Regarding “Local” and “Natural”


By Elena Day

I feel heartened by the Buy Local/ Eat Local aspect of the “good food /slow food movement.”  However, I can’t help suspect that the encouraging word “local” is one easily coopted by Kroger, WalMart, et al., and not necessarily indicative of a healthfully produced product.  After all, we have plenty of factory-farmed egg layers and broilers over in the Shenandoah Valley within a 50- to a 100-mile radius, which implies “local.” Tyson’s chickens are “local.”

“Natural” is another one of those words that are overused and misleading to the consumer.   High fructose corn syrup is “natural” and in many processed foods. It is a major contributer  to our collective increasing girth. Over 90 percent of U.S. corn is genetically modified (GMO) “Monsanto Roundup Ready.” GMO corn is in cereals labeled “natural.”

Recently, my husband and I read the “commitment” on the back of the Kashi cereal box.  Kashi pledges that by the end of 2015 half their product will be non-GMO verified.

Why 2015? This should give one pause. There are not enough non-GMO and organic ingredients out there! Kashi is owned by Kellogg, the largest breakfast cereal company in the world. Is Kellogg going to go GMO-corn-free on all its brands or only for the foodie niche market? It won’t happen without an informed public demanding a GMO phaseout.

Again, more than 90 percent of soybeans, canola, and sugar beets are GM. Oils from canola, soy and corn are labeled “natural.”

In January 2011, the FDA also approved Roundup Ready alfalfa, our fourth largest crop after corn, soybeans and wheat.   Ninety-three percent of alfalfa was previously grown without herbicides, as it forms a dense mat that can choke off weeds. Alfalfa is the primary crop grown for hay to feed dairy cows and horses. Most of the corn and soybeans raised are fed to animals.

Unplowed fields green up with weeds in early spring. Those that remain unpleasantly brown have been sprayed with the weed-killer Roundup and planted with Roundup-resistant corn and soybean seeds provided by Monsanto. Monsanto sells 90 percent of the patented seeds in the world. I can’t help but wonder what happens to beneficial soil organisms, insects, and amphibians, too, (since Roundup runs off into wetlands and streams) in such induced sterility. Currently there are 150-million-plus acres of Roundup Ready crops in the U.S.

Roundup has given rise to superweeds that are now killed with even more toxic herbicides like paraquat.

Chemical farming isn’t anything new. Since the second half of the 19th century US farmers have used lead, arsenic, cyanide, DDT and organophosphate nerve poisons in massive amounts. These are not health aids. Currently, 80 percent of our vegetables, fruit and flowers are treated with organophosphate pesticides. These have been linked with Attention Deficit Hypersensitivity Disorder (ADHD) in various studies.

“Local” does not mean that the vegetables, milk or meat one buys are free of pesticide residues. Local does mean that the average miles that food travels from farm to consumer is decreased. Indeed, the fossil food footprint of industrial agriculture as a result of transport is enormous. However, local foodstuffs may be as heavily dosed with pesticides as those from California, Mexico, Chile or China.

“Local” doesn’t mean that fields on which crops are grown aren’t heavily fertilized with synthetic nitrogen. Billions of pounds of nitrogen fertilizer are poured onto U.S. agricultural fields yearly.* Nitrous oxide is a byproduct of the manufacturing process and its release into our atmosphere  as a greenhouse gas is more damaging than that of carbon dioxide (CO2).  Of course large amounts of CO2 are also released in transport because 70 percent of the nitrogen fertilizer is imported.

I mentioned Tyson early in the “rambling.” The local poultry Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in the Valley that furnish the broilers to the Tyson slaughterhouse/meatpacking plant in nearby Harrisonburg are contributing to overall totals of methane pollution, which is 72 times more destructive per ton than CO2 and is responsible for 14 percent of human-induced global warming.

Industrial agricultural has incredible capability to produce and deliver to market immense amounts of food. It is unfortunate that it does so in a way that is not beneficial to soils, water resources, farmworkers or consumers. It delivers food that contains hormones, antibiotics, and pesticide residues. It is transported long distances and is often tasteless; i.e,  think Florida tomatoes.

“Local” contributes to the problem when it simply replicates conventional agriculture. The solution is a public interested and informed regarding the sources of what they eat.  Mandatory food labeling, which the agricultural lobby and the food processors are fighting to derail, is integral. Development and investment in local food production that uses minimal or no pesticides and chemicals and is GMO-free will come about only in response to the demands of informed and active consumers.

In the meantime, shop local at the Crozet Farmers Market (opening May 4), the Charlottesville City Market (open April 6) and Wintergreen Market, also open in May.    Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) enterprises are signing up members this month.    For  money paid up front, families or individuals receive weekly delivery of vegetables generally beginning  in mid or late May and continuing until late September or early October Simply google CSA’s. The list is long from which to choose.

*Every year US farmers use enough synthetic nitrogen to fill over 12,330 railroad boxcars with a capacity of 200,000 lbs each. (from Organic Consumers Association article “Local And Organic Food and Farming: The Gold Standard,” 2/23/11)