In Defense of Buying Local

In last week’s post about how to buy local on a budget, I said “the one critique” I’ve repeatedly heard about locally-sourced food is the price. Actually, I’ve heard a good deal of skepticism voiced about farmers markets, namely that vendors don’t necessarily raise their animals as humanely or grow their produce with as minimal chemical intervention as one might assume. And that’s true: as with the ‘organic’ label, you can’t take all claims of sustainability at face value. You need to read the fine print, literally or metaphorically – the latter of which might entail interrogating the vendor a bit. Right now, though, I want to briefly address a common argument of economists.

market shoppingIf everyone subsisted solely on what was available to them locally, we would be worse off. I’ll avoid using the economic jargon of comparative and absolute advantage, but, basically, we would be forcing ourselves to grow things that could be much more easily grown elsewhere. This would essentially waste huge amounts of time, money, and energy that could be better put towards specializing in select products. It would mean higher prices to the consumer as well as more environmental detriment via inefficient energy consumption. Not to mention that our diets would also be constrained by the season and regional climate, as some things simply do not grow in certain parts of the world.

In light of these points, raised by my economics professor and in articles all across the Internet, I think I should clarify my approach to buying local. First off, I focus on produce and meat; the breads and cheeses that I find at the farmer’s market are delectable, but I treat myself to them as I would anything at a grocery store. With produce, however, I genuinely believe that fruits and vegetables taste better when they are fresher. Farmers markets also offer a lot of heirloom varieties and ‘ugly’ pieces of produce that you wouldn’t find in your average grocery store due to cosmetic standards, thereby preventing waste of perfectly edible, albeit funny-looking food. As for meat, I’m always willing to pay a little more for something that hasn’t been raised on hormones or in horribly intensive conditions, mainly for the sake of humaneness. Bearing all this in mind, though, I will concede an important caveat: I don’t buy everything local, nor would I ever want to, specifically for the reasons described above. Some fruits and veggies at the farmer’s market are simply too expensive for me, which could also indicate that they’re grown inefficiently. Moreover, I love food and diversifying my diet far too much to ever want to give up on imports.

produce ingredient3So, here’s my take on it: locavorism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but the idea behind it isn’t entirely wrong. While it is environmentally beneficial to buy certain things locally, especially when it means preventing waste by supporting ugly food, there are more ecological costs to consider than long-distance transportation. This article makes some good points to that effect. And, of course, you can’t forget the prices. It’s best to stick to relatively inexpensive produce (although most foods will be a bit less cheap than at a supermarket) and check the details behind the meat to see if it’s worth the price.

As a final disclaimer, I want to emphasize that these are my personal beliefs, based on experience and some background information on both sides of the issue. Sure, I could’ve done more extensive research, but this is a blog post, not a dissertation. Feel free to comment with opinions, including disagreements or criticisms, so long as they are civil.

Eva

Three Tips for Buying Local on a Budget

When it comes to buying produce, I try to get as much as possible from farmer’s markets or local grocers rather than supermarkets. Not only do smaller growers tend to raise their crops more organically (i.e. with fewer pesticides or hormones) than massive corporations, but you also get the comfort of knowing that the food hasn’t had to travel alci seasonalthousands and thousands of miles to get to your table. That saves hundreds of gallons of fuel that would have otherwise been spent cooling and transporting the food across the country, much less the world. Not to mention that the local food is much tastier because it’s fresh.

The one critique I keep hearing when it comes to locally-sourced food is price. When I encourage my friends to shop at our city’s farmer’s market, they typically say something like, “I love the farmer’s market, but it’s so expensive! How can you afford to go there every week?” Without going into the economics of it, I’ll admit that local food tends to be less cheap because small producers don’t have the kinds of business models that allow big manufacturers to keep prices low. When grocery stores sell a pint of blueberries for $2.99, many people feel that the positives of buying local still don’t justify spending $5 for the same amount. However, there are three simple tricks you can use to buy locally and economically.

1. Browse before you buy

Since all the vendors are growing their produce in the same climate and season, most of them offer the same variety of fruits and vegetables. For the shopper, that translates into multiple price options. Just last week, I saw potatoes being sold at $3/lb., $3/pint, $4/quart, and $5/quart. Before making a single purchase, walk the entire market, make price comparisons, and then buy accordingly.

