores in warmer climes had. At first, adjusting to the realities was rough. Local cooking oil was hard to find (she saved the rendered fat from her locally raised duck and used it to pop locally grown popcorn) and her one-bedroom apartment was not ideal for stockpiling canned produce (she keeps canned local tomatoes and dried wild mushrooms under her bed).
“But, by year’s end, it had become my new normal,” says Meredith, author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget.
She chooses organic and local whenever possible, and if the food is on the Environmental Working Group’s dirty-dozen list of most pesticide-drenched food, she might even buy organic from afar. Yet, she is a Locavore at heart. “It has an impact, on local economies and small farmers, and from a cook’s point of view the food is just fresher,” she says.
McWilliams, a vegan and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, agrees. But he takes issue with the notion that, because it necessitates fewer transportation miles, eating local is a better choice for the environment.
He notes that the shipping of food constitutes just 9 to 11 percent of its “life-cycle assessment” (the toll it takes on the environment), while things like water use, fertilizer application and harvesting techniques suck up far more. Is it really greener to buy local hothouse tomatoes if, according to McWilliams, they can require up to 10 times the energy? Is it really more sustainable to buy local rice from an arid state if aquifers were drained to grow it?
Another issue concerns economies of scale. For instance, a shipper sending a truck with 2,000 apples across 2,000 miles would consume the same amount of fuel per apple as a local farmer who takes a pickup 50 miles to sell 50 apples. “Local is not necessarily greener,” accounts McWilliams.
So, what is? Eating less meat, he contends. And mounting studies back up his point.
Most recently, a 2009 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a carnivorous diet requires 2.9 times more water, 2.5 times more energy, 3 times more fertilizer and 1.4 times more pesticides than a vegetarian diet.
“If I eat less meat or eat a vegan diet, I am automatically shrinking the carbon footprint of my diet, no matter where it comes from,” says McWilliams.
Growing Our Own
Greg Peterson says that there is another perspective often left out of the puzzle when people postulate how they can change the world by what they eat: “Food grows for free. You just have to buy a little seed and put a little water on it. People should grow their own food, share it and give it away.”
From his 80-by-60-foot yard in the heart of Phoenix, Peterson grows 50 to 100 individual crops, from citrus trees to snow peas and greens. His neighbors pop in for a bowl of peaches or a few fresh eggs. He further spreads the word by hosting gardening classes for everyone from wealthy retirees with big yards to thrifty condo dwellers wanting to grow herbs on their porches.
“For me, it’s about building local food systems and making neighborhoods more resilient,” he says. “There is also something inherently spiritual about being able to go out in my front yard and pick carrots, beets and greens to make dinner.”
Erin Barnett is the director of Minnesota-based LocalHarvest, which connects consumers with family farms, co-ops (collectively owned nonprofit grocery stores or buying clubs that give members discounted prices on health-conscious products in exchange for a fee and work crew hours) and CSAs (in which members buy a share and receive a box of local farm produce each week). She says that these can be excellent ways to benefit our health, environment and local economies. But there can be downsides. For example, a co-op can take years to form and is typically volunteer run, which involves a significant learning curve; it also often requires members to put up several hundred dollars long before the doors open. Belonging to a CSA includes collective risk, so if it’s a bad crop year, member shares are affected. At a farmers’ market, occasionally a vendor will pass off conventional produce shipped in from afar as local or organic.
As someone who buys eggs from a farmers’ market, grass-fed meat from a local farm, dry goods from a co-op, nuts from a natural food buying club, and has a garden that dwarfs her own house, Barnett puts it this way: Ask questions first. Then make a plan.
“Everyone is going to concoct their own way of meeting their needs by balancing their relationships with local people and their beliefs about organic,” she says. “It is very complex. But at least people are talking about it.”
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