Forks over Knives.

First, I just want to say – wow, yesterday was like whiplash after I posted and then everything blew up in my face for completely isolated reasons.  But that’s irrelevant.  I guess.

I’m trying to catch up with myself here – I’ve been reading so much and not writing as much, plus work is a lot at the moment.  But I watched a documentary this past week called Forks over Knives.  It’s about how horrible animal products are for people, basically.  They made all kinds of correlations between health, age, diet, etc… and backed their claims up with things like evidence of how Asian cultures have adopted American eating habits in many regions that are now suffering in health like we are despite their notoriously clean history.

The doctors in the film were interesting characters and I was shocked to Google one and find out he is in fact living in my neighborhood in Cleveland.  Then it made sense.  I’m in a wealthy part of the city and right beside my old college, Case Western Reserve, where they have the Cleveland Clinic.  Yeah, that makes sense.

While I was researching more on the topic and contemplating finding the book to read too, I was coming across a lot of interesting words and ideas.  For example, fruitarianism.  Eating only things that fall from plants – the perfect peaceful diet.  Nuts, fruits.  Limited, though.  The reason why Apple is called Apple because Steve Jobs was practicing this diet at the time.  It is possibly more akin to our natural diets than we realize, but it results in deficiencies.  Another concept I saw is “forest gardening”, which supports the sustainable practices I was mentioning previously in my small farms rant.  It combines more practical, natural settings to grow plants like the prairie studies are researching.  And, finally, I found a phrase that I really enjoy: “environmental veganism”.

Environmental vegetarianism is the practice of vegetarianism or veganism based on the indications that animal production, particularly by intensive agriculture, is environmentally unsustainable.[1] The primary environmental concerns with animal products are pollution and the use of resources such as fossil fuels, water, and land.

I’m a fan of that.  And this documentary doesn’t stray far from that concept, although it primarily focuses on health of the human body.  But I’m glad I already practice similar eating habits to those covered in the film.  I’m glad I know my homeopathic remedies well.  I find it silly to think we’ve “rediscovered” the power of plants when, realistically, we are just reinventing a wheel that mother nature made, we used, and then we subsequently forgot.

The Small Farm Crisis in America.

My mom texted me a few months ago.  “Dave’s selling his cattle.  He’s going beef now – can’t make money anymore in dairy.”  That hit me hard on two levels.  First of all, I always grew up with dairy.  Grandma had the beef farm.  Seeing brown cows every day at the property line instead of spotted ones and Oreos (who are sometimes also for beef) was regular at home and I could tell already it would feel strange to me.  No milking stalls.  No “Got Milk?” sign.  Just cows awaiting slaughter, staring blankly towards my house all day then going home to be fed.

But that’s not all that hit me hard.  The second part – and by far the worst – is hearing someone say they “can’t make money anymore in dairy”.

We live in Pennsylvania, for God’s sake!  Milk is our STATE DRINK!  We are rolling hills and mountains lined with crooked, topographically-tilled cattle corn fields and littered with silos and milking barns.  Sun-up, to sun-down, to late night, with electrical bulb-lit barns, farmers are out there growing the crop, tending to the herd, then milking them away.  How can we be losing money like this?

I don’t think there is a simple answer, but I’ll spell out what I see: 1. Government regulations, 2. Consumer persuasion, and 3. Industrialization of the farm.

1. GOVERNMENT REGULATIONS
Not long ago, one of my neighbors sold his farm.  He was older, it was too costly, and no one would inherit it.  It was sold and developed and I now can see houses on a hillside across the valley from us.  What a shame.  My mom around the same time explained to me how someone had come in and drained the reservoir behind Dave’s because they want to drive a superhighway through our valley.  In response to this, and with concern that no grandson wanted to inherit his farm, Dave signed into the Pennsylvania farmland protection program so as to preserve his land from development.  Soon after, his partner left him and he was forced to downsize.  I think everyone thought he was crazy for keeping the farm running at such profit levels and in his advanced years.  That’s when EPA rolled in and threatened him for violating standards with watershed pollution.  He was forced to make changes in his practices and to plant trees and lay fence through the creeks to keep cows out of direct contact with the water.

