Let’s get it straight.
With all the talk these days about making better choices about the foods we eat, I thought I’d explore some of the terminology we are all hearing on the street, in the news, and in the food stores and markets. Hopefully, this will help clarify things for you, or maybe even raise some more questions about our food system.
Organic: Just because you buy some beautiful apples at your local farmer’s market, doesn’t mean that they were grown organically. Same for just about any other kind of produce out there for sale at the farmer’s markets. Local doesn’t mean organic. Local just means it was grown nearby.
If you want organic food, you can find it at many mainstream grocery stores (at a higher price – remember supply and demand). But if you want to support local agriculture, (i.e. local business), you might want to seek out organic produce grown by local area farmers. Some of the farmer’s markets ONLY sell organic produce, while most others sell a combination, depending on what farmers are setting up booths. I remember talking to one of the organizers of a farmer’s market in a small town in Michigan, who said they refused to sell anything but organic, grass fed beef, and free range poultry. It’s very admirable on their part, but also remember very often the price of such goods is higher (supply and demand again). And another thing, a few fruit farmers have told me over the years: it’s almost impossible to grown fruit without some spraying of pesticides. The idea is to spray the less toxic pesticides, as well as spray only during times in the season when the spray doesn’t seem to affect the bee populations.
How do I know it was grown organically? You are relying on the information that is provided on the package or by the farmer. And you better read the package carefully or do your research, as there are lots of different interpretations of ‘organic’ these days.
Local and Seasonal: Actually two separate terms. When combined, means consuming foods that are in season in the area surrounding within about 100 miles of your home base, during their harvest season. This can mean eating them while they are ripe, or storing them for future consumption (canning, freezing, etc). For example, if you live in Chicago, you could be eating more apples (and freezing, storing them) during the fall months. During the spring and summer, other foods would be eaten and processed for future use, as they became readily available for picking.
Locally produced foods: the idea is to use less energy transporting food across the world, and instead using what is grown nearby. The expense of transporting the food is less costly, less gas is used, less pollution, i.e. less ‘food miles’. There is also the freshness factor: the time lapse of food being harvested to consumption is generally less than food transported across the world, so food is fresher, and with that less nutrients are lost in transportation. Also, many foods that have longer transportation times are harvested when not quite ripe, as the additional ripening will occur during the transportation time. If you were to choose between food ripened on the vine and ripened on the truck, the assumption is that you would choose on the vine.
Seasonal foods: If you are talking about eating seasonally available produce, you are talking about eating what’s in season, when it’s in season. The only problem I see with this method of consumption (eating local and season) is that, depending on where you live, there is either more or less available. For example, California has an almost steady flow of available produce at any given time of the year – so eating local and season in California can still provide a cornucopia of produce year round. And eating local in Florida might mean more tropical fruits and citrus. But, Vermont and even Chicago for example, are reliant on what can be grown during the spring, summer and fall months. That being said, there are now some companies producing food using aquaponics and vertical growing techniques: which are done inside, and operated year-round. The selection of available goods at these facilities is increasing as well (not just lettuce). This method of growing could greatly increase the availability of year round ‘locally grown’ produce in colder climates.
Sustainable: Are the methods used by the farmer creating terminal stress on the land by ONLY feeding off the land, or are the methods the farmer is practicing supplementing AND feeding off the land.
GMOs: Genetically modified organisms. If you haven’t heard what’s going on about this, you are probably living under a rock in the middle of a desert, or something. Many many of the foods produced these days, including what’s grown on farms, has been grown from seeds that have been ‘modified’. By modified, that means the seeds genetic make-up has been altered in a lab, to make them more attractive, plentiful, virulent, and resistant to disease. Of course this was a great idea when it first came on the scene: the farmer could grow more crops, in a smaller area, with more produce per plant, and less disease overall. Who wouldn’t want that! The farmer has less issues, and best yet the consumer has a better looking tomato. But, there are actually many problems raised with genetically modifying stuff – here’s just a few:
– Not enough research has been done in the scientific community, to show the long term effects of eating GMO food. The little research that’s been done has suggested health issues will occur when GMO food is consumed on a steady basis, in regularly quantities. Health issues include reproductive issues in humans who consume the products.
– The companies that are genetically modifying the seeds, are also tying those seeds to other products to support the seed as it grows on the farms, like particular herbicides and pesticides, Round-Up© for example. So, the farmer is obliged to buy the herbicides and pesticides when planting those GMO seeds. Okay, so the seed company is really smart – they are making money at all stages of the seed growth – that’s capitalism. The farmer can always choose not to grow those seeds, right? Well, wrong. If they decide to grow organic seeds for example, or even another seed that is not GMO, they run the risk of being sued. Why? Because the GMO seed can contaminate the neighbor farms crops (actually even neighbors many miles away). A bee, butterfly or bird don’t understand that they should only visit one farm at a time, and not transport seeds, pollen to neighbors with other kinds of seeds. The GMO material then mixes with the non-GMO material. Then the farmer growing non-GMO suddenly has contaminated seed, even though unbeknownst and undesired. The companies who produce the GMO seed have sued many farmers, many ‘organic’ farmers, for stealing intellectual property (even unknowingly), namely the modified seed, and in fact the big companies have won in the courts. If this seems okay to you, then the story ends here. But if you find this to be disturbing, I suggest you do what you can to make your preference known.
