Thursday, August 01, 2013

Why I Buy Local, Organic Food

On Tuesday I received another generous dose of delicious, organic and local vegetables from Jen Campbell, CSA farmer extraordinaire.  This past weekend, I also got my second of seven organic chickens from Sally Bernard as part of her chicken CSA.  I love that I am able to source local, organic food where I live. Not everyone is so fortunate. I recall meeting a lovely woman through the Breakthrough Leaders Program last summer that was from Arkansas. While she could see fields of crops for miles and miles in all directions of the city she lived in, she was want to find a local, heirloom tomato or grass-fed steak anywhere. Places that are best suited to industrial farming are often an abyss for those wanting to farm small-scale or organically.  Sometimes small IS beautiful!

But I digress...on to the subject of this post, which is a bit 'bigger picture' than my vegetable-specific posts as of late.  I just finished reading a book called 'The End of Food' by Thomas Pawlick, as part of my Holistic Nutrition studies. Actually, it a re-read, because this book was one of the first to open my eyes to the realities of our food system and the devastation it is wreaking on our environment and health. That was back in 2008 or so, and since then I've devoured several more books and watched numerous films that have educated me on the perils of the conventional food system. (Sidenote: If you want to encourage a friend or family member to think more about what they are eating and the food system in general, I would recommend they view Food Inc, as I've had several people tell me that was the 'turning point' for them in terms of how they viewed their dinner plate).  These books and documentaries, combined with my own Masters thesis research on the subject of local food systems, are the main reasons that I now participate in CSA programs and try to buy the bulk of my food from local farmers that engage in sustainable and humane farming practices.

I find I can engage most people in a positive conversation about buying food locally. This is what first encouraged me to carry out my research in this arena, because I really couldn't fathom trying to engage people in a cheery conversation about climate change, deforestation or water shortages. Of all the environmental issues facing us, I strongly believe that what we eat and how we choose to spend our food dollars represents the most significant individual impact any of us can have on the future we want to be a part of creating. It's also an issue that everyone can relate to, since we all have to eat!

Sometimes the conversations get a little dicier though. For example, if one is conversing with a person that is a big proponent of free market capitalism and views food as a commodity that is no different than a pair of sneakers.  It can also get a little challenging if the person has determined that the 'buy local and organic' folks are just a bunch of rich, elitist foodies that don't understand the economic hardships facing many grocery shoppers.  Finally, it can get a bit interesting when one is conversing with someone who has read opinion pieces or articles that proclaim there is no nutritional difference between conventionally-grown and organically-grown foods.

While I have stock rebuttals for all of the above arguments, it is the last one that I want to delve a bit deeper into in this post.  It ires me greatly that we have so little knowledge of the nutritional inadequacies that have been created through conventional farming. The tomatoes on the shelves of the grocery store today are most certainly not the same as the tomatoes I get in my CSA box, and they're not even the same as the tomatoes that were on the grocery store shelves 40 years ago.

So here is some food for thought on why, from a nutritional standpoint, we are best off buying local and organic produce, as well as local, grass-fed/free range meat and eggs:

Criteria for Growing

Here's an eye-opener from Pawlick's book, The End of Food. When considering what varieties of tomato to grow, conventional large farms that supply the grocery chains take several criteria into account. They look at which varieties are best suited to traveling thousands of miles under heavy weight (varieties with a thick skin). They also consider the yield the variety will produce, as this is obviously key to the profit-driven model.  Other criteria include the uniformity of the tomatoes (i.e. will they all grow to be the same shape and size?), and whether they will all ripen at the same time (important for most efficient harvesting).  What is most telling when you see the main criteria used by tomato producers is not, however, what is on the list, but what is missing. 

The two key criteria that are not considered important from the conventional, large-scale producers' viewpoint are:  taste and nutritional content.

Kind of crazy isn't it?

