Environment Picture

Seasonal produce! Your choices help make or break the planet

Locally grown foods a boost for economy, health, environment
For those who love fresh food, summer is high season in Michigan. Farmers’ markets, roadside vegetable stands and rural vistas of fertile fields inspire a sense of abundance and provide a chance to sample food the way it used to be—locally grown and rich with flavor.

If the future of food doesn’t recapture some of that spirit, however, the air, water and other natural resources of the planet will be in growing jeopardy.

Today’s “food system”—encompassing everything from pesticide and fertilizer use to the gluttonous use of fossil fuels to transport foods by plane, truck and ship over hundreds or thousands of miles—has multiple and profound environmental effects.

Changes in policy and consumer food preferences, advocates say, are necessary to right the trend. Among the most important, they say, is buying local and fresh foods.

Chris Bedford of Montague is founder of the Center for Economic Security and co-proprietor with Diana Jancek of the Sweetwater Local Foods Market in Muskegon. The market links 20 local farmers with community consumers. On a recent Saturday, Sweetwater welcomed two new farm families to its list of suppliers and featured locally grown and produced foods such as organic strawberries, colorful radishes, mixed cut greens, whole wheat flax bread, grass-fed beef, free-range eggs, aged raw milk cheeses, and asparagus and gouda quiche.

Bedford says, “If government invested in policy that encouraged small-scale, diverse agriculture, that would help. If government invested in land use policy that encouraged small farmers to serve nearby urban populations, that would help.” Bedford notes a recent magazine article that pointed out Detroit has as much vacant land as the entire area of San Francisco—land that could be used to grow local food for local people.

One of the biggest yet still least-noticed environmental impacts of current agriculture practices is erosion and depletion of soil. Sandra Nordmark, a member of the Michigan Farmers Union and former executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, worries that “today, much of the thin layer of productive soil upon which all of agriculture depends continues to wash and blow away. Most of that degradation ends up as sedimentation in surface waters either directly by runoff or by deposit from wind-born transfer. Not only is the lifeblood of the land being permanently lost, but water quality is being degraded, causing a loss of aquatic habitat and often loss of recreational economies.”

Bedford agrees: “Healthy soil is the key to Michigan’s future. If we have a food system built on the premise that everything we do builds healthy soils, we will have a much better and healthier state.” He says the way to replenish soils is through “ecological farming” that uses nature’s processes to produce food and does not impose technological and biological solutions, including intensive chemical and fertilizer use. “It means respecting nature,” he adds.

Consumers can make a profound difference by supporting local, Michigan-grown foods, says Kristin Brooks, coordinator of the state Food Policy Council. Doing so has many environmental, public health and economic benefits, she says. “Fresh, local foods eaten seasonally carry less food miles, reducing energy for transportation, processing and packaging needs. They also help to preserve agricultural biodiversity. Farmers that sell fresh foods locally and in season grow more varieties of produce that don’t need to withstand long-distance shipping and storage.”

The Food Policy Council also noted that the broken link between local food and markets is contributing to the growing prevalence of childhood and adult obesity. More than one out of every 10 high school students in Michigan was overweight in 2005. “But recent efforts have shown that providing school children with fresh, local produce increases consumption of vital fruits and vegetables.

At Frankfort-Elberta Public Schools in northwest lower Michigan, school children consumed five times more apples per week when the food service made the switch to locally produced varieties.

“The increasing interest in buying locally at farm stands and farmers’ markets is helping to keep small and medium farmers in business and on the land,” says Brooks. The state now has 150 farmers’ markets, an increase of 130% since 2000. If Michiganians spent an additional 10% of their at-home food budget on Michigan-grown foods, sales would increase by $730 million.

There’s an additional benefit to the locally grown food community, Bedford says. Speaking of the market he and Jancek founded, he says, “People come to Sweetwater for a lot of reasons...but one reason is they come because it is a place where they feel connected. To their community, to the people who produce their food, and to each other.”

 Food’s environmental costs
  • Cropland soil is eroding at the rate of 2.6 tons per acre per year nationwide.
  • A 2006 report by the U.S. Geological Survey found that pesticides are frequently present in streams and groundwater and occur in many streams at concentrations that can have effects on aquatic life or fish-eating wildlife. At least one pesticide was detected in water from all streams studied. Pesticides are widely detected in human beings.
  • The average mouthful of food in the U.S. travels 1,300 miles before it’s eaten, requiring significant fossil fuel consumption.
-Dave Dempsey, Michigan Environmental Council
RELATED TOPICS: agriculture, food policy
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