Ain’t nobody got the money to do that.  I respect the EPA and it is part of my job to make sure projects are up to spec with the regulations, but how can you expect people with 200-year-old farms and old buildings to suddenly change their ways?  When they already have no profit?  When they’re in fact being environmentally-friendly to an extent by maintaining old materials instead of tearing things down and building new ones. Of this exact vein, a clipping my mom mailed to me in Ohio that she found in the Tribune-Review addresses these small farmer concerns, saying they’re “weary of new regulations” in Pennsylvania.  It talks about just what I have pointed out, how farmers use old barns, old methods, old wooden tools that may face tough laws soon that restrict how they handle their produce, meat, and dairy.  They cry, What can we do?  If we want local, organic, small family farms to operate, we cannot be so god-awfully stringent like this.

I understand the need to monitor health of food, but at what cost?  Everything we eat is to be controlled?  Our foods supplemented like our water without our consent because someone decided it’s better for us?  When we are constantly learning we were wrong about our previous health-related insights?  We say we need to support America, but aren’t we tearing it down from the inside out and encouraging imports and cheap labor and poverty?  Why are we letting the American Dream die?  Sometimes I feel like government regulations will soon leave us feeling like we’re living in (WARNING: SPOILER ALERT FROM THE HUNGER GAMES SERIES IF YOU HAVE NOT READ MOCKINGJAY) District 13 of the Hunger Games, where food is regulated down to the last calorie and you can’t take more than your share or act outside of your daily schedule.

(SPOILER OVER)

2. CONSUMER PERSUASION
So why do we buy the things we buy?  How is Dave going out of business with dairy?  What is causing this?  I think back to his “Got Milk?” billboard and realize how silly these nutritional notions Americans have are.  The lead of a “Save Your Bones” program discusses how milk actually depletes calcium and argues that countries that drink more milk have higher levels of osteoporosis.  Not only that, but modern milk is a processed food.  Think of Asians who, like me due to my Indian blood, cannot drink lactose.  Their cultures didn’t have milk outside of infancy/young childhood because they didn’t raise crops and drink the milk of other animals yet look at their health ratings, some of the best if not the best in the world.  Finally, like so much of our food, milk is almost always fortified.  You are better off telling your children to eat more dark greens!  No cholesterol, cheap, fresh, unprocessed, low fat, natural…

Then why does the government do these things?  I couldn’t tell you.  There must be some kind of profit in it for them.  Meanwhile, the other problem is that these small farms are selling their milk to large collectors who mix the milks regionally and mass-produce cartons.  These small farms are selling at minimum prices because everywhere you go in Pennsylvania you see signs like “Milk sold at state minimum!”  Who benefits from that?  The collector and the cheap customer is who, leaving people like Dave to break their backs for far-too-less money with inflation, regulation, and every other crisis knocking on their doors – not to mention global warming causing late frosts and draughts and wreaking all kinds of havoc on crops.

Why do we get so riled up about big chains like Wal-Mart who take over small businesses, but we let the same things happen to our farmers?  Why do we allow ourselves to be brain-washed by lower prices?  Higher prices don’t always mean the better choice, but a little research can tell you you’re making a lot of poor choices in the grocer’s.  Why do we fill our buggies with these “fillers” and products that undermine small-farming to keep your budget comfortable?  And, honestly, you can’t blame these big guys.  I mean, they’re just doing their job.  The only ones we can blame are ourselves for submitting to this monopolizing behavior and supporting it through purchases.  Think about what you’re doing.  The consumer has all of the power.  The producers just provide what will fit the demand in the most profitable way possible.

3. INDUSTRIALIZATION OF THE FARM
That is my lead-in into the final point I’m making: High demand of cheap, lower-quality goods is causing farms to become industrialized, thus defeating the whole concept of small, local, and healthy.  Instead, America wants fast, cheap, and easy.  Since animal farms might be hard to imagine as well, picture the huge agricultural farms in the Plains states.  Endless rows of soybeans and corn stalks.  Huge combines and plows combing and tearing up the land.  We are in a topsoil crisis, yet we continue to destroy the ground with machinery, chemicals, and high-yielding but genetically washed-out crops.  Why are we doing this?

