In our mobile, global society, the food we eat travels just as far and wide as we do.
In the aisles of your local supermarket you’ll find tomatoes from Holland, grapes from Chile, and lamb from New Zealand, not to mention a multitude of other goods – Iowa beef, California lettuce, Washington apples, Vermont cheese – hailing from every corner of this country.
While there is something modern and cosmopolitan about the idea of having a world’s worth of produce markets come to you, an increasing number of consumers, nutritionists, farmers and activists are asking whether or not this far-reaching, global approach to food supply is entirely good for us, and perhaps more importantly, whether it bodes badly for the future of food in general.
Ever since Rachel Carson’s classic book, Silent Spring, raised the curtain on the ugly environmental and health costs of modern food-production methods in 1962, there’s been an expanding concern about the quality, safety and moral integrity of our food supply. And recently that concern has experienced an intensive growth spurt.
Francis Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, originally published in 1972, launched a whole generation of food activists. Now its sequel, Hope’s Edge: The New Diet for a Small Planet, combined with other popular books like John Robbin’s Diet for a New America, may very well redouble their numbers.
But even if you’d never be likely to pick up a book like this, even if you don’t consider yourself an environmentalist or activist of any kind, you may still find yourself better informed and more concerned about all this than you ever intended. Just in the past few years, an increasing number of powerful, mainstream newspapers and magazines have begun running in-depth articles on the agriculture and meat industries. They’ve been examining their practices, their environmental consequences, their social impacts and (perhaps most disturbing) their corporate and governmental alliances.
Many such articles, including several widely read pieces by New York Times writer Michael Pollan (read “Power Steer,” “Produce Politics” and others at www.nytimes.com), have exposed the grungy underbellies of what were previously rarely glimpsed, behind-the-scenes systems, and raised questions that it might never have otherwise occurred to most of us to ask. Questions like: Can I trust that the products marketed and sold by major food labels are safe to eat? Can I trust the government to establish and regulate the processes and methods by which my food is produced? Can I trust that my food is being produced by means that are safe for the environment?
Unfortunately, once one starts asking questions like these, one starts churning up some rather disturbing answers. They, in turn, lead to even more probing questions, such as: Who oversees the handful of multinational conglomerates that control the global food supply? What are these companies’ agendas? Are their activities here and abroad likely to improve things for humanity and the planet, or make them worse?
Of course, once you get through all that, you’re still left with one more difficult question: What impact might my personal food-buying decisions have on all this?
Think there can’t possibly be a connection between your dinner plate and such big, far-reaching political issues? Think again. Each of us occupies a small but important link in this food chain. As a group, we tend to buy what the major food companies sell, no questions asked. And that’s a problem, say concerned parties like Leo Horrigan, Urban Culture Coordinator of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
“The dominant food system is very centralized and distant from our everyday lives,” says Horrigan in the Summer 2002 issue of Ag Matters (the newsletter of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture). “People do not have a direct say in how their food is produced or what kind of food is produced.” Horrigan points out that while consumers do indirectly “vote” their desires through the marketplace, they currently have a very limited range of options to choose from. “Under the guise of offering us a wide selection,” he explains, the food industry drastically limits our food choices, in much the same way that political parties determine the available political choices. Consumers may get scads of options about such things as flavors, brands and processed-food formulations, he explains, but these options don’t necessarily include the best, most nutritious or wisest alternatives that many more of us would probably choose if, as Horrigan puts it, “it were up to us and we had better information.”
Most of us don’t even know what we are missing. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, before the advent of modern industrialized agriculture, farmers produced roughly 80,000 species of plants. Today they rely on something more like 150. So, what happens when we phase out 79,850 species of plants? As a rule, diminished biodiversity upsets ecosystems, makes the food supply more vulnerable to famines, and takes a heavy toil on our topsoil. Of course, it also gives us fewer foods to choose from – a much narrower range of nutritional profiles, flavors and textures to include in our diets.
