The latest scare of the salmonella infestation in our tomatoes has prompted renewed discussion about the food we choose to eat.
Mad Cow disease, e-coli sprouts, tainted spinach, suspicious chickens and more, have us all guessing about our family menu choices.
All the food safety bad news has provided an extra push for the buy local movement.
There has been a popular growth in farmers market in many parts of the world. In the U.S. local farmers markets has grown from over 17 hundred in 1994 to nearly 45 hundred in 2006.
Today some urban farmers markets are big business, attracting large weekend crowds on a market day. But if you look closely not all the vendors are local farmers. That orange sweet pepper you are buying could easily come from the same supplier that services the Safeway down the block.
The main impetus for customers of local markets is a concern about the freshness of their purchases; food safety is only just now becoming an increasing worry.
Another aspect of weekend farmers market shopping is social, returning to the days when you knew that the person selling you food was also involved in its production.
Those days were almost lost, particularly in North America where local farmers were pressured by the agribusiness mantra, Larger is Better.
The result was local communities began to shrink, their young people fleeing in search of more in larger centers, the core of local farm production dwindled. Farmers became one crop specialists disconnected from their own local community.
As specialization became the norm, one crop same crop, even rural residents were forced to drive to supermarkets (Large) to buy eggs that their neighbors used to deliver (Better?)
Agribusiness wasn’t the only culprit in the demise of the local farm. Other influences were drawing away the younger members of the community, electrical power, the telephone, cars and television were a siren song towards something better.
What was almost lost in the process was farming skill sets.
But local farming is experiencing a comeback due in part to nearby urban markets with a sufficiently large customer base to revisit the economics of multi crop farming.
Farmers markets represent a renewal of when farming for local consumption was a cornerstone of local communities and economies, when farm skills were admired.
Returning to the past method of local food distribution isn’t necessarily the whole answer.
Critics will argue that focusing on the local food production impacts on the economies of the third world which heavily rely on food exports and cash crops.
People who are passionate about buying local often point out that they are reducing the carbon foot print because their food isn’t being flown in from distant farms.
But one needs to take into account how food is being produced in those distant lands.
An often cited example is tomatoes in Europe. Is it more environmentally efficient to produce a tomato grown in Spanish field and then ship it by air to an English market? The same tomatoes could have been grown in English greenhouses which would require more energy to light and heat them at a cost much higher than the air fare.
Until English farmers adopt low energy sources such as solar, geo thermal or wind the environmentally friendly tomato is a Spanish one.
This is the balance that needs to be equated by governments, farmers and consumers. How can one service and serve the local market by supporting the local producer while still enjoying the benefits of having asparagus and kiwi fruit available year round?
For practicalists part of the answer lies in polyculture, the scientific term for an old habit, agricultural imagination.
Today’s agricultural world is basically a monoculture one, a child of globalization. Grow one crop, treat your fields with agricultural steroids and insecticides and hope for the best.
Multiple cropping (polyculture) allows farmers to diversity their crops to need local food demand. That diversification allows makes it easier for them to farm in a more sustainable way. There is less reliance on pesticides, imported food sources such as Soya for animals and the use of farm waste for fertilizer.
Locally grown produce can not provide all the fruits and vegetables that we have become accustomed to for 12 months of the year. The need to create a balance between what we import and what we can access locally needs to be improved which is a process that requires both consumer and governmental support and initiative.
The recent health scare involving tomatoes is reflective of what seems to be commonplace. Food safety demands that we gain more control over our produce.