Farmers just cannot compete on a small farm using traditional equipment.  We’ve already upgraded to tractors from horse-drawn plows, but it keeps getting worse.  Without an incredibly expensive combine and other contraption, famers cannot possibly meet the demand to yield enough produce for a solid profit.  They have to get big-scale and possibly hire some hands to get them there.  It’s not longer a family business but an industry.  And do you have any clue how environmentally-bad single-crop farming is?  How it destroys the land?  An intriguing prairie study I read in Biomimicry addresses that along with many other concerns.  (I wrote about that here, on my Cleveland blog.)

What’s worse is we are corrupting the God-given (literally or for emphasis) genetics that were evolved to be on this planet.  There are reasons things are here, whether godly or naturally.  Natural Selection.  There are ecosystems in existence.  We, as humans, were borne out of its byproducts, in the same environment, eating its literal fruits.  And now we have big-scale company monopolizing the system and destroying the beauty that was here, companies like DuPont Pioneer (to whom my company sadly caters in projects).  DuPont Pioneer is developing genetically-modified seeds and playing god, encouraging farmers to coerce, and dominating fields with single, unnatural crop types.  Sure, some benefits seem obvious (outside of profit, of course), but is that really helping the farmer?  Is it really helping us?  The planet?  How is making a crop withstand one disease going to prevent it from the next?  Similarly, I don’t support getting flu shots.  Let nature take its course.  That’s what it’s meant to do.  A resistance will build.  We will be better for it.  Nature will find its way to destroy what it wants to destroy regardless of a stupid, genetically-messed up seed.

Phew.

And so my rant concludes – for now.

But, in sum, I say support your local, organic, small farms, don’t support industry, low prices, or genetically-modified food, and keep in mind that the government has reasons for regulations, but some of the things it does are not necessarily worthy of worship.

The Hypocrisy in Cleveland’s Local Food System

I have been closely involved in the local food system in Cleveland for the last three or more years and I can’t help but continuously noticing the hypocrisy in it.  I’ve brought some of these topics up before at Brews + Prose local food panels in Ohio City and been backed up by the experts, so I don’t feel at all out of place for calling it “hypocrisy”.  I’ll just break down some of my observations to give you an idea of what I’m seeing:

1. LOCAL FOOD AS A LUXURY:
This is my favorite point at panel discussions.  I’ve written several locavore restaurant reviews on my Cleveland blog and always conclude the same thing: Local food is presented as a privilege, not as a way of life.  Why is it that I can visit these “local” ingredient restaurants and spend exorbitant amounts of money on tiny, decorated dishes of vegetables?  Why do fancy chefs have to run these “locavore” joints?  Why is the trend in Cleveland to make eating local a showy, classy, exclusive trend for those with money?  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  The one explanation I got was simple: perhaps the demand is much higher than the resources due to population density.  So isn’t the next logical step to educate the public and make serious strides in adding green spaces and gardens to Cleveland?  Some co-workers just this week commented on Cleveland’s lack of attractive parks within the downtown area.  If these concepts weren’t so foreign, maybe people wouldn’t be so in awe by them and remember that local eating is not a newfangled trend but rather a way of life – the only way there should be!

2. WASTEFULNESS:
I worked on a farm on the outskirts of Cleveland as an intern where we grew organic food to deliver to our clients within the city.  Sometimes these deliveries were whole plants, but it was usually produce.  We grew ridiculous quantities of squash and cabbage as the weather started to cool – so much, in fact, that we started giving it away —— and NO ONE WOULD TAKE IT.   Does that make any sense???

3. ENERGY CONSUMPTION:
On the same farm, we also used greenhouses to start nearly every plant and to grow a lot of our basil and winter our plants.  We were looking at getting a solar panel array to supply the operation.  It was a lot of energy to grow local food.  I thought about this again at the North Union Farmer’s Market at Shaker Square.  My mom and I were walking around looking at produce and she asked me what they could possibly sell in quantity during the winter months.  She’s accustomed to canning and not fighting the Pennsylvania snow once the first frost threatens our orchard.  She made the point that a lot of the farmers at the market would probably use green houses to grow crops for profit.  I started to think about these two situations – my farm and the farmers at the market – and began questioning how this was a better solution.  How is asking all of this produce to be grown in a green house outside of the city then driven to the public in personal cars any better than just bringing a large shipment to an urban store?  It’s not like you can buy all of your needs at a farmer’s market like you can buy your food, clothes, and supplies at one Wal-Mart.  It’s like how it’s more energy efficient and green for England to import its tomatoes from Spain than to grow them in English green houses…

4. PLASTIC BAGS:
If you try to buy something at the market, the vendors don’t even ask but try to shove your produce into a plastic bag.  You have to stop them and tell them you brought a bag.  They sometimes seem surprised…but why?

