In the 1950s, my grandparents owned a thriving fruit and vegetable shop in the North of England. Out of pure economic necessity, everything that came and went through the shop door was local, sustainable and in season. And with the exception of a few imported bananas, everything else was grown within a ten-mile radius.
Fast forward to today and the words “local and organic” have suddenly become lucrative buzzwords. I’m pretty sure if my grandad were still alive he’d be left scratching his head knowing that the business model he once used out of pure necessity, would today be seen as trendy or even upmarket. Here’s where the story gets interesting.
Bugs eat profits. I know this and so do large-scale organic farmers. Make no mistake, farming is hard work and anyone getting up at 5 a.m. deserves to make money like everyone else. But if you think all your organic produce arrives at your table pesticide-free, then you would be wrong. Large-scale organic farmers aren’t about to risk crop failure and certain financial ruin just to bring you a fresh head of kale.
Ever wondered why your organic kale comes to the table without hundreds of tiny bug holes in it? It’s been sprayed with an “organic” pesticide. What you need to quickly wrap your head around is that ALL pesticides, organic or not, share a common goal: to repel living things.
According to the USDA, the organic label only restricts the use of synthetic pesticides. Pesticides like copper sulfate and rotenone are permitted to be sprayed directly onto your organic produce. Am I saying don’t buy organic? Nope, that’s not what I am saying at all, but some of us have become so desperate to believe in the benefits of organic food that we only see what we want to see. The aim of this post isn’t to tickle your ears with sweet words, it’s to help you understand the value of clean, local food (and show you where to find it.)
Not all organic food is as squeaky clean as we would like it to be. With that in mind, perhaps some of the smaller local farmers without an organic seal are being harshly overlooked.
BIG PHARMA — LITTLE FARMER
The controversy over organic food can begin even before the first seed is planted. Whether or not the seeds are “organic” means only one thing: that the original seed-producing plant was grown according to organic standards. If a hybrid seed is planted, the resulting plant will still be organic so long as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers aren’t used.
Let’s take this a step further by looking at that pristine organic USDA seal of approval. Would it surprise you to know that it can be handed out to products that use only 95% organic ingredients during processing? For this reason, anything carrying the organic label may not be strictly 100% organic.
Look, I’m not shooting organic food down — I’m simply saying that in today’s busy world of commerce it pays to be aware that the only truly organic food is homegrown. Another option is to know the name of the farmer who grows it.
To be clear, organic food that’s been grown specifically for supermarkets has its place in your recovery. It’s a huge step in the right direction and an absolute upgrade of what they usually try to sell us. The point I am trying to make is this: don’t be too quick to discount your small local farmer just because he/she doesn’t carry that holy grail of organic seals.
Try looking at it this way: there was a time when our ancestors’ food was truly organic. Today farmers who choose to grow “organic” food are often shackled in regulation. The irony is those nonorganic farmers who drown our foods with synthetic pesticides are less regulated.
Surely we have this all twisted. Shouldn’t the regular farmers who are spraying copious amounts of carcinogenic pesticides on our food be the ones held accountable and buried in paperwork?
Either way, there are times when small independent farmers can’t get the organic certification simply because of the added paperwork and costs involved. Fees typically include paying the government for site inspections, application fees, and annual certification fees.
If an organic farmer wishes to conform to all the regulations he/she must find the time to stop work whenever a government bureaucrat visits the farm. If the small local farmer wants the organic seal, he/she is inevitably forced to jump through hoops to get it and in the process loses valuable time and resources. With the small local farmer now squeezed out, I sometimes feel we are quick to trust the large-scale organic label and slow to ask questions.
As evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox explained in a 2012 Scientific American article, even “organic” pesticides can be toxic. Copper sulfate, when digested in large amounts, can lead to damage in the tissues, blood cells, liver, and kidneys. While I’m not suggesting toxic levels are being applied, we should be aware of ANY pesticide that has the potential to cause us harm.
