As we near the peak of local fruit and vegetable harvests, it's a great time to revisit the benefits of buying and eating locally. We must concede that America’s food growing and distribution system has brought us fresh produce of all kinds throughout the year. Unfortunately, the very thing that we appreciate in the winter curses us in the summer. We still see blueberries, strawberries, potatoes, apples and several other products from California, Idaho and Washington in our markets even when they are available from Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and New Jersey farms.
It's difficult to shut off that pipeline of far-away produce even when our local pipeline can meet our needs with fresher, better tasting and more nutritious food. So don't be afraid to tell your market manager that you would appreciate that locally or regionally grown food. Farmers' markets and buying direct from the grower themselves is very easy at this time of the year, too. Beyond the other obvious downsides to shipping food across the continent, there are other concerns raised by an over-reliance on California produce especially.
It may not be perfect but these problems are much less common among locally or regionally produced food. Pennsylvania never sees droughts of the magnitude experienced in California. Smaller operations tend to use less pesticides and some practice organic farming. Local and regional farmers keep all our food dollars close to home, while keeping a larger portion of the profits for themselves.
For more on locally produced food, checkout Who's Your Farmer in Blair County, PA? on Facebook.
The way we produce, transport and purchase our food has changed profoundly since World War II, all in the course of an average lifetime. Many positive things have come of that change, but some unintended consequences have come to pass as well. One of the greatest changes has been in the distance that our food often travels. In the dead of winter, fresh fruits and vegetables are shipped not only from places like Florida and California but Argentina. The energy consumption connected with moving food that far is staggering.
There has similarly been astronomical growth in our consumption of frozen food, usually also produced far from home. The environmental footprint of these foods includes not only the transportation but the energy needed to keep it frozen. Despite these environmental and energy shortcomings, the wide availability of a variety of foods means that we have the opportunity to be as well nourished as any society in the history of mankind. Ironically, greater access to food means that it's also easier to consume things high in fat and sugar that are not so healthy.
Similarly, the advances in food production and processing have increased productivity while introducing questionable chemicals and drugs into our food and the environment. Many toxic agricultural chemicals that accumulate biologically in both us and the meat and fish we eat have been outlawed or restricted over the last forty years. Yet the use of herbicides (to control weeds) and insecticides (to eliminate bugs that damage crops) continues to increase.
A study at the University of Vienna showed that the world's most widely used weed killer, Glyphosate, was both cytotoxic and genotoxic. (That means it damages cells and the DNA in the genes of animals.) It is especially damaging to the tissues that line the cavities and surfaces of organs and structures within the human body that are important for the exchange of substances among cells and organs.
Animal growth promoters have also been in the news recently. Ractopamine, a drug that promotes protein synthesis, is given to cows, turkeys and pigs to encourage rapid weight gain. Though banned in many countries (including China, Russia and the entire European Union) it is still legal in the United States. Several food safety organizations recently sued the Food and Drug Administration, contending that the drug had not been adequately tested.
The overuse of antibiotics in livestock is an additional concern. Amazingly, 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on livestock and poultry. This happens because antibiotics are given to the animals routinely, not just when they are sick. With such widespread use, bacteria like MRSA have developed resistance to antibiotics and have become life-threatening to at-risk individuals.
These and related problems occur frequently in the massive industrial operations more common in other parts of the country. These gigantic animal facilities are not even classified as farms, but as "concentrated animal feeding operations." The number and concentration of animals require the use of more chemicals and antibiotics. It's another of a host of reasons that we should shop for locally raised produce and meat and encourage those producers to minimize the use of questionable supplements and practices.
The Union of Concern Scientists articles on food and agriculture are among excellent web resources on these topics.