– Companies, farmers that use GMO modified ingredients are not required to label their products as such. California just tried to institute a law requiring such, but lost. So, we don’t know what products we are buying contain or don’t contain them, so can’t make an educated choice about our purchases.
– Another issue that is of concern is that we are growing too much of only a few types of crops. This is a called a mono-culture. The crops we are depending on are corn, soy beans, and wheat mainly. From Wikipedia: “Monoculture is the agricultural practice of producing or growing a single crop or plant species over a wide area and for a large number of consecutive years. It is widely used in modern industrial agriculture and its implementation has allowed for large harvests from minimal labour. Monocultures can lead to the quicker spread of diseases, where a uniform crop is susceptible to a pathogen. ‘Crop monoculture’ is the practice of growing the same crop year after year.”
CSA: Stands for Community Sponsored Agriculture. Over the last decade, there has been a push for people to support locally grown farms, by buying their produce. CSAs (community sponsored agriculture) has arisen from the demand. In spring, you sign up with a farmer to buy a share of what he will be producing over the summer. By signing up, I mean you hand over a chunk of change in the spring. Expect to pay several hundred dollars at least, for a summer’s worth of produce. In exchange, you will get a box of food every week, with whatever is in season on that particular farm. In June you might get lettuce and peas while in August you might get tomatoes and squash. Generally, the food is delivered to your door, but some programs have a system where you pick up your box weekly from a nearby ‘drop’ station (someone’s garage or a local shop).
Grass Fed Beef: Cows are not meant to eat grain. They are meant to eat grass. And I don’t mean that in a mean way, it’s simply that their digestive systems cannot digest grain without making them sick. An analogy would be if people were told to eat only radishes (I know it’s weak, but stay with me here). Our systems would begin to suffer because of the difficulty we would have digesting these gassy vegetables, and nothing else. We would also not be getting the full range of nutrients our bodies needed: protein, minerals, etc. After a while, we would become more prone to illness and infection, maybe even lose weight. It’s a similar situation with raising cows on a grain fed diet. They have trouble digesting the grain only diet, have bowel issues, are more prone to infection and illness and are generally unhealthy. In an effort to bring the cows ‘back to health’, the farmer will supplement their grain diet with antibiotics, vitamins, and whatever other drugs are needed to keep them alive. Another thing is that cows in feed lots are also fed some pretty unattractive and unnatural materials including by-products of other cow’s slaughter. Not only is this unethical by human standards, but is a cause for illness (remember Mad Cow disease). Cows are not cannibals.
Cows raised for beef spend about the first 6 months of their life grazing on grass, in open pasture. The problems with their health start when they are moved to the feed lots, (these days known as CAFOs, short for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), where they are kept until slaughter. The feed lots are also very congested, and the animals experience more stress, i.e. more prone to illness.
Back to grass fed beef. When you see this label on a package of meat, the idea is that the cow has been given the freedom to graze on grass their entire life, not just the first 6 months. But buyer beware: the label can tell a half truth, not tell the whole story. Some farmers may be stretching the truth in order to get sales. Make sure you buy from a reputable source and do your research.
My husband and I buy some of our beef from a friend in Wisconsin, who raises a few cattle on his land. He offers a CSA of the meat. He lets the cows graze on the grass through their whole life span, and since we know his farm, his land, and his ethics, we trust what we are getting.
I also buy grass-fed beef at my local grocery chain. The cost is more, but we compromise by consuming less red meat, which is actually better for our cholesterol issues anyway. I’m really hoping the price of grass-fed meat continues to go down. The price is still very high for the average family. But again, it is supply and demand. The more grass-fed beef we purchase, the more grocers will realize the greater demand, and then the more farms will move in that direction, increasing competition to sell their product, hopefully bringing down the price.
Free Range Poultry: Chickens raised in crowded factory settings also exhibit more stress related illnesses. Similar issues to beef.
CAFOs: Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. These are not happy places nor ethical or humane. There’s plenty of information out there about them. I suggest starting by reading Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma to get a glimpse into the life of an average feed lot beef cow.
Community Garden: Lots of people are using community garden plots to grow their own produce during the spring/summer and fall months in Chicago. I’ve even some folks using cold-frames to grow during the winter months. Some people are growing in community gardens to have more control over what they consume and some just like to garden.