It used to be that organic was enough. That organic label told consumers their food was safer, fresher and more likely to have come from a small, reliable farm than a mega-farm-factory. Then, last year, Wal-Mart started selling organic products. Suddenly, organic didn't seem so special.
Last fall, an outbreak of E. coli bacteria in California-grown organic spinach that left three dead and hundreds sick shone the national spotlight on the question of where food comes from.
Most produce people eat, organic or not, travels thousands of miles to reach the shelves of their local supermarket. The journey exacts a huge toll on the environment as refrigerated tractor-trailers packed with green tomatoes and bananas crisscross the country, burning diesel and spewing pollution and greenhouse gas. And the potential for unsanitary handling and nutrient depletion exists at every stop along the way.
According to statistics in Brian Halweil's Eat Here: Reclaiming Hontegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket, fruits and vegetables now travel between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to market, "an increase of roughly 20 percent in the last two decades." And that's just the produce within the U.S. Halweil says that 898 million tons of food are shipped around the planet each year, four times the amount that was shipped in 1961."It's amazing that you can buy organic food at Wal-Mart," says Jen Maiser, the founder of the blogs Eatlocalchallenge.com and Lifebeginsat30.com. "But some of us really wanted a better handle on our food. Now organic is so corporate." Living in the Bay Area of California with plenty of access to year-round farmer's markets, Maiser is a self-described "locavore" (others, including vegetarian cookbook guru Deborah Madison, refer to themselves as "localtarians"). They are at the forefront of a movement that stresses eating local as a way to reconnect with one's food.
The not-so-super supermarket
Walk into any American supermarket and it's like entering a food Mecca. Aisle upon aisle of choices, approximately 45,000 in total, from cereals to cereal bars, canned soup to soup mixes, instant rice to rice and beans, chicken halves to chicken wings, soda to juice to energy drinks.
And always right near the entrance sit the glistening mounds of produce: the green leafy lettuce and blemish-free cucumbers lightly spritzed every few minutes; the shiny apples and succulent-looking strawberries, even in the dead cold of winter. According to local eating advocates, all those perceived choices are little more than illusion.
Michael Pollan's runaway bestseller, TVir Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, taught readers that much of what's sold in the supermarket under the guise of unique food items can be traced back to a four-letter word: corn. "A chicken nugget," writes Pollan, "piles corn upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn [because that's what the chicken cats], of course, but so do most of a nugget's other constituents, including the modified corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter that coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried."
Then there are the soft drinks made with high-fructose corn syrup and the corn-containing chemical bases for all those processed foods, from Cheez Whiz to ketchup to TV dinners. It's no wonder that those accustomed to growing their own food, or buying what they can't grow in a local farmer's market, feel a shiver of trepidation upon entering a supermarket's brightly lit, overstocked aisles.
"I'm stunned to look at all that food in a supermarket," says nutritionist and Columbia professor Joan Dye Gussow, author of This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader, which eloquently describes her efforts to grow all the vegetables she eats on an oft-flooded plot of land alongside the Hudson River in Piermont, New York. "I'm so used to the idea that all my vegetables come from a garden and the meat from upstate farms. I marvel at eating these mysterious things grown from a distance."
Gussow writes of the frustration and sense of disconnect that happens when one walks through the motion sensitive supermarket doors. "How difficult and time-consuming to try to live simply in this culture of frenzied consumption," she says. "ShopRite was a kind of epiphany. I felt as if I simply didn't know how to shop there, how to make choices, how to find things. It made me feel helpless and alien."
In Gussow's view, the only way American consumers can continue to push around their oversized shopping carts loaded with foods flown in from who-knows-where is to willfully ignore reality. But as outbreaks of E. coli proliferate, more American consumers are becoming aware of the distance their food travels, and the inherent dangers in that journey.
"Food is a living, perishable product," says Halweil. "The longer it's in storage, the more it deteriorates... our dependence on long-distance tixxi makes us more susceptible to outbreaks of E. coli and meat contamination. Local food is not immune. But if there's a problem, it's likely to be isolated."
And ignorance about food sources does more than allow the occasional public health disaster: it distances consumers from a connection with the things that feed them. They forget that certain plants flower and ripen in specific months, that certain vegetables and fruits proliferate in the places where they live, and they forget what fresh-picked produce tastes like.
"I was at a farmer's market [in winter], it was really cold," says New Mexico-based Madison, a vegetarian cook and author of such cookbooks as Local Eating. "I heard somebody say, 'I guess strawberries aren't in season anymore. And not ironically. It showed how far we've come... The supermarket is the season of the world."
Growing a happier meal
People may be waking up to the need for more local food in their diets, but the current model of long-distance food is stubbornly established, based on an unholy trinity of cheap corn, cheap soy and (relatively) cheap oil. Farms have grown in size over the past 30 years, but simplified tremendously in terms of output. Most farms in the Midwest are dedicated to rotating two crops -- corn and soybeans -- requiring heavy amounts of pesticides between the two.
Corn now consumes 400,000 acres across the Midwest, while soybeans command more than four million acres. Nitrogen used to fertilize these crops in the absence of traditional manure creates runoff. Halweil's book details how that has damaged not only the Midwestern water supply, but wreaked environmental havoc in the Gulf of Mexico, where nitrogen feeds algae that feeds bacteria that depletes oxygen, killing huge quantities of fish and shellfish.
Meanwhile livestock, once an integral part of any farm, have been relegated to their own giant factories. The waste from these hog, poultry and cow farms creates huge levels of pollution in the form of "hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and methane gas," according to Eat Here.
"One farm in Utah will raise over 1.5 million hogs a year, producing as much waste in one day as the city of Los Angeles," Halweil writes. And factory farms with animals raised in large numbers in close captivity means that livestock need a steady diet of antibiotics. And the presence of those drugs as part of the American diet, means ever-more-resistant strains of bacteria like salmonella.
Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University says that tanners are caught in the middle. Whether prices are low or high, farmers feel compelled to grow more. "When grain prices go higher, as is happening today with com because of ethanol demand, farmers simply plant more to make up the difference with volume," Pirog says. "But with more corn on the market, the price, at least historically, will fall again. With the exception of a few good years, it usually is a zero-sum game for commodity farmers."