5. DRIVING:
For all of the cars that are parked around the market each Saturday, I have to wonder how many people actually walk to the Square on market day.  That makes me wonder how many people here don’t take advantage of the market and why they don’t.  Then I start to wonder where the other people must be coming from…and I wonder if they come from the same towns as the farmers who drive here weekly.  I would love to do a statistical analysis on the gas consumption caused by market day for this reason.

6. PROMOTION:
Why eat local?  The idea is it’s better for the environment.  My mom points out it’s also better for the farmers, thinking about the dairy farms in our area that are broke because the milk prices are kept at statewide lows.  However, I investigated what the promoted reasons for attending are.  They consist primarily as “educational experiences” or as ways to get the “freshest” food.  How is it educational?  Because apparently people don’t realize that apples don’t grow in Region 6 Decembers.  It’s been hard for me to realize how little people really know about growing – and cooking – food, especially in urban areas.  Even so, I would be promoting how it benefits the environment and the local farmers…because it does, right?

7. FARM SHARE:
The market at Shaker also promotes a “farm share” program…which I absolutely think is hypocritical.  Can you believe there are people who live within a block of the market who will not leave the house to buy produce on Saturday mornings?  What better things do you have to do on a Saturday morning?  No, instead they sign up for “farm shares” so they can have someone do the shopping for them, then deliver a PLASTIC bag of goods each week to their DOOR.  Imagine all of the driving that must be done for these personal deliveries.  I told my mom this as we walked around the Square and she was absolutely disgusted.  Then she looked up to see a woman teetering on a bike whose baskets were overflowing with produce.  “Look at that lady in the dress – on a bike!”  I thought my mom was going to insult her for wearing a dress, but instead she was making a point.  “Even a classy lady like her, at her age, is real enough to take her bike to the market each week to buy her produce.  Anyone who could live here and get a farm share… it must just be for show.  Those people don’t really care about what they’re doing at all, just what other people think about them doing it.”

That is why I have vowed to do my shopping every week at the market.  I’m going to start buying extra and canning it for the winter.  I only walk to the market, I only buy on Saturdays, I only use my reusable bags, I freeze extra food that isn’t canned or dried, and I keep as many live plants as I can to grow my own food.  I try to pick from the stands that have the most honest practices.  In one case, I bought peaches from a stand of senior citizens because I witnessed them breaking their backs to lift, sort, and sell their produce and I knew that they were hard workers.

Is there any hope for the local food “scene”?  Is it not full of hypocrisy?

I like local, but local sometimes local is the wrong answer.

Yup.  That’s pretty much all there is to it.  For all of you “go local!” buffs, the ones totally obsessed with this new trend, first of all, WOAH.  Going “local” is NOT some new trend, people!  Local is the way we evolved!!  Do you think cavemen imported food?  How about frontiersmen?  Yeah, local is a way of life, so get over yourselves…

But local isn’t always good.  In fact, sometimes it’s bad for the environment.  Ever thought of that?  It’s a pretty simple concept.  The first step in realizing the fault in locavore lifestyle is acknowledging the unrealistic demands today’s food industry.  Back when we were a naturally locavore society and didn’t have the option of importing goods, we ate what was available when it was available.  That means eating melons in the summer, roots in the winter, and there’s nothing wrong with that…we still do that.  The problem is, now, we also expect other crops to be there.  Crops that aren’t supposed to be there.  But now that we have the technological ability to grow them, we will.  And we’ll do it locally.  So it’s locavore food…or is it??

I vote, NO.  Just because a food is grown locally, that doesn’t mean it’s locavore.  Although “locavore” is supposed to include locally grown foods, I think classifying it as such misses the point.  LOCAVORE means LOCAL because LOCAL is SUSTAINABLE.  So locavore is really sustainable.  Nothing else.  Locality is just a vehicle of this sustainability.  So what’s my point?  Well, do you really think growing a non-winter crop in a greenhouse during the winter is sustainable?  Maybe it’s being grown on a local farm, but does that mean its energy expenditure is valid??   No way!