Now I don't know what criteria Jen C. uses when choosing the tomato varieties she plants, but I can tell you this - her tomatoes taste like tomatoes and feel like tomatoes should - sweet and juicy and soft.   They are never particularly uniform in colour or size, but that's what makes them fun! Some are suitable for a little solo snack, some are great for a big family salad.  Oh, and did I mention that those tomatoes you get at the grocery store were likely artificially ripened? Yep, that's right, unless they say 'vine-ripened' I'd place bets that they've been gassed with artificial ethylene to make them ripen, which means they were picked pre-ripe (i.e. green and hard).  Personally, I like it when Mother Nature ripens the fruits of her labour (and Jen's), rather than a big ol' gassing machine. 

I'd also like to note that it drives me nuts when people try to cite research that indicates conventionally grown produce has the same nutritional content as organically grown produce.  Gaaaah!!!  OK, two things.  First, the jury is out with respect to that research. Studies are conflicting and suggest that organic produce has more of certain nutrients and less of others when compared to its conventional counterpart.  Secondly, and much more importantly, I would like to argue that the base assumption of these research studies ignores a very, very important fact:  conventional producers and organic producers rarely grow the same varieties!! So if a researcher is looking at a variety of tomato that is typically used in conventional production and compares how this variety will fare under organic production, it's not particularly useful information to the consumer. A much more useful study would be one that selects five random varieties of tomatoes grown by organic farmers and pits them against five varieties most commonly grown by producers (if there are even that many varieties still being produced conventionally). I have a feeling the heriloom, organically-grown varieties would win out on taste and nutritional content.

Avoid/Minimize Chemical Ingestion 

This is the probably the most obvious difference between conventional and organic foods. One is doused with pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, while the other is grown using without the use of chemicals. 

Maybe it doesn't seem like a big deal to be ingesting these chemicals. After all, pesticide residues tend to be pretty miniscule right?  Well, to be honest, it depends on what fruit or vegetable you are talking about - avocados are pretty safe thanks to their hard, tough skin, but tomatoes and strawberries have an absorbent 'skin' and are amongst the most toxic-laden of conventional fruits and vegetables.

And, at least from my perspective, it is a big deal to be ingesting chemicals day in and day out. The more chemicals our body has to process, the harder it is for our systems to perform their normal tasks. The liver, in particular, gets a bad deal. As the toxin clearinghouse of the body,  it's gotta deal with all the bad stuff we eat, drink, smoke and breath.  Since the liver is also responsible for regulating blood, metabolizing fats, proteins, carbs, vitamins and minerals, regulating hormones, and over 100 other functions, the better we treat it, the better our health will be in the long run.

If that's not enough to convince you, consider these findings, as cited in Pawlick's book, The End of Food:

'In 2002, the US Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested 2 groups of preschool children in Seattle to see whether eating organic food reduced their exposure to pesticides, such as those belonging to the organophosphorus group, that harm the brain and nervous system of growing organisms. The tests found that children who ate conventionally grown food had concentrations of pesticide residues 6 to 9 times higher than those who ate organic foods. The study's researchers noted that children exposed to high levels of organophosphorus pesticides are at higher risk for bone and brain cancer, and for childhood leukemia.'


For some, this is a controversial topic. It seems like most people are staunchly anti-GMO or staunchly pro-GMO.  Given what I've read and learned about GMOs, most notably the lack of independent studies done on them (FDA and Health Canada rely on studies produced by the companies that make the GMOs as a basis for judging whether to legalize them, which kinda seems like a huge conflict of me crazy), I'd have to say I'm in the anti-GMO camp.  While I recognize the potential application of GMO technology for good, I am not convinced that the companies at the forefront of GMO technology are particularly concerned about human or environmental well-being.  From a human health perspective,  my immediate concern is how these GMO foods might induce immune system attacks, since they are likely to appear to be foreign substances to our immune system. And wreaking havoc on your body with substances that it doesn't recognize is a big deal, trust me. If you want to know why, we should probably get together over an organic beer or two, cause there's much to say on this subject!

Since us consumers are still being left in the dark as to what products in the grocery store contain GMOs, thanks to lax labelling laws in the US and Canada, the best option for those of us that have not yet been convinced of the safety of GMOs is to buy locally, where you can ask the farmer specifically about the seeds s/he plants, and/or organically. Organic produce and meats cannot contain GMOs.  Wooot!!   If you really want to go totally GMO-free, I suggest following Sally Bernard's blog, as she is extremely knowledgeable about the subject and makes suggestions of what you can swap in/out of your pantry and refrigerator to make them GMO-free.  

