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Think Globally, Act Locally - page 2 by Jay Weinstein
Your local university/college agricultural office will have names of farmers in your region. The USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) supports programs at over a hundred land-grant colleges and universities. These extensions’ century-old mission is to solve public needs on the local level with college or university resources. CSREES partners with state Cooperative Extension Services (CES). Go to either www.csrees.usda.gov/qlinks/partners/state_partners.html or www.gardenersnet.com/atoz/ces.htm to find partner extensions.
These USDA extensions can direct consumers not just to farm stands and farmers’ markets, but also to another fantastic resource: community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms. Thousands of small farms sell produce direct to consumers, through CSAs. What they are is a mutual support system between growers and consumers of farm products that provides a conduit for food from field to table. It’s the ultimate in “putting a face to the food.” Consumers pay the farmer an annual membership fee, which helps him run the farm. In return, the member receives a weekly share of the harvest during the local growing season. There’s both a shared bounty and a shared risk, since an abundant, fine crop brings extra benefit to the member, and the membership income defrays costs during lean times for the farmer. The system benefits the ecosystem in many ways: Most farms involved in CSAs grow organic produce, protecting the land and water, and shipping is inherently minimal, protecting the air and natural resources.
Members buy an annual “share,” which yields enough weekly produce to feed a family of four, or a couple on a vegetarian diet. Depending on the farm and the region, shares can range from $300 to $600. Sometimes, half-shares are available. In terms of cost, the produce usually ends up averaging about the same as conventional produce purchased at the supermarket. Buying organic anywhere is good. But buying from a source that circumvents the environmental costs of transporting, processing, and distributing the food is especially beneficial to the environment. While organics are still less than 3 percent of the $900 billion annual U.S. food market, at the present rate of growth, sales of organics could outstrip conventional foods within twenty years.
The CSA movement actually began in Japan, where a women’s group concerned with use of pesticides and the invisible costs of imported produce started a movement called teikei (essentially meaning “food with the farmer’s face on it”). They started their CSA in 1965. Twenty years later, a Swiss environmentalist who had started a community-supported agriculture group near Zurich brought the idea to a Massachusetts farm, and started the first CSA in the United States–Indian Line Farm in South Egremont. Today, there are more than two thousand CSAs in North America. They exist in every state. To find one near you, go to www.csacenter.org or www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/csa/.
No Free Ride
Ethical produce is often more expensive than conventional produce. Ethical meats almost always are. America’s food is so cheap in part because so many ethical corners have been cut to make it that way. Fossil fuels are cheap, so the maximum amount of them are used to lower food prices. Small farms employ more hand labor than factory farms, which is important since farm machinery represents 12 percent of all diesel fuel consumed in our oil-thirsty country. Mass production makes widespread crop dusting with insecticides and herbicides economically feasible, so pesticides that pollute land and water make conventional crops cheaper. Concentrated feeding and slaughter operations and animal by-product—based feed make livestock production cheap, and meat overabundant and cheap.
Americans spend less on food than people in any other country. Most of us spend about 10 percent of our family income on food. This is a recent development. In 1950, about 21 percent of income was spent on food. This, despite the fact that more meals are eaten in restaurants now than ever before. The period from 1950 to 2002 saw the percentage of family income spent on food at home fall from 16.9 percent to 6.2 percent. In developing countries like India and China, families spend as much as 50 percent of their income on food.
Most of us can afford the extra few dollars a week it would cost to buy the right ingredients, the ethical ingredients. Organic milk and cage-free organic eggs cost roughly double their conventional counterparts. If most Americans could see the hideous conditions that hens are subjected to in order to keep egg prices low, almost anyone would agree that it’s a small price to pay. If they could see the squalor of the life of a conventional dairy cow, almost everyone would pay the extra $2 a gallon to be sure that it came from a cow that wasn’t confined to a windowless barn clamped to a milking machine 24/7. They might not be able to taste the difference between that milk and milk from a cow that roamed the grass in the light of day (although some can), but they’d feel better about themselves.