Here’s an example:  A study has shown that “it can be more sustainable (at least in energy efficiency terms) to import tomatoes from Spain than to produce them in heated greenhouses in the UK outside the summer months”, according to a food mile study.  I think this sums up my point well.  Truly eating sustainably means getting rid of fresh fruits in the winter, and in fact ditching a lot of the crops that we eat out of season.  Thinking about this, I realize how unsustainable a lot of Farmer’s Markets crops are if they’re not actually produced in fields and are instead closely monitored in greenhouses and watered frequently.  I now realize that scrutinizing a company for importing goods is not necessarily worse.  Maybe those pineapples came from Hawai’i, but just imagine the energy expenditures had we grown them here?

vegetannual

What’s my point?  Just this: If you want to eat sustainably, don’t focus so much on “local” as being a matter of “distance”.  Realize that “local” really means being locally available.  Eat seasonally.  That’s what makes the real difference.  Think about that the next time you make a grocery list, and consider growing your own food.  Cheers.

Shopping with a Conscience.

Do you ever feel guilty buying certain things at the store?  There are three things that really get me:

1. Out-of-season foods.
It’s hard to eat healthy and local at the same time without boring your tastebuds to death.  I just spent the last 5 weeks in Africa where I witnessed this isn’t a problem: people have the freshest, sweetest fruits I’ve ever tasted growing at their fingertips year round.  In Cleveland, however, healthy and local aren’t commonplace during the long winter months.  Unless you want to eat cabbage and broccoli all winter, you can plan on buying imported fruits.  I first came to this realization when one day I thought, I don’t eat enough fruit; I should buy some apples.  But apples don’t naturally grow here in the winter.  Was eating an apple really worth supporting the industry of shipping exotic foods from afar all year round just to satisfy my palate?  No.  How could I get around this?  Better planning.  Next year, I should take advantage of abundant apples and other fruits growing locally and then learn to can them with spices!  Mmmmm.  Or even make pies and freeze them.  Too bad others don’t feel this way.  We only encourage such out-of-season deliveries by buying and creating a demand for more.

2. Chemicals.
After several classes about environmentalism and policies, Silent Spring attaches itself to every thought I have of store-bought chemicals.  Although I personally refuse to buy and use chemical herbicides, insecticides, and most household cleaning products, I am aware that I still buy and use things that are not very environmentally-friendly.  For example, my drains got extremely clogged last year and my mom bought me a bottle of Drain-O which I reluctantly applied.  Or how about something as simple as acetone to take off nail polish?  Or even nail polish itself?  Air fresheners in aeresol cans?  Even buying plastic zip-lock bags falls into this category for me – an evil necessity that, quite frankly, isn’t necessary at all but we convince ourselves that it is.

3. Plastic amenities.
My chemical fears continue in this category.  I don’t just mean plastic bags, but plastic utensils and kitchen items.  I buy glass mason jars and use them for everything as much as I can.  My friends make fun of me for traveling with mason jars instead of snack bags, but I feel like a much better person for using them.  But where plastic really irks me is in the kitchen itself.  I love to cook, and the thought of flipping on an oven instead of lighting a fireplace bothers me enough already.  I do everything within my power to avoid plastic spatulas, plastic cups, plastic bowls, plastic anything!  This theme continues into my housework where I strive to buy metal brooms instead of plastic sweepers.   I work overtime to avoid electricity use.  I even do a lot of my laundry by hand in my bath water after I’ve taken a bath.  My friends think this is crazy, but I argue it’s much simpler than going to the Laundromat.  And I dread the day that I have my own house and contemplate my need for washing units of my own.  What wastes!  But when it comes to appliances, I always put in the extra money for that metal toaster or metal blender with the hopes that it will last longer, will degrade better, and was better for the environment to be produced.  Besides, metal appliances are so much classier!

Maybe it’s just me – and maybe it shouldn’t be just me – but buying certain things in the store send me reeling on a guilt trip.  Are there any things in particular that bother you?  I mean, most of us break down and buy a car at some point, which is bad enough, but what about the little nagging things?  Like imported goods and plastic, plastic, plastic?

Maybe, one day, we won’t have to make environmentally-conscience decisions every time we shop.  Maybe they’ll be the only option!