To regain and maintain access to the best, most diverse and nutritious choices, experts like Horrigan argue, we must become more invested in supporting responsible, sustainable food-production and distribution methods, and more active in protesting short-sighted, dangerous ones. We must also safeguard what little fertile farmland is left from both urban sprawl and soil-depleting monocropping.
As Horrigan puts it, “If we do not have healthy soil, we cannot raise healthy food to sustain ourselves. Great civilizations have fallen because they did not sufficiently conserve their natural resource base, in particular, their topsoil.”
Maybe you’ve never given much thought to topsoil, or to food production and distribution, or to the food industry, period. Maybe you don’t want to. Really, shouldn’t you just be able to go to the store and buy what you want? Sure – and you can. But it’s sort of like reading the nutrition label on some questionable food item: Once you know what’s really in there, you may not want to eat it after all; neglect to read it, and you may be sorry.
Of course, it’s no secret that most processed, pre-packaged foods are loaded with salt, artificial flavors and preservatives. As consumers, we’re getting smarter all the time about watching for dangerous additives and knowing the difference between, say, whole-grain and “unbleached” flours, and between cold-pressed and chemically extracted oils. But most of us are far less aware of the qualitative differences in produce. We may not realize that the vast majority of the so-called “fresh” produce, meat and dairy we buy actually arrives at the store at least somewhat processed beyond its strictly natural state.
Fruits and veggies, may, for example, have been hormonally and genetically modified, dusted with pesticides and herbicides, then waxed, gassed and profoundly refrigerated during shipment. Most meat is raised on nutrient-poor grain, pumped with hormones and antibiotics, fattened in crowded feed lots and then butchered under extremely unappealing conditions. Most milk, while still in the cow, is hormonally induced and antibiotic-laden; once outside the cow, its beneficial enzymes and flora are cooked dead, the structure of its fats are irreversibly altered; and finally, it’s poured into chemically treated cartons or plastic-leaching bottles.
While some of these treatments are meted out in the name of “productivity” and “food safety,” in truth, most have more to do with ensuring that the goods will survive their arduous trip from farm to market and still enjoy the longest possible shelf life.
Imagine traveling from Mexico in a railcar, or from South America in the hold of a ship. Now imagine making that journey as a tomato. It’s no wonder that even the raw foods we consume must be “prepared” for such travels, but it seems a shame that many of those same preparations can also render foods nutritional shadows of their former selves, undermine their flavor and even pose serious health risks.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could just eat your food fresh out of the field, the way nature intended? Enter the concept of eating within your natural foodshed.
“Just like a watershed isn’t just water, but also the trees, the soil and ecosystems that produce and depend on that water, a foodshed is more than just food,” explains Valeska Populah, program coordinator for Fresh Farm Markets, an organization that operates two producers-only farmers’ markets in Maryland and Washington, D.C, and that educates the public about sustainable farming methods.
Foodshed proponents like Populah suggest that consumers learn to take into account everything that goes into producing food, from the impact a farm or feedlot has on the local and larger environment to the adverse effects of pesticides, genetically modified organisms, hormones and antibiotics, to the nutrients lost in the process of shipping and handling, to whether or not the growers are being fairly compensated for their time and effort.
That may sound daunting, but proponents are quick to point out that cultivating a foodshed-sensitive mentality is not an all-or-nothing, black-and-white proposition. “This need not be a kind of food-police approach,” says Professor Jack Kloppenburg, associate professor in the rural sociology department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and head of the Wisconsin Foodshed Research Project. “It’s mostly a matter of broadening your knowledge.”
What Are You Eating?
Both consumer knowledge about the foodshed concept and the popularity of the foodshed movement are rapidly growing. Popular books like Diet for a Small Planet, Fast Food Nation, Food Politics and Food Revolution, as well as an increasing number of newspaper and magazine articles by well-respected journalists, are raising both consciousness and concern: health concerns about hormones, pesticides, reduced nutritional value; environmental concerns about water pollution, soil degradation and threats to wildlife; political concerns about who is getting rich at the hands of this system, and who is suffering; and even more troubling concerns about the future safety of the global food supply.