The Hidden Costs of Cheap Food
Sometimes local is the economical option. When popular local crops like summer corn, berries, tree fruit, and root vegetables are at their season’s peak, they can be substantially cheaper than imports. Why, then, would West Coast peaches at $2.99 a pound represent 75 percent of the peaches in a New York City supermarket in August, when sweet, tree-ripe New Jersey peaches, selling for $1.49, are so delicious? Part of the reason involves consumer expectation. Seasonal produce grown on small farms lacks the uniform shapes and sizes many consumers have come to expect. It may seem that picture-perfect skin and coloration indicate superior fruit. But any home gardener who’s picked an oddly-shaped ripe tomato from the vine and compared it with the “perfect” hothouse specimen from Holland knows that looks can be deceiving. Supermarkets also favor suppliers who can deliver consistent products in predictable quantities. By shunning local growers whose quality is better but crop size is unpredictable, these markets are starving the local farm economies, making the farms ever less able to produce the desired volume.
Thoughtful consumers should expect to pay a premium for buying locally, because it’s simply a different system of production, with less mechanization, less yield-boosting pesticides, and other higher costs. Unfortunately, there’s an internal mechanism in all of us that tends to prioritize dollar costs above all other costs.
Take it from me. I’ve been a personal chef to clients who represent the top one percent of U.S. income, and they’re more concerned about the price of milk than the middle class is. I’ve been told by multimillionaires that I shouldn’t pay a few extra dollars for more expensive organic ingredients. The food-cost difference to their meal may have been small, but it was the principle of spending those dollars that irked them. To be fair, once I explained the environmental rationale for choosing the organic products, most of my clients endorsed them, agreeing that they should have “the best.”
When the Union of Concerned Scientists (www.ucsusa.org), a nonprofit group of scientists working for solutions to environmental problems, addressed the costs of industrial agriculture, it revealed the unseen price tags on cheap food. Their report, “The Costs and Benefits of Industrial Agriculture” (March 2001), noted that “a full accounting would include not only the benefits of relatively cheap prices consumers pay for food, the dividends paid to the shareholders of fertilizer and pesticide manufacturers and the dollars earned by exporting American goods abroad, but also the offsetting costs of environmental pollution and degradation.” They concede that the costs are difficult to assess. Water pollution and global warming are influenced by many factors. Many of industrial farming’s effects are felt far from the farms themselves, such as when nitrogen compounds from Midwestern farms travel down the Mississippi and degrade coastal fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. They cite costs including:
• Damage to fisheries from oxygen-depleting algae fed by fertilizer runoff
• Cleanup of surface and groundwater polluted with animal waste
• Increased health risks suffered by agricultural workers and farmers exposed to pesticides
• The high energy requirements of industrial agriculture, such as running giant combines and harvesters
• Energy used to produce and transport pesticides and fertilizers, and to refrigerate and transport perishable produce across the country and around the world
• Global warming gases and ozone pollution produced by tillage; effects may already be occurring in the form of increased violent weather and rising oceans
Seas Are Local, Too
Nothing benefits more from timely consumption than fresh fish. In summer, when bluefish are running up the Atlantic coast, their thriving fishery provides abundant, inexpensive, delicious pleasure to savvy East Coast fish lovers. Porgies also thrive in Eastern summer waters. The idea of choosing South American, Chinese, or South African fish when these exceptional local fish are in season is like buying California oranges in Miami. Likewise, when icy midwinter waters ensure the cleanest, clearest, briniest Eastern oysters, mussels, and clams, that’s the time to skip the Pacific varieties for a while in New England. And the same goes for the Left Coast. Fall and early winter are still the best times for Western oysters from Puget Sound, Wescott Bay, Hog Islands, and Shoalwaters, even though modern technology has brought nonspawning (all-season) oysters to Oregon and Washington State waters.
Getting to know and use what’s local and abundant in your own region also relieves overtaxed fisheries elsewhere. Choosing to dine on local, fresh Atlantic mackerel relieves pressure on stocks of overexploited red snapper in the Gulf, Chilean sea bass in South America, and other trendy fish. It also reduces transportation pollution.
Excerpted from The Ethical Gourmet by Jay Weinstein. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.