Local Food as a Solution
Clearly these modern ways of growing crops and livestock are broken. But there are ways to be a responsible food consumer. Demanding to know where one’s food comes from and how it’s grown is the first step in changing this industry. Producers that are harming the environment aren’t going to be transparent about their operations. Producers with nothing to hide, on the other hand, are more than willing to put their practices on display. Small producers in local food economies are usually in the latter category. Supporting the local food economy can have significant effects on a consumer’s carbon footprint. Purchasing groceries from a local grower at a farmers market usually guarantees that this food has traveled less than that in a grocery store. These local farmers are also more likely to be conscientious about their practices. Even if they’re not 100% natural farmers, they know enough about their fields and are concerned enough about their finances to be motivated to reduce their synthetic chemical use as much as possible.
In contrast to the fossil fuel guzzling system, there are systems of livestock production that actually put more into the earth than they take from it. Labeled “holistic,” “closed-loop,” or “permaculture,” these systems follow nature’s example of natural fertilizers and pest reduction. An example is Joel Salatin’s method of rotational grazing (Salatin). While he sells beef, pork, and chicken, he considers himself primarily a “grass farmer.” By taking care of his pastures, Salatin’s livestock thrive with minimal inputs, including feed, fertilizer, or pesticides. His cows graze a small section of pasture per day, following an intense rotation around his fields. They’re eating their natural diet of grass and greens outside in a healthy herd, very unlike the cramped, grain-fed cattle in CAFOs (Thiele 113). Salatin’s chickens follow a few days behind the cows, pecking at the fly larvae in the cow’s raw manure and eating other insects in the field. Doing this, the chickens spread the natural fertilizer left by the cows while simultaneously adding a layer of their own fertilizer and removing insect pests from the fields. Chickens on a natural diet produce noticeably superior eggs and meat. This is a closed-loop system requiring virtually no inputs, and certainly no synthetic chemicals. Salatin’s pigs contribute to a healthy forest ecosystem in the wooded parts of his property, eating acorns and digging for root vegetables. Holistic farming methods like this one mimic and enhance the ecosystem relationships found naturally in the environment. Farmers who use these systems based on the natural rhythms of life are actually improving the environment (Thiele 85). These pastures sink more carbon out of the atmosphere, improve soil quality, and retain water better than monoculture fields used to grow food for industrial livestock.
These same holistic principles can be applied to vegetable production, too. Sustainable farmers use natural inputs such as compost or seaweed to fertilize their fields, rely on beneficial insects to reduce pests, rotate their crops, and intensely weed instead of using synthetic chemicals. There is so much more biodiversity in these operations, too: these farmers know that growing more than one type of the same vegetable will increase their soil’s health, reduce the chance that their crop will fail due to pests or disease, and allow them to experiment with what type of plant grows best under what conditions (Pollan, Botany of Desire). Their soil teems with microbial life beneficial not only to the plant’s health but also to the health of those who eat this produce.
Sustainable farmers like this usually cannot (and usually don’t want to) sell their meat and produce on a large scale. They keep their products local, distributing them at a local farmers market, grocery store, or through a community supported agriculture (CSA) model in which patrons pay a certain amount of money at the beginning of the year and receive baskets of produce throughout the season. Buying locally-produced food usually ensures consumers are buying food grown in environmentally conscious ways.
Besides the reduced environmental costs, there are so many other reasons to support local food. One of these reasons is for their health benefits (Welland 16). Buying from a sustainable, local producer means fewer chemicals on the produce, fewer hormones and antibiotics in meat, and fewer artificial preservatives or other additives. It also means more micronutrients and phytochemicals from the nutrient-rich soil. Eggs from a local producer are likely to have a higher nutrient density than eggs produced industrially. Dairy products, produce, and meat bought locally are less likely to have undergone much processing, leaving more nutrients in their natural, digestible forms. These nutrient-packed foods taste better, too. Produce ripened on the plant rather than in storage or via ripening chemicals in a processing plant get to reach their full potential for flavor. Picked in season at peak ripeness and with less storage time, these foods are fresher than industrially produced food (Welland 20). Shopping locally has the potential to change consumer’s eating habits for the better. Processed, unhealthy foods are rarely at farmers markets, where healthy fruits and vegetables steal the show. With a basketful of beautiful local produce, meat, eggs, and dairy products, it’s easier and to stay away from unhealthy products and fast food. Patrons are challenged to work with whatever produce is in season, allowing them to learn about new foods and get creative by sharing recipes with other people at these markets.