It’s interesting to note, for example, that virtually all the major food and drug brands are controlled by a few huge “vertically integrated” corporations – meaning they own or rent, produce, manufacture, distribute and sell virtually everything that goes into your food at every point of production. That includes soil and seed, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, hormones, antibiotics and feed for animals, food ingredients and food processing for people. In many cases, these same companies also produce human pharmaceuticals. This means they control virtually the entire food chain and stand to profit no matter which of their products you need – including drugs for all the ailments that come from eating a nutrient-poor, over-processed and chemically laden diet.
Think this all sounds a little radical and alarmist? There are plenty of multinational food conglomerates and pesticide companies that would be only too delighted to support you in that notion. In fact, there’s a whole raft of talented public-relations specialists eager to convince you that everything is totally, perfectly fine and safe just the way it is – that everything these companies do is in fact good for you, for the environment and for ending world hunger (see “Drawing the Line,” in this issue of Experience Life, then visit www.acsh.org for the food-and-chemical industry side of things). The trouble is, it’s challenging to find educated sources who haven’t been hired by major corporations, or who don’t have some financial or political stake in their success, who will so confidently corroborate such reassuring views.
Sadly, as the tobacco scandal has proved, it is not safe to assume that massive corporations will volunteer the truth, particularly when there are massive fortunes at stake. Nor, as this and countless more recent scandals have demonstrated, is it entirely safe to assume that our government will always act in our best interest, and legislate beyond the reach of corrupting corporate influences.
Across the ocean, European governments are strenuously rejecting both Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and bovine growth hormone (rGBH), and going half out of their minds battling Spongiform Encephalopathy (“mad cow disease”). Meanwhile, U.S. food activists complain, here the government is accepting – even enthusiastically supporting – genetically altered foods. It’s suggesting irradiated beef as a countermeasure to E. coli and other bacterial outbreaks that result from cheap, sloppy meat-processing procedures. It’s saying yes to rGBH, as well as to toxic-sludge fertilizer and a lot of other things that don’t seem to have its citizens’ best interests in mind, but that ensure “efficiency” and “productivity” and “profitability,” for the companies that market and employ them.
It’s enough to scare someone into giving up eating all together. “Americans no longer have faith in how their food is produced,” asserts Tom Taylor of the Organic Consumers Association, a lobby group that fights the Food and Drug Administration for higher organic standards. “Some people think that all consumers care about is cheap food. But that’s not true.” Taylor cites the dramatic rise in organic production – up 10 percent every year for the past three years, 25 percent for organic dairy – as proof that the demand for organic products has gone mainstream. “Cub and Rainbow have organic milk now,” says Taylor. “All the big chains have an organic section. Clearly, people want to know where their food comes from.”
Surely, when you start learning about conventional food production and distribution, that desire makes a lot of sense, and it’s great that organic foods are becoming both more widely demanded and available. But even as Big Food adopts organic practices to appeal to consumer desires, the environmental impact of their volume-and-efficiency-first production practices continues to be a source for widespread concern.
Economically, the move away from the family farm and the rise of agribusiness has meant a sharp decrease in farmers’ profit margins. That’s not just bad for farmers. When small farmers have to conform to agribusiness models to stay afloat, they compromise traditional, sustainable, healthy practices for short-term efficiency. When they start depending on antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides and hormones to create bigger (though not necessarily better) yields, nobody wins. The earth gets polluted, local crops get fewer and dramatically more homogenous, the soil is depleted and food winds up much less nutritious.