Rotenone is another pesticide sprayed onto organic crops and is notorious for its lack of degradation. Studies show that copper sulfate, pyrethrins, and rotenone can all be detected on plants after harvest. Hmm, I see, perhaps we need to ask more questions of large-scale farmers, not fewer.
With (or without) the government organic seal of approval, enthusiastic young farmers are the lifeblood of the local food movement. They often bring clean food to farmers’ markets and shouldn’t be discredited for lack of paperwork.
Diversity in farming is a good thing and relying too heavily on a small number of people for our food should be an obvious cause for concern. Many small farmers are the backbone of independent farming and they deserve your support just as much as any large-scale organic farmer does.
The goal of this post isn’t just to get you to buy clean food, I’m asking you to go a step further and know the name of the farmer who grew it! Make a connection with the person growing your food. Small farmers need you to survive and you need them to thrive. Ask yourself, how many of your friends on Facebook are farmers?
Still not convinced, huh?
Imagine we find yourself shipwrecked on a desert island with 150 other people and one bag of seeds. Everyone agrees that three things are needed for our survival: food, water, and shelter. Fortunately, this island currently has enough coconuts to get us through the first few weeks while the (non-GMO) seeds grow. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have a plan beyond this so the group decides to put YOU in charge of its survival. I know, right? Now we are all up the creek without a paddle.
You quickly realize that you need to make some pretty big decisions. What percentage of this group will you send out to find water? How many do you put in charge of growing those seeds? How many do you put to work building a shelter? If you split the group evenly into 50–50–50, I think you’ll eventually be okay.
Even if you split the group 20–70–60 I still think you will make it. However, if you choose to have 149 people sitting around looking at computer screens all day while just one person grows the food, I’ll think you are certifiably insane.
How is this relevant?
It should make you feel a little uneasy to know that, statistically speaking, the U.S. has just one farmer responsible for feeding 155 people seven days a week. This situation becomes a little more unnerving when you understand that most supermarkets have an inventory strategy called JIT (Just-in-Time).
Supermarkets employ JIT to increase efficiency and decrease waste by receiving goods only as they are needed. Even a small disruption in the JIT supply would see our supermarket shelves quickly stripped bare.
Are we there yet?
Okay, try this. With or without an organic seal, small local farmers have a passionate connection to their land — it’s in their blood. Local produce is always fresher from the local farmer and often less expensive. Superstores are now growing at an expediential rate with some of them now opening around the clock seven days a week, taking with them a huge slice of independent pie.
When the purchasing power of superstores is allowed to become disproportionately influential, income is taken away from the surrounding local businesses. When all the small businesses are gone, giant superstores will be free to dictate what you eat so long as it remains profitable for them to do so.
Fortunately, superstores are not the only game in town and you can still find clean food locally in small mom and pop shops or at your local farmers’ market so long as we get out there and support them. Buying food locally also gives you the added benefit of buying what’s in season and fresh.
Compared to the huge superstores (which never seem to close) small farmers’ markets are usually held just once a week, obviously reducing their competitiveness with the bigger players. Unless we get out and support them more, this way of trading food will soon vanish.
What’s in it for you?
I know you’ve been paying attention to my other posts, then you already know the key to your health is your gut. It takes whatever nutrients you give it and then loops it back into the cells. Rather than buying your “organic” broccoli from a superstore, when you buy local you actually get to meet the person growing it. Where there is a connection there is also accountability.
Am I saying you have to cut the giant superstores completely out of your food loop? Nope, but it’s important we try to adjust the balance by sourcing as much locally grown produce as possible. I get it, waiting once a week for a farmers’ market can increase your chances of going without, so rather than complaining about it don’t be afraid to take a shopping list with you on farmers’ market days. But why stop there?
Once you have made a connection with your local growers it’s totally okay to ask them if you can buy from them directly on non-market days. Often small local farmers will have additional eggs, vegetables, and meat for sale and they may even be pleased that you asked.