Another reason to support local agriculture is to benefit the local economy. Buying food from giant food producers has far less of an effect on the consumer’s immediate community than if they were to buy locally. In fact, it is estimated that only 7% of the money spent at a grocery store stays in that local community. On the other hand, 90-100% of the money spent at a farmers markets goes directly back to the farmers who grew it (Welland 22). Investing in local food brings not only agricultural jobs to the area, but also supports other local businesses in the industry, from financial services to local bakeries, and every small venture in between.
While at sticker price it may seem like local food is more expensive than industrially produced food, that sticker doesn’t take into account all the hidden costs of industrial food (Thiele 156). These costs include the national subsidies for fossil fuels in the agricultural sector, the subsidies Americans pay for corn and wheat production from the Farm Bill, national health costs due to foodborne illness and increased antibiotic resistance, and the costs of subsidized nutrients lost from the soil due to poor farming practices. Some estimates total these subsidies to around $725 per household every year (Kingsolver 117). As these environmental costs and national burdens add up, the price of local food seems much more manageable.
An interesting view of local food as a benefit to consumers is through the psychological perspective. It is well established that eating healthily contributes greatly to mental health (O’Neil et al.; Jacka et al.; Walsh), and as we’ve already discussed, local food is typically nutritionally healthier than industrial food. But there is another potential psychological benefit to local food which deserves some attention: just having some contact with nature could boost mental health. Recent research shows that people who spend more time outside or live in rural settings have lower rates of mental illness, alcohol and drug dependence, and depression (Cooper). Another study showed that patients given a hospital room with a view of nature were less stressed, needed fewer pain medications, and had lower blood pressure (Ulrich). Even walking through a natural setting has been empirically shown to reduce cognitive rumination, a symptom and risk factor for depression, more than a walk through an urban area (Bratman). These benefits are extensively discussed in Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods. Louv proposes that an epidemic which he coins “Nature-Deficit Disorder” has spread quickly among the children of recent generations. His book argues for a cultural return to nature not only to reeducate children about fundamental biological truths, but also to reverse their rising rates of depression, ADHD, obesity, and anxiety (Louv). While gardening is certainly one way to get outside to reap some of nature’s psychological benefits, those who are involved with the local food scene might be more likely to get outside anyway. Most farmer’s markets (in the summer, at least) are held outdoors, and upon meeting a local farmer or urban gardener, opportunities to be outside either to visit or to volunteer become available quickly.
Lastly, as a sustainably-minded student at a Catholic university, theological reasons for eating locally are significant. The theological reasons most relevant are care and reverence for creation. Viewing the earth as more than scientific “nature” but more deeply as “creation,” Catholics acknowledge that all beings on earth have intrinsic value. As created beings, humans are not in an unequal or dominance-based relationship. As Norman Wirzba explains in his book Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating, how we think about and act towards nature translates directly into how we eat. Eating can be an act of praise if we understand and are grateful that the plants and animals given to us are a direct gift from God. Wirzba explains: “a thoughtful, theological relation to food makes possible the discovery that eating is among the most intimate and pleasing ways possible for us to enter into the memberships of creation and find there the God who daily blesses and feeds life (4).” Conversely, eating in a way that disgraces nature, “preferring instead a life of convenience and self-glorification (78),” separates us from both the earth and God. Catholics put ourselves in exile by rejecting the earthly and bodily homes we have been so graciously given. Local food, because it is so often grown with more care for both the animals and the environment it affects, allows us to enter into a closer relationship with ourselves, our community, and with God (102).
Pope Francis discusses human’s intimate relationship with and responsibility to the environment in his encyclical Laudato Si. He explains how “nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves… we are part of nature (139).” Catholics cannot do harm to one piece of creation and not expect that harm to have ripple effects in this system God created because “everything is interconnected (138).” Wendell Berry, a prominent environmental writer, similarly says “you cannot damage what you are dependent upon without damaging yourself (116).” Proposing the idea of an “integral ecology (137),” Pope Francis calls all Catholics to adopt a lifestyle in which both humans and the environment are respected. Local food economies support this integral ecology by supporting small businesses who are doing much more to care for society and the environment than the “economies of scale, [which] especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops (129).” The Pope explicitly says in his encyclical that “civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production (129).” Catholics can do our part by voting with our dollars to support small, local businesses instead of giant, multinational monopolies.