Sally Fallon is co-author of Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, a book that advocates a return to more natural, locally raised and traditionally prepared foods. Along with controversial recommendations for eating more raw, unpasteurized milk, and more high-quality animal fats from free-range and pasture-fed organic animals, the book offers myriad examples and explanations of the many ways that food quality and nutrition are compromised and undermined by commercial processing.
“Eggs are pasteurized,” says Fallon. “Milk is pasteurized and homogenized. Vegetables are stored for way too long. Then you get into highly processed and refined foods like breakfast cereals and snacks, most of which are full of additives and extremely hard to digest. Processing deliberately removes natural vitamins and minerals and denatures oils, causing them to become rancid and form free radicals. This robs us of the nutrients we need to be healthy.”
But what about all the vitamins and minerals manufacturers add to their products to “fortify” them? Fallon and many other nutrition experts remain unimpressed. Using synthetic nutrients and scientific processing to “Frankenstein” our food back together after its natural nutritional content has been torn asunder, they say, is a sorry compromise.
“Mankind existed for thousands of years on certain nutrients in certain forms,” Fallon explains. “Our genetics require those nutrients.” The problem with newfangled foods, she says, is that while “our diets have changed, our genetics haven’t.”
Our bodies, experts like Fallon insist, don’t really know how to handle all these synthetic, out-of-context compounds. Not only may we not benefit as much from these lab-created and chemically bonded nutrients as we would from naturally occurring ones, but our bodies may also have more difficulty breaking down and eliminating them.
But the companies that produce these foods are making billions convincing us of the contrary. They determine which varieties of produce will be produced in quantity and dictate the prices for raw ingredients. In this corporate-driven environment, smaller independent farmers can rarely get fair value for their products or afford to farm as sustainably and responsibly as they might like. Pesticide and herbicide use, over-farming and other soil-depleting practices are all largely driven by the financial necessity of maximizing crop yields – which farmers see as a must when profit margins are low.
When those margins get too low, it’s often not worth it for farmers to farm at all. They sell turn their fields over to real-estate land developers, thus hastening the disappearance of rural communities and open, arable land at the hands of urban sprawl.
Fork in the Road
Since agriculture has become Big Business, finding food in its most natural form has become much more difficult. Part of the problem is that as consumers, we may say we want high-quality, safe food, but we haven’t necessarily been putting our money where our mouth is.
According to a 1997 USDA report, only 21 cents of your food dollar goes to the producers. The other 79 cents goes to transportation, marketing, wholesaling and retailing. But of course, all those middleman costs do nothing for you nutritionally. On the contrary, although these services make getting your food more convenient, they tend to degrade your food’s nutritional value considerably.
It comes down to a question of what we, as consumers, value. How much of our health, environment and community are we willing to sacrifice in order to have exactly what we want on our plate, exactly when we want it, preferably without lifting a finger?
In Europe, and increasingly in the United States, many people are growing more willing and eager to put real care into their food choices. They are rejecting the faster-easier-cheaper model of mass-produced food, and are instead embracing its antithesis: the Slow Food movement.
The Slow Food movement, which began in Italy and has now spread to dozens of other countries, is dedicated to preserving the pleasure of eating and “the right to taste.” It is a celebration of regionally diverse, sustainably grown foods that are as rich in flavor as they are in integrity and history. (You can read the slow food manifesto at www.slowfood.com.)
Potential sources for high-quality “slow” foods include many co-ops and other local health-oriented food stores, but the most direct route is farmer-direct outlets like farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture networks (CSAs). See “Getting the Good Stuff,” page 41, for additional suggestions.
Be aware that obtaining sustainable foodstuffs may take some extra time, care and footwork, particularly if you are hardcore about seeking out truly local food. Some foodshed advocates say your foodshed doesn’t extend farther than 30 miles from your home, but even so, if your neighborhood farmers’ market or supermarket doesn’t offer much local selection, that can still mean a lot of travel on your part.
