The ethics of eating

8 reasons to buy food at farmers’ markets

Unless your banana is labelled as originating in Costa Rica, or your oranges are marked “product of Florida,” chasing the origin of your food can be daunting. Sure, manufacturers have to declare the location where an item was produced – your crackers came from a factory in Nebraska! But where did the flour come from? Where was the sesame grown? And that only helps for anything labelled. Your broccoli usually isn’t always screaming out its country of origin. estimates that “the average North American meal travels 2,400 km to get from field to plate and contains ingredients from five countries in addition to our own.” That’s a lot of travel for Tuesday night’s meatloaf.

Farmers’ markets have been lopped into a cultural trend known as the “food movement.” Some might call it a backlash of contemporary culture, a type of alternative choice for “foodies.” Terms like “buy local” and “organic” have been so heavily diluted that, in many minds, they’re empty and meaningless. They’ve become associated more with vapid trends than the real-world ethics they’re meant to represent.

The Farmers’ Markets Associations of B.C. and Alberta report a membership of more than 225 markets in these two provinces alone. The markets provide communities with an option, often on a weekly basis in a public space, for buying and selling local food. But why is it that, in a society that expects its desires to be satiated as quickly and effortlessly as possible, that so many organizers, vendors, volunteers and patrons take time from their own lives to coordinate a farmers’ market?

Here are 8 real reasons to buy from your local farmer.

1. Protest the exploitation of developing nations

Think back to the scandals of free-trade coffee. Western companies did and still do take advantage of the loose laws that allow them to exploit developing nations. Growers in developing nations use their best land to grow produce for giant corporations and get paid very little for their yield. The result? The essay Home Grown: The Case for Local Food notes, “farmers producing for export often go hungry as they sacrifice the use of their land to feed foreign mouths.” Lori Anne Thrupp, analyst of the Latin American food industry and author of Bittersweet Harvest agrees, saying, “in most export-oriented agriculture, the main beneficiaries are large companies involved in the processing, packaging, and marketing of these crops, including a growing number of international firms (even in nations like the United States and Canada, which are strong enough to shape trade agreements to their advantage).”

Choosing to eat locally not only gives your money to local farmers and sustainable practices, but it’s also a choice to not support the exploitation of others.

2. Keep GMO products out of your food

Like most contemporary industry, the food trade is controlled by a handful of large, billion-dollar corporations. And like all industry, the food trade wishes to produce the cheapest product as “efficiently” as possible. Not only do their practices conjure images of money-hungry suits with dollar signs in eyes, they turn “super villain” from fiction to reality by playing mad scientist with genetic modification. Have you heard the term frankenfood?

GM (genetic modification) refers to the alteration of an organism’s DNA to produce a desired characteristic. The process involves introducing new DNA, either from a synthetic or organic source. International bioseed and agrichemical giant Monsanto has been able to engineer the genetic make up of seeds so they can be disease resistant, cold tolerant, drought tolerant and, perhaps most frightening, so they can produce their own pesticide. “GM crop has been genetically modified to express insecticide within its plant tissues, rather than the farmer spraying it on to the crops to control the pests,” according to Andrew Gunther for The Huffington Post.

Monsanto provides the technology for 90 per cent of the genetically engineered seeds that are used in the U.S. market, however, the long-term biological and environmental effects of GM foods have yet to be seen. In addition to the U.S., Monsanto has been busy dominating the agri-industry in other countries around the world. Unfortunately, Canada is one of them.

3. Small-scale family farms need your support
There are a large number of farmers in Canada who purchase GMO seed from Monsanto. As GM seeds are patent protected, farmers must enter into contracts with Monsanto in order to use its seeds. Among the many contractual stipulations, farmers are not allowed to sow seeds from the previous years’ crop and must purchase an entire crops-worth of seeds each year. This contractual system lasts as long as the patent: 20 years.

In 2014, the patent on the first Monsanto seed will expire. Monsanto’s scientists have prepared a new seed, presumably with more desirable traits, ready for farmers to purchase. The company has received a brand-new patent for its second-generation seed, and is once again offering 20-year contracts.

Some farmers are happy with their arrangements with Monsanto. These farmers run large-scale operations that produce seed for other large corporations. In other words, they’re making some money and are happy. But there are several farmers who have had poor experiences with Monsanto, left feeling taken advantage of and abused.

Thankfully, the human race has an unspoken, collective agreement of what constitutes a fair fight. It’s why we heroically tell bullies to pick on someone their own size. Business, however, is different, or so it seems. Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser is a case that was brought to federal court in 2004, when the farmer Percy Schmeiser was discovered with the Monsanto pesticide-resistant crops (“Roundup Ready” seeds) growing in his fields. The farmer insisted he did not plant the seeds himself, but instead that they arrived through natural, accidental pollination. The court ruled in favour of Monsanto. Fortunately, the courts also ruled that Schmeiser did not see any financial gain from the altered crop, and therefore did not award the financial claims Monsanto had sought (in addition to Schmeiser’s profits, Monsanto also wanted him to pay its legal fees of hundreds of thousands of dollars).

Family Farm

Image: cwwycoff1

Today, there are several farmers in Canada and the U.S. worried about a similar fate. They’re concerned that Monsanto’s GM seeds growing in nearby fields will contaminate their non-GM and organic fields, and that they will be unable to financially sustain a ruthless legal battle with the corporate juggernaut.

These are the farmers at your local farmers market. They are responsible for ensuring that some (the minority) of the food available does not contain harmful chemicals. Without them, the global food supply would be entirely run by corporations.

4. Enjoy food that’s free of synthetic chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers!
Many farmers’ markets sell organic products. To be able to use the term “organic,” the purveyor must acquire certification status from a government body. Organic food may not use any synthetic chemical or pesticide, chemical fertilizer or GMO product.

The ugly truth about non-organics: almost everything else comes from factory-farming corporations that will use any (barely) legal option to ensure maximum profit. While not perfect, organic food is a start. For meat, also watch for terms like “free-range” regarding poultry and eggs, and terms like “grass-fed” and “antibiotic-free” for your beef.

Concerning Monsanto, its most controversial move in factory farming was the introduction of Bovine somatotropin, aka Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, commonly known as rBGH.This stimulates the production and secretion of a hormone in the blood stream, which is responsible for increasing the production of milk. Both humans and cows produce this hormone naturally when they become pregnant and give birth, and when ingested, it helps infants to grow. While this hormone occurs naturally in mothers who produce milk for their babies, members of the scientific community have alleged the product behaves as a cancer accelerator in adults and non-infants.

Scientists have linked rBGH to the acceleration of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers, as outlined in The Journal of the National Cancer Institute. While connections have been made between the increase of cancer cells where rBGH milk has been consumed, research has yet been unable to conclusively provide a direct link between rBGH milk and cancer. Since it’s development, rGBH has been made illegal in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the European Union. The United States is the only developed nation to allow rBGh milk.

5. Quick, call the doctor! The gross misuse of antibiotics
Michael Pollan of the New York Times Book Review wrote a piece called “The Food Movement, Rising,” in June of 2010. In his article, he illuminates the tragic realities behind the extensive misuse of antibiotics in livestock. “When BSE, or mad cow disease, surfaced in England in 1986, [people] learned that cattle, which are herbivores, were routinely being fed the flesh of other cattle; the practice helped keep meat cheap but at the risk of a hideous brain-wasