Sunday, December 30, 2007

Issue Spotlight: Why Grow/Go Local?

10 Reasons to Buy/Grow Food Locally

  1. Our industrialized food system is economically unsustainable. Modern farming is based on energy-intensive practices to operate farm machinery, provide chemical fertilizers, process and package foods, and deliver food products to markets worldwide. This is reasonable when resources are plentiful and cheap; however, we all know that fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource. For some time, geologists have been predicting that we are nearing, or have already passed, a state of “peak oil,” defined as “the point or timeframe at which the maximum global petroleum production rate is reached, after which the rate of production enters its terminal decline.”[1] Many reputable sources suggest that we have already surpassed the peak of global production, and even the most optimistic pundits suggest it will arrive within the next 20-25 years.[2] Regardless of one’s view of the matter -- chicken-little pessimism or pie-in-the-sky optimism -- there seems to be broad consensus that our current reliance on fossil fuels is unsustainable over the long term. Demand will go up, and eventually it will outpace supply. Prices will go up, some say precipitously. And our current system of cheap and ubiquitous food production and distribution is increasingly at risk of going up in a cloud of black, oily smoke.

    2) Our industrialized food system is overtaxing the environment. Even as debate continues on the timing and effects of “peak oil,” there is little debate about the environmental effects of current energy-intensive farm practices. As Bill McKibben states, in his book Deep Economy, “Even before we run out of oil, we’re running out of planet.”[3] In 2001, nearly five billion pounds of pesticides were used in the U.S., with the vast majority used in agriculture.[4] That’s more than 16 pounds of pesticide for every person in the country! In the same year, 20.6 million tons of commercial fertilizer – or nearly seven pounds per person -- were used to support agricultural practices.[5] Like the proverbial frog in a pot that can’t sense water rising in temperature until it’s too late to jump out, we are becoming inured to living in this chemical stew. Even the USDA concedes that excess nutrients can harm the environment, polluting ground water and/or surface water, lakes, streams, and rivers. In a 1998 report to Congress, the EPA estimated that more than 3.5 million acres of U.S. lakes, 84,000 miles of U.S.-rivers and 2900 miles of estuaries are significantly affected by nutrient pollution.[6] Finally, agriculture significantly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, generally in the form of carbon dioxide (from the combustion of fossil fuels used in farm machinery, the production of pesticides and fertilizers, and the global transport of farm inputs and foods), methane (from rice and cattle production) and nitrous oxide (from manure, tillage and the volatilization of nitrogen fertilizers).[7] The International Governmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that on a global level agriculture's share of total anthropogenic emissions amounts to about 50 percent of methane, about 70 percent of nitrous oxide, and about 20 percent of carbon dioxide.”[8] That, too, is unsustainable.

    3) Our industrialized food system is increasingly vulnerable to disruption. Increased mechanization, coupled with genetic engineering, encourages farmers to practice monocropping (i.e., growing the same high-yield crop year after year on the same land) to achieve maximum efficiency in crop production. According to Andrew Kimmel (2002), “almost all of our processed food products are made from the same few raw food materials – corn, wheat, rice and potatoes. As a result, just nine crops now account for over three-quarters of the plants consumed by humans.”[9] This practice has also resulted in what Kimmel characterizes as a “shocking loss” of plant diversity, with 97 percent of vegetable varieties available in 1900 now extinct.[10] Monocropping increases the risk of massive crop failures due to pests and pathogens and raises the frightening specter of mass food system vulnerability in the new age of bioterrorism.

    4) Our industrialized food system is failing to meet the nutritional needs of millions of Americans. While monocropping supports increased yields and growth in export dollars, it can’t meet the full nutritional needs of the population; it takes a wide variety of grains, fruits, vegetables and proteins to do that. As commodity crops increase as a percentage of total farm output, consumption of refined grains, fats and sugars is also increasing, much faster than consumption of fruits and vegetables.[11] This is particularly true in low-income, inner-city communities, where residents have increasingly limited access to fresh, healthy food. According to the USDA’a 2006 Survey of Food Security, more than 30 million Americans were food-insecure at some time during the year in 2006, meaning that the food intake of one or more adults was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.[12] These days, fewer than one-third of Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables to meet the USDA recommended guidelines.[13] At the same time, we’re seeing an alarming increase in the incidence of obesity and related diseases in the U.S., an epidemic that has now grown to crisis proportions.

    5) Buying locally gives us more control over the safety, freshness and nutritional quality of our food. According to Halwell, (2004), statistics show that in the U.S., fruits and vegetables travel between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometers (1553-2485 miles) from farm to market.[14] Products subject to long-term transport and storage suffer – in terms of freshness and nutritional quality -- in comparison to products delivered fresh from the farm. While food preservation, packaging and distribution techniques have come a long way – (the U.S. Army, using high-technology techniques, now produces a sandwich that stays “fresh” as long as three years!)[15] – any foodie knows that a tomato that was picked green, shipped here from Mexico or Holland and ripened with ethylene gas in a food distribution center can’t hold a candle to the real deal, picked in the morning and eaten the same day. By buying from local farmers (if you’re discriminating), you can avoid meats raised with hormones and antibiotics and avoid produce raised with pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers or processed with additives and preservatives. You also get higher value, because you’re paying for real food – instead of wasting money on packaging, processing, storage or transport.

