Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Post #5 A little taste of Ecuador

To honor the beginning of the growing season the next few posts will focus on backyard gardens and food.  Because the production, shipment, and disposal of food requires so much energy, learning more about our food culture might allow us to find ways to Live Lighter on the Land.

We all eat food, but where does it come from?  Currently, much of our food is raised in other countries or other states and is shipped to our local market.  While walking in the produce section read the source location of your banana- it ain't Florida.  Meat from Brazil, berries from Washington, Pineapples from Hawai'i - eating is a global experience.  Every time we take a bite we are experiencing a little bit of soil, sweat and sunshine from a far off land.

Is this necessarily a bad thing?  In response to the growing global food system a grassroots 'eat local' campaign has taken flight in the United States.   There are many reasons to eat locally, but one reason often quoted is difficult to wrap my brain around.  To summarize this reason, proponents of local food say that as food gets closer to home, the total energy required for production and consumption decreases.  Much of this has to do with energy used in transportation; an apple grown in your county takes less fuel for delivery than an apple grown two states away.  On the surface this makes sense, but I have often wondered about all of the other energy that goes into food production, and how local food compares with non-local food.  This article addresses just that.  Apparently a handful of scientists did something very difficult- they tallied up all the energy it takes to produce a food product and compared multiple styles of production.  They include obvious things like shipping, and farm equipment, but also quantify things like water use, fertilizer outlays, the amount of photosynthesis during production, etc.  In the end they announce that eating local food does not always save energy.  If purely saving fossil fuel is your priority, you have a lot more homework to do when buying food than just researching its origin.

But, what about the other reasons for eating locally and what do they have to do with Living Lighter on the Land?  Because I work for a land trust and we are interested in land use and biodiversity I will use the perspective of landscape ecology.  Think about your landscape.  You're driving down the road and you pass houses, buildings, cities, forests, swamps, and farms; all these pieces come together to create a mosaic of interacting units.  Plants and animals move from one landscape unit to the next and larger processes (i.e.,wildlife movement, water filtration) are carried out across multiple landscape units.  A farm as a landscape unit is certainly more conducive to ecological functions than a set of buildings, roads or a city block.  Farms obviously vary in shape, size and character, so what kind of farm is most ecologically beneficial?

If we are to buy food from somewhere and our options are 1) A large monoculture farm or 2) a small diversified farm, from an ecological perspective it is wise to support the small diversified farms.  In the northeast, perhaps neither are more ecologically valuable than a healthy forest, but if we are forced to choose one farming method it is the small diversified farm that better preserves our landscape's ecological integrity.  How?  Large scale monoculture farms rely on heavy inputs from synthetic fertilizers which wash into waterways and cause a series of ecological problems.  Also, large expanses of land used to grow just one crop make an inhospitable environment for a large array of native organisms.  Soil erosion is also linked with the common practices of large scale monoculture farming.
On the other hand small diversified farming practices, by planting a variety of crops that support the soil in different ways over time, are more able to retain their soil.  Composting is achieved and organic fertilizers are also commonly used on small diversified farms.  By leaving more areas for wildlife (hedgerows, corridors, ponds, etc.) small diversified farms can keep a forested landscape more connected than a huge monoculture farm.  A neat NY group called Farmscape Ecology conducts research and provides education on the ecological role of small farms in the landscape.            

A question that I still have is "what is the connection between 'local' and 'small diversified' farms"?  Another way of asking this question is 'is every local farm a small diversified farm'?  Yet another way is 'is every local farm practicing good ecological stewardship'?  The answer to these is 'no'.  If you live in Sioux City, Iowa your local farmer is the Tyson chicken plant.  Great for local biodiversity?  Perhaps not.  Terms like 'local', 'organic', 'sustainable' and 'green' are only as good as the practices they represent.  They have all become ambiguous buzzwords which often time lack substance or clarity.  When it comes to food production one type of buzzword is not ready to solve all of our problems.  Maybe the non-organic farm down the street is best.  Maybe the organic farm across the state makes more ecological sense than the farm in town.

We need to develop a better system for understanding what takes place on farms.  A good place to start is by just visiting a farm or farmer.  Meet your farmer at the market, organize a neighborhood farm visit, or join a local food advocacy group that is a storehouse of local agricultural information.  If we can't get the information directly from the farmers, our local conservation and natural resource groups should be educating the public about different farms and their practices.  One thing is certain- there are ecologically 'better' farming practices and food choices out there (i.e. small diversified farms) and it is our responsibility as eaters and consumers to see through the buzzwords and buy the food that makes our living landscapes healthier.

With a dedicated rebirth of small diversified farms opening in the Northeast (see NOFA) we have more options to support our local farmers and in turn, support our local landscapes.

A small farm nestled among forest land.

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