2. Remember why you’re there

It’s incredibly easy to get enticed by things like fresh breads, pastries, and nut butters, especially when samples are available, but you must resist! Try to concentrate on buying produce and whatever else you planned to buy, because treats can cost a pretty penny. The two, age-old pieces of advice ring just as true at local markets: don’t shop hungry and bring a list.

3. Try something new

market vegetablesThe farmer’s market is a great place to discover new varieties of food. This slightly contradicts my advice of sticking to a shopping list, but if you see an appealing piece of fruit or vegetable for a low price – cheaper than whatever you had planned to buy – you should go for it. Buying food that you might not yet know how to cook is a great way to expand your culinary repertoire.

I realize not everyone is fortunate enough to live near a well-publicized farmer’s market, but look around online – or just walk around your town – and you might find some good local options. Being eco-friendly doesn’t have to be hard on your wallet.

Eva

How Seafood Sustains Modern Slavery

“Our products come fresh from the hands of overworked, malnourished slaves.” No one would ever want to buy food from somewhere with that statement on its label. The sad truth, though, is that thousands of consumers worldwide unknowingly finance a Burmese slave trade just by buying seafood.

Shrimp pastaAccording to a new report by the Associated Press, hundreds if not thousands of Burmese workers have been trafficked through Thailand to fish in the waters around the island of Benjina, Indonesia. On the boats, slaves subsist on minimal portions of curried rice and unsanitary water, work at least 20 hours a day for little to no pay, and are subject to physical punishment if they complain or try to rest*. Their catch is sent back to Thailand for commercial sale, whence it is seamlessly mixed with legally-caught seafood and distributed across Asia as well as to Europe and the USA. Since roughly one-fifth of Thailand’s $7 billion annual seafood exports are to the US (importing $1.5 billion worth in 2013-14, according to NOAA), slave-sourced seafood can work its way into any stage of the American food supply. The untraceable, ‘tainted’ fish may be sold as-is in grocery stores, incorporated into processed and pre-packaged foods, or even served in high-class restaurants.

The governments of Thailand and Indonesia are, of course, aware of the problem and working against it. Thailand is in the process of creating a national registry of illegal migrant workers, while Indonesia has temporarily prohibited most fishing as it tries to rid its waters of foreign poachers. Meanwhile, the US Department of State blacklisted Thailand for human trafficking violations in 2014, but the wrist-slap does not seem to have had any effect. The AP also asked for comments from a few major food companies, who declared that “they were taking steps to prevent forced labor, such as working with human rights groups to hold subcontractors accountable.” However, some smaller seafood distributors commented on how difficult it is for their companies to guarantee the cleanliness of their supply when it comes from hundreds of thousands of miles away.

Fish marketIf this exposé proves one thing, it is the importance of knowing where you get your food. The picturesque idea of personally knowing the farmer who grows your vegetables and raises your meat is pretty idealistic, but by buying domestically- if not regionally-sourced goods, you can at least guarantee that slaves weren’t involved in providing your dinner. Although the economics and ecological soundness of ‘going local,’ undoubtedly one of the biggest food trends of the decade, have been rightfully questioned, this is one regard in which the farmers’ market is definitely a better bet than the grocery store. Hopefully, the combination of government intervention and consumer pressure – i.e. buying more local seafood – will bring an end to this disturbing problem.

Ignorance is bliss, but staying informed makes change possible.

Eva

*Read the full AP article for more details about the slaves’ conditions and responses from various corporations that have been linked to the slavery

Importance of soil to agriculture.

320px-SoilWe all know that soil is a key element of agriculture. Without it we wouldn´t be able to grow plants, which are used as food for both humans and animals. In this blog post I would like to focus a little bit more on the technical side of soil and explain some of its chemical and physical properties.

There are different definitions of soil, depending on the approach we want to take. For us (from the agricultural point of view) it is an unconsolidated mineral or organic material that is on the surface of the earth in which we grow plants. From a geological point of view, we would probably look at how it was formed and what kinds of layers it has. As far as food is concerned it is important to study a couple of its properties that are fundamental for plant growth.

There are two important aspects as far as soil properties are concerned. First we focus on its hydraulic conductivity, the ability of the soil to manage, hold and drain water. Second, we look at its nutrient management, which in addition to the above-mentioned factors analyzes the organic matter content, cation exchange capacity and coatings on sand grains.