You should also expect the per-pound prices to be somewhat higher than the bargain-basement prices you’re paying at massive supermarts. However, foodshed advocates wish to remind you that low prices aren’t necessarily fair prices. If you’re like most consumers, says Ray Kirsch, farm coordinator for the Midwest Food Alliance, “You’ve been underpaying for your food for quite some time.”
What he means is that you’ve been underpaying the farmer, who normally sees mere pennies from every dollar you spend at the supermarket, and whose prices are kept artificially low by competition with agribusiness prices. But you’ve also been overpaying for what little nutrition you get out of commercially farmed and prepared food products. The closer you get to the producers of your food, he explains, the more equitable the pricing becomes, and while that may mean base prices go up, all the extra cost generally reflects significantly higher quality, better nutrition and thus, a better value. “When farmers set the price,” Kirsch says, “the odds are you are getting closer to the real price of producing that product.”
Buying direct also helps support the viability of small farms. “When the farmers make a price in collaboration with the consumer,” says Kirsch, “they have a little more control over their own farms’ success or failure.” Kirsch notes that public policy is almost always geared toward encouraging the cheapest – not necessarily the best – food possible, and that does small farmers a real disservice. “It’s very hard for consumers to understand how challenging it is to produce healthy food,” he says. “It’s also very difficult for farmers to keep producing food at competitive prices without destroying the environment in the process.” When you agree to pay a fair price for your food, you make it all a little easier. This is true both for domestic food and for “do-the-right-thing” imports like slave-free chocolate and anti-drug-trade coffee beans.
Looking Behind the Label
Once you take in all the nutritive, economic, moral and political considerations, the simple acts of shopping and eating take on much deeper implications. It can also get downright confusing. Do you buy the organic, shade-grown coffee (thus protecting the soil and rain forests), or the fair-trade beans (thus supporting human dignity, staving off the drug trade and supporting small, sustainable farming)? Do you insist on all this and go looking for beans that are locally roasted? And if no coffee is grown within a thousand miles of where you live – do you have to give up the habit entirely? Your level of dedication is up to you of course, but most foodshed proponents agree that self-denial and boycotting are not the point.
So what should you do? The first thing is to approach sustainable shopping and eating as a positive rather than negative proposal. Just look for opportunities to support sustainable, responsible agriculture and feel good when you find them (for suggestions, see Getting the Good Stuff and Resources sidebars at the end of this article and the Web Extra! link found at the top of this page).
“There’s no sense in getting too dogmatic with these things,” explains Sally Fallon. “The goal is to get about 50 percent of your food from local farms, but you don’t want it to become such a fetish that you can’t buy rice or macadamia nuts if you like them. You need to be flexible.”
The next step is to start educating yourself about your foodshed – a process that can begin right in your own cupboard.
As the coordinator of the Food Systems Project, Melanie Okamoto teaches the concept of foodshed in the Berkeley public school district. Since 1999, all 15 public schools in Berkeley have been taking part in a revolutionary, and successful, project to teach kids about how foodsheds work.
One of the earliest lessons is simply to figure out where all the food they already eat comes from. “We have them map out their lunch,” says Okamoto. “They find out what the ingredients are, where it came from, how many miles the food traveled, how much gas it took to transport. We contrast that with going to the farmers’ market and buying from a local farmer who has maybe traveled an hour.” This is what some foodshed experts call “looking behind the label” at the origins of our food.
Through the Food Systems Project, Berkeley kids get to go on field trips to local sustainable farms, work in their own community garden and get cooking lessons from local organic chefs. But even without a program, you can start eating from your natural foodshed simply by going to your local farmers’ market or food co-op.
“We call it the Church of Taste,” says Populah, whose organization runs two farmers’ markets, one in Washington, D.C., and the other in Maryland. She explains the metaphor simply: “People taste the food and they’re converted.”
Aside from fresher food, Populah says farmers’ markets play an important role in raising foodshed awareness because they allow people to get back in touch with natural food rhythms. “How many of us even know what’s in season anymore?” she asks. “That’s something we’ve lost.”