This is how food used to be bought and sold. Sometimes you just have to open your mind and be on the lookout for nutritional opportunities rather than following what everyone else does.
Having a thriving farmers’ market in every town used to be the norm, but what can you do if your town or city doesn’t have one? The most obvious choice is to move. Yup, finding clean food obviously needs to become a bigger priority in your life. Failing that, I encourage you to travel to the next town or to the one after that. You could also think outside the box and approach your local supermarket produce manager and ask if he or she would consider carrying more local produce. This idea supports your local farmer making it a good fit for all concerned.
If you still can’t find a local farmer, then you could try hooking up with a local gardener. Anyone who grows food for a hobby usually grows more than they need. Generally speaking, gardeners are a pretty friendly bunch and they enjoy doing what they do — it’s why they do it. Who doesn’t like to have their hobby appreciated?
If your budget is ultra-tight, keep a lookout for garden allotments. This untapped idea can be a nutritional goldmine. This leads me nicely into the suggestion that even if you only have a small window box, you can begin to grow something yourself. This won’t sustain you, but it does serve as an important psychological step to get you thinking differently about local food.
Growing your own food is like printing your own money.
People often complain about the price of clean produce, which is why our ancestors played a much bigger role in growing their own. Today you can still buy a pack of 250 organic lettuce seeds for a few bucks. A single fully-grown store-bought lettuce will cost you more. Lettuce seeds are super easy to grow and even when left unattended they grow like weeds.
The same applies to tomatoes. You really don’t need much skill or more than a couple of feet of soil to grow them in. I agree it all takes time, but so does checking your email. Once you see how easy it is to grow a few lettuces and tomatoes you may even become bold enough to grow even more things for yourself.
We spend millions of dollars keeping our lawns green, yet you can’t eat the stuff and you certainly can’t smoke it. Growing something, anything, that gets you thinking beyond the scope of the supermarket.
These superstores have become masters of distraction and even with the best intentions, we keep finding ourselves going back into them for organic food and leaving with a pair of socks. Think about it, these distractions put your food bill up every time you go to the store.
Perhaps we need to look at this problem from a different perspective. In Sweden, a small group of city folks took it upon themselves to grow just a few basic vegetables. At the end of the growing season, they traded with each other for more variety. It worked out well for everyone involved. So why does this feel so unnatural to us?
A little more food for thought (author knuckle bumps reader for unintended pun): imagine if one day visitors from another galaxy dropped in to visit and began observing those crazy Swedes growing their own food.
They then observed that other group, yup, you know who I mean, the ones being slowly poisoned to death by pesticides. Which group would the aliens regard as crazy? The group of humans working together to grow what keeps them alive, or the group of humans eating out of cardboard boxes while sitting on their excessively manicured lawns?
So, while we are waiting for our home-grown lettuce to come to fruition let’s ponder our options. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Promises and plans must be put into action, otherwise, they are useless. The way to make this work is to make the small local stores your first port of call and then fill in any gaps at the supermarket. Doing it the other way around rarely happens.
In all sectors, diversity is the lifeblood of healthy commerce; whether you are buying a cabbage or a carpet, small family business owners need our support.
After both of my grandparents passed away, the fruit and veg shop quickly changed hands. Today it sells bargain-priced booze and the only place to buy fresh produce is at the giant supermarket down the road. Perhaps as a reflection of our changing times, all the supermarket vegetables come tightly wrapped in plastic. Quite remarkably, it is estimated that those same vegetables will have traveled an average of 1500 miles to get to the supermarket. I know, right? It kinda makes a mockery of the whole cutting carbon emissions thing.
What did we learn from this?
On average, just one farmer is responsible for growing the food of approximately 155 people. Buying local produce in season will enhance your nutritional intake as well as help the local community grow. Without economic diversity, the world would become a very scary place.
Homework: Challenge yourself to know the name of your local farmer. Find a farmers’ market in your area and support it. Next, grow one thing from seed and see where it leads. Like what you read? check out my book