Fresh is Best

Food enzymes are found in raw fruits and vegetables and are required for the digestive process. They help to digest the particular food that they are found in. If these food enzymes are destroyed by, for example, food processing, cooking or lengthy time between harvest and consumption (why hello California vegetables and South American fruits), then the body will be unable to properly digest these foods and malabsorption of its nutrients will occur. This can result in fatigue, allergic reactions and skin problems as well as digestive disruptions (e.g. bloating, constipation, etc.).

Nutrient content of vegetables and fruits also decreases after being harvested.

So, by buying local foods that have been harvested recently you are ensuring the highest nutrient content AND the highest food enzyme content. If you're eating vegetables and fruit for either the taste or nutritional content, then you best buy them locally whenever you can or you're going to end up paying a little less for foods that have a lot less taste and nutrition.

Healthy Animals = Healthy Meat and Eggs
Most of what I've said about organic vs. conventional foods up to this point has been focused on the plant kingdom, but the same principles stay true for animals and eggs.  Livestock that is raised naturally is going live a healthier, less stressful existence, thus be less likely to require antibiotics or become sick. Furthermore, animals raised on their natural diet and in a habitat that allows them to move around, as animals are want to do, results in meat that is lower in calories, lower in fat, and higher in omega-3 fatty acids (the 'good' fats).

The atrocities that take place in industrial meat production are too extensive and too barbaric for me to share in this blog post.  All I can assure you is that if there were glass walls around the chicken barns, pig barns, cattle feedlots and slaughterhouses, most of us would be demanding much higher standards of animal husbandry or considering vegetarianism. 

For the moment, I remain an omnivore, but I am now more dedicated than ever before to purchasing all of my meat and eggs from local farmers that I know and trust.  Again, I must say we are quite lucky on PEI to have options in this respect. Even the conventional beef, chicken and hog farmers on PEI, to my understanding, tend to provide their livestock with more room to roam and opportunities to forage. This is a rarity amongst North American farmers and can, to some extent, be attributed to the relatively small-scale of conventional farms on PEI compared to other locales.  If you are looking for local meat that has been naturally raised, there are several options including Sally and Mark Bernard (chicken), Ranald MacFarlane (Pleasant Pork - Summerside Farmers Market) and Bluefield Natural Products (beef and Pork). 

The End (Kind of)

Actually, the above post is really just a primer and barely skims the surface of reasons why buying local and organic food is a much, much, much better investment of your money than buying conventional foods.  I figure I've been long-winded enough and that anyone who wants further information can read The End of Food, watch Food Inc., or ask me for other books/films that zero in on particular areas of the food system.

Thanks for reading!  As a final note, I chose the subject of this post entirely on my own. Nobody asked me to compose this rant. It is not intended to rail against conventional farmers, but rather against the corporations, policies, and governments that have created the conditions for such a food system to emerge.  Further, I have noticed that amongst the organic and local farmers that I engage with, there is a great respect for farmers that are still utilizing conventional methods. I, too, respect many of these farmers (particularly ones in places like PEI and Vermont) and realize that many of them have become trapped within a mammoth food system that they are often indentured to through debt and capital asset ownership. 

1 comment:

Alexander said...

lots of interesting words - more and more I get people - especially from City's and Quebec that actually think PEI is all organic and I let them know I am one of the few organic farmers that uses no types of spraying for anything. I tell them about the high rates of cancer on PEI and the fish kills - they are really surprised.
I did apply a fish gut mix this year. I think we need to think how our grandparents thought and how the original people of this country existed. I try to keep my sales within a 20 km area which is even larger than what my grandparents would do but I know that's difficult for others. Keep enjoying your organic vegetables and visit some other organic operations to see some differences in their applications and unique ways of producing food and encourage others to get more knowledgeable about the organic movement which at one time not long ago was the only movement.