    6) Buying local protects the environment. Buying locally means less fuel burned to transport food, which means less pollution. Research tells us that local and regionally sourced meals use 4 to seventeen times less petroleum consumption and results in five to 17 times less carbon dioxide emissions than a meal purchased from the conventional food chain.[16] You can also seek out organic producers, creating increased demand for organic products and helping to reduce the earth’s load of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. A diversity of farms, crops and pastured livestock contributes to biological diversity and reduces the disastrous environmental effects of industrial agriculture and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

    7) Buying local promotes sustainable food practices. By buying local, you can seek out organic producers who employ earth-friendly farming methods or raise free-range animals. They are stewards of the soil, understanding that healthy soil is critical to the production of healthy, nutritious food. By supporting local, organic producers, you’re promoting local access to fresh, health food, while reducing the environmental and health effects of industrialized agriculture.

    8) Buying local promotes food security. One of the biggest issues with our current food system is that many people and communities have lost the ability to produce their own food. In the aftermath of 9/11, it didn’t take long for the USDA to notice the vulnerabilities inherent in our current food system. According to Halwell, “One estimate suggests that most major cities in the eastern United States have less than two days’ supply of food on hand and are thus vulnerable to disruptions in transportation.” If you go to the USDA website, the landing page maintains a threat advisory; today, (12/30/08), it’s “elevated.” There’s an entire section devoted to Homeland Security and the many initiatives underway to keep our food system safe. That, coupled with the seemingly endless string food recalls this year (for e coli, norovirus, botulism, salmonella, undisclosed allergens and more[17]) reinforce the fact that it’s important to know how your food was raised. A strong connection to small, local farms can provide assurance that people in a community have access to safe, healthy, nutritious food.

    9) Buying local supports and promotes family farms in Colorado. According to the local extension service, “Colorado lost more than 1 million acres of farm land from 1997 -2002. As markets vary and farm land continues to be sold to development, the urgency to help farmers stay on the land increases. The USDA National Commission on Small Farms defines small farms as ‘farms with less than $250,000 gross receipts annually on which day-to-day labor and management are provided by the farmer and/or farm family that owns the production or owns, or leases, the productive assets..[these have an average] net cash income of only $23,159...over 80% of a farmers gross sales are absorbed by farming expenses.’”[18] In the U.S., the share of the consumer’s food dollar that goes to the farmer has dropped from over 40 cents in 1910 to just above 7 cents in 1997, while the share going to processing, shipping, brokerage, advertising and retailing firms continued to expand.[19] When you buy from them directly, you’re supporting an important Colorado asset.

    10) Buying local supports our economy and community. Research suggests that industrial farms can be a net drain on a local economy, while a diversity of smaller farms contributes to a vibrant local economy. There is a positive economic “multiplier effect” (the number of times a single dollar is circulated in a community) when you buy locally. Studies have shown that money spent with local producers returns two to five times more income to the local community than money spent with national retailers. Halwell (2004) reports on a study done by the USDA: “an anthropologist working at the USDA tried to assess how farm structure and size affect the health of rural communities. In California’s Jan Joaquin Valley, a region then considered to be at the cutting edge of agricultural industrialization, he identified two small towns that were alike in all basic economic and geographical dimensions, including value of agriculture production, except in farm size. Comparing the two, he found an inverse correlation between the sizes of farms and the well-being of the communities they were a part of. The small-farm community, Dinuba, supported about 20 percent more people, and at a considerably higher standard of living – including lower poverty rates, lower levels of economic and social class distinctions, and a lower crime rate – than the large-farm community of Arvin. The majority of Dinuba’s residents were independent entrepreneurs, whereas fewer than 20 percent of Arvin’s residents were, most of the others being agricultural laborers. Dinuba had twice as many business establishments as Arvin, and did 61 percent more retail business. It had more schools, parks, newspapers, civic organizations, and churches, as well as better physical infrastructure – paved streets, sidewalks, garbage disposal, sewage disposal and other public services. Dinuba also had more institutions for democratic decision making and much broader participation by its citizens.”

    [2] Ibid.
    [3] McKibben, B., Deep Economy, Times Books, Henry Holt & Company, LLC, New York, 2007, pp. 18
    [4] 2000-2001 Pesticide Market Estimates, Usage,
    [5] Agricultural Chemicals and Production Technology: Nutrient Management,
    [6] A Farmer’s Guide to Agriculture and Water Quality Issues,
    [7] Wightman, J., Production and Mitigation of Greenhouse Gases in Agriculture, in Climate Change in Agriculture: Promoting Practical and Profitable Response,
    [8] McCarl, B. and Schneider, U., Curbing Greenhouse Gases: Agriculture’s Role,
    [9] Kimmel, A., “Monoculture Versus Diversity, The Illusion of Choice” as published in Fatal Harvest, The Tragedy of industrial Agriculture ©2002 by the Foundation for Deep Ecology, Island Press, Washington, Covello and London, pp. 71
    [10] Ibid, pp. 71
    [11] Putnam, J., Allshouse, J. and Kantor, L.S., 2002, U.S. Per Capita Food Supply Trends: More Calories, Refined Carbohydrates, and Fats, Food Review, Vol. 25, Issue 3, Economic Research Service, USDA,
    [12] Nord, M; Andrews, M. and Carlson, S., Household Food Security in the United States, 2006, Economic Research Report No. (ERR-49), 66 pp., November 2007
    [13] Putnam, J., et al, 2002
    [14] Halwell, B., Eat Here – Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket, 2004, Worldwatch Institute, Washington, D.C., pp. 29.
    [15] Ibid, pp. 33
    [16] Ibid, pp. 30
    [17], (Accessed December 30, 2007)
    [18] (Accessed December 30, 2008)
    [19] Halwell (2004) pp 45

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