Populah jokes about how some newcomers will visit farmers’ markets like theirs and wonder why so many of the fruits and vegetables they’re used to seeing year round are conspicuously missing. “Where are the tomatoes? Where are the peppers?” they wonder. “But this is in April,” Populah chuckles, noting that, unless guided to them, these same folks are just as likely to overlook the luscious greens and fresh asparagus that come early in the season, in part because they just aren’t habituated to seeing or eating them.
“There is this misconception that supermarkets have a greater diversity of food,” says Populah. “But they basically have three tomatoes – vine, beefsteak and plum. And because they’re sent over long distances, they are picked green and gassed so they turn red during the truck ride.”
Populah contrasts this with the multitude of ripe-picked heirloom tomatoes you can find at good farmers’ markets – varieties with rich flavors and colorful names like Arkansas Traveler, Brandywine and Green Zebra.
To help people discover the joy of sustainable foods, Fresh Farm Markets puts on cooking demonstrations and publishes 60 years’ worth of seasonal recipes on its Web site (www.freshfarmmarkets.org).
“Some people think they’ll have to deprive themselves to eat seasonally,” says Populah. “But real deprivation is when we eat food that is lifeless and tasteless.” Still, for the uninitiated, that first visit to a farmers’ market can be confusing, or even disconcerting: Things aren’t arranged in the same order as at the store, and let’s face it, the site of all those unadulterated vegetables can be a bit intimidating. You may see more spots, a little dirt, more attached leaves and roots.
Most of us have grown unused to dealing with food in its most basic form. Wash? Chop? Seems like a lot of work compared to opening a can or freezer bag. But experienced market-goers know that getting just-picked flavor and nutritional quality is well worth it. “I think the reason so many people have a negative opinion of vegetables is because the only ones they’ve eaten have been transported thousands of miles and picked at least a week before they were purchased,” Populah asserts.
Getting the Good Stuff
Beyond seeking out local, producer-direct food sources like farmers’ markets and CSAs, perhaps the most important thing you can do to support your own health and that of the food supply is to develop a sustainable-food focus …
Start asking for locally and sustainably grown food at your neighborhood restaurants, cafés and local supermarkets. Many managers don’t bother carrying organic, locally grown food simply because they’re convinced their customers don’t know the difference, or won’t be willing to pay the relatively small difference in price. A vocal customer or two is sometimes all it takes to change their minds.
Organic milk is already available in many coffee shops in California. Why not start encouraging your favorite coffee-shop chain to switch to organic, rGBH-free, locally raised milk and cream?
Do some research online (start with the sites in our Resources sidebar). Subscribe to a magazine or newsletter that tracks food-safety issues, and read up on the issues of most concern to your family and community.
Let your local and state representatives know you care about these matters. Write a few strongly worded emails and letters to Washington.
Talk to your friends, and together, search for healthier food alternatives in your area. Swap resources and recipes. Start a Slow Food chapter or gardening club in your area.
Question the information (and outright propaganda) that comes from massive food companies; instead, learn about food for yourself.
Look at the food you are buying as it crosses the scanner; consider its origins; evaluate its character and quality. Will this food nourish you and sustain you, or just fill you up? Does this food have integrity? Does buying it support your personal values?
Above all, don’t let your justifiable concerns about food safety and food ethics get in your way of enjoying and celebrating all the healthy foods currently available. There are some great local and organic farmers working hard to rebuild the soil and protect the water. Plus, the incredible, global variety of organic foods now available year round also offers you many health advantages. You’d be crazy to totally turn your nose up at so much bounty.
All food, in the end, is an astounding and mysterious gift of nature. It is ours to protect, to respect, and also to enjoy. So choose your food wisely, prepare it carefully, and eat it with real pleasure. Gradually, rather than thinking of the world as your supermarket, you will begin seeing it more for what it is – one very large and delicately balanced garden.