Thursday, April 10, 2008

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

In a nonthinking moment last week, I submitted requests to my branch library for nine books. I figured that some of them already had holds and I would receive the books in a trickle rather than a flood. Well, call me Noah and build an ark, because I now have two weeks to read nine books. I just finished Bringing Down the House, the story of a group of MIT students who make millions counting cards in Vegas. It was a fascinating and quick read. I can only say that I wish I were that smart.
Yesterday, I began book 2, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. The author has written numerous works of fiction, but this book chronicles her family's decision to eat locally for one year. Her family of four moves to a Virginia farm and resolves to only eat what they or others in their region grow or produce. I am only about 100 pages in, but already the book has sparked a lot of thought about how we eat.

For dinner last night, I made Moo Shu chicken. I used Tyson chicken, raised somewhere in Arkansas probably. I used wheat flour from somewhere in the grain belt. I used carrots and mushrooms, which were probably grown somewhere in the US. And I used bok choy and water chestnuts from who knows where. None of these vegetables are in season, yet I was able to purchase them in my neighborhood grocery. My fridge is full of out of season, mass produced items. Apples, cantaloupe, blueberries. I think the only things in season are lettuce and asparagus.

We in the US are now used to having whatever we want when we want it. I try to always buy more of stuff when it is in season, but I still buy the majority of my produce out of season and think nothing of it. Nothing I buy is produced locally. It is all grown somewhere else, usually far, far away.

Kingsolver argues that this type of food consumption is tragic for our environment, our world economy, our bodies, and for nature. Our food today is largely grown on huge, industrial farms and then shipped thousands of miles across the country. A very small group of companies controls something like 90% of our food production. The small farmer is no more. It is almost impossible for a small farmer to eek out a living anymore. And much of our food is imported. Those berries and fruits you eat all winter are often grown in countries to our south. And do you think those farmers are making much profit? They should at the price of $5.00 a pint of raspberries, right? Wrong. They make less than $10 a day, while their boss at Dole makes multimillions.

Our produce is genetically engineered to withstand pests and disease and the rigors of cross -country travel. In all our modifying of crops and choosing crops for sustainability, we have managed to narrow down the variety of plant species that we eat to minuscule levels. Humans have eaten 80,000 species in course of history. Now we eat 8.

Those large companies that control our agriculture have managed to require that farmers buy new seed each year. Farmers can no longer save seeds. They must buy the latest genetically modified seed. This is resulting in plants that have lost the evolutionary ability to adapt. The plant species is not naturally evolving along with the pests because the plants are tinkered with and not left to nature. Because these large corporations also control seed catalogs, they have even squeezed out the availability of "heirloom" seeds to the average gardener. You used to have thousands of seeds to choose from when you opened up the seed catalog. Now you have only a few hundred. Plant geneticists warn that we are setting ourselves up for mass starvation because we have limited and controlled our food options to such drastic extremes. In Europe, there has been some effort to force these companies to lift their ban on farmers using last year's seeds, but so far this has not happened here in the US.

We also spend billions of dollars on transport costs and packaging in order to get these products to the supermarkets. Gas prices are skyrocketing. We have seen the results in the price of goods in our grocery stores. Those products have to be shipped thousands of miles and that takes gas. The packaging materials have to be shipped from maker to the food plant. The grain the animals are fed has to be shipped to the animals' location. And think of the emissions that all this transport spews into the air. And all the waste that packaging manufacturers pour into the water supply.

When you resolve to only buy locally, you are not supporting this giant food industry. You are putting money in the pockets of local farmers. You are supporting your local economy. You are not adding to energy consumption. You are not supporting companies who are restricting the natural evolution of plants and animals. You are hopefully putting fewer chemicals and hormones into your body. And as a personal reward, the food you buy tastes better. When you buy locally, you must buy in season and in season food is worlds better than out of season food. You already know this. Those supermarket tomatoes seem a distant and homely cousin to red, ripe juicy homegrown beauties.

When you look at it all laid out, it makes a lot of sense to buy locally. Unfortunately, it is easier said than done. I don't even know where to go in my city to buy locally grown food. There is a farmer's market downtown in the summer, but what about the rest of the year? My Kroger doesn't have a local food section. I will have to actively search out local food sources. And it may cost more. The prices may be higher, as there is no Sam Walton keeping them down by mass purchasing. And it could be more time consuming, requiring me to forgo convenience foods and make more myself. And, perhaps most difficult of all, it will require willpower. When I get a hankering for strawberries in December, I can't have them. I have to wait until summer. I can't have asparagus year round. It will require a total change in thinking and planning meals and ultimately, sacrifice.

So, will I do it? I think I probably will to some extent. I may try to ease into it, find some local sources and buy what I can. We'll see. I'll keep you posted.


Missybw said...

That's what I'm doing... easing back in slowly. Some items I'll never get local, what with White Lily closing down. But others I can and I will. The meat debate is still ongoing. Antibiotics and growth hormones are my big issues with that. One tip - Ingles in Asheville always had a local food section during the growing season. Food City also stocks local produce, again during season. Am considering doing a salad garden so I can grow my own on that. It's harder, for sure, but I feel it's worth it. We're worth it.

richgold said...

I haven't read the whole post (I'll go back and do that shortly). I wanted to comment about the apples not being in season. Technically, while they only come out in the fall in most places, apples can be held through out a winter, like carrots and potatoes, especially if they are stored correctly.

While I don't store apples *I* have picked, I do by the mass produced version from the grocery store. I try and buy within North American (Canada, US) where possible. These apples, I suspect, are probably gassed so that they can last longer. Like many of our other veggies.

It's hard to buy local and eat local. I have a "farmer's market" a block away and many of the sellers are actually resellers. (I don't recall when Eastern Ontario could grow bananas ...).

Here's something that gets me. Within a 30 minute drive of my home, there is a community that hosts a garlic festival every year, but, when I go to the grocery store I have to buy garlic imported from CHINA!!??!! What gives. It's a pet peeve of mine, so much so that I'm actually going to try to grow it this year.

Molly said...

Thanks for the apples info. I thought they were cool weather fall/winter fruits. I guess since the weather is so warm here now (80 degrees, I was assuming they were no longer in season. Good to know!

Mary Alice said...

Isn't that the most amazing and inspiring book? I read it last summer and now I go through the supermarket so much more aware. I am easing into the local thing too. One thing we did is start a community garden. It has been fun to grow our own and to see the neighborhood families get together and their kids become aware of how food really grows. The time, the effort, and how much better it tastes.

sexy said...