All the above-mentioned properties determine the texture of soil. Every soil is a mixture of three main SoilTrianglecomponents: sand, clay and silt. A very useful tool to verify a given soil texture is the soil textural triangle that you can see on the right. It shows you what kind of soil you are working on by taking into consideration the soil’s components. Loam is the most fertile type of soil and has a mixture of these components.

For example, a more sandy soil will have a high hydraulic conductivity and a low water holding capacity. Water drains through sand very easily and if too much water enters this kind of soil it can lead to nitrate leaching which can be lethal to plants. Sandy soils need a special kind of irrigations systems. Most of farmers try to irrigate these soils many times throughout a day with small quantities of water. This helps the plants efficiently use the water supply without it washing away all the necessary nutrients.

There are different solutions to enhance sandy soil performance. One of them is to add more of the organic matter content. The organic matter is a mixture of living and recently dead materials such as previous crop residue, livestock waste or simple organic matter, such as leaves. The organic matter does two things for our soil. It adds water holding capacity and nutrient holding capacity. You can envision this process by comparing organic matter to a sponge. Of course, there is a limit to how much of the organic matter you can introduce to soil. If there is too much of it, in addition to supplying plants with too much nutrients it will start oxidizing, which provides an additional supply of nutrients.

Soils that have a higher percentage of clay will have a lower hydraulic conductivity and a high water holding capacity. Sometimes when there is a compacted layer of clay underground it can lead to flooding after heavy storms. Water does not have anywhere to go in such a short time, so its level goes higher and eventually floods our plants. Moreover a higher percentage of clay and silt in the soil will increase the cation exchange capacity. It is an ability of the soil to hold positively charged nutrients called cations (calcium, magnesium, potassium and ammonium–N).

On our planet we have 12 different soil types known as orders. Each one of them needs a different treatment and farmers should know about these practices. How a farmer manages the farm can have crucial impacts on the environment. Unfortunately, many of the farmers are not familiar with the information mentioned in this blog. Many times, poor water management can lead to severe contamination of near by watersheds. We need to remember that farming is a complex process that also needs studying and a constant exchange of information. We encourage individuals, both farmers and non-farmers, to sign up for various online courses on Coursera. A free course on Land Misuse and Management can be accessed through here.

Link to the Coursera course: https://www.coursera.org/course/sustainableag

posted by Piotr Wielezynski

Local iniciatives are sometimes the best option.

A couple of weeks ago we have posted an entry about a legislation that exists in the USA for more than 16 years now. Even though it is a federal law, it didn’t meet the expectations that where given to it. Many entrepreneurs from the food sector don’t even know about the fact that they can give away food without taking responsibility for it. It is not clear why this law is not promoted in the right way. For example we have talked with one of Costco store managers, who told us during a conversation about food waste, that he had never heard of such a law. It was a shock for us. Both of us (Hokuma and I) thought that there is a huge need for spontaneous initiatives, like Say No To Food Waste, in order to start making a change to our food system.

At the end of the past year we heard a story about a local initiative in Belgium. Frédéric Daerden the mayor of the municipality of Herstal imposed on 12 local supermarkets to donate their excessive stock to food banks. Moreover, if any one of them refuses to comply with the new requirements, they will have its environmental permit taken away. “The project starts from the observation that on one hand there is a need to supply food banks, and on the other there is surplus food. We wanted to provide an answer to this problem at the local level, by fighting against waste and at the same time strengthening local solidarity” said the MEP Frédéric Daerden. The quality manager of Carrefour Belgium, Mr. Léglise said, “Our policy is to systematically give surplus food to associations that are part of the food banks. The proposal of the mayor of Herstal was not a problem, as it also reduces the cost of waste disposal.”

This great initiative has already been submitted for revision to the European Commison. As Frédéric Daerden is an EU deputy it is more probable that it will find an easier way to be implemented on a higher scale. It is another example of how local initiative can spread beyond a given region. Politicians all around the world should follow this fine Belgian man’s initiative. Eventually the phrase “Act locally, Think globally” is true and this news is another proof of that. Convince your local deputies, talk to them, they do have much power but it takes will to encourage it!

References:

1. http://www.dhnet.be/infos/belgique/article/418460/fini-le-gaspillage-dans-les-grandes-surfaces-d-herstal.html

Posted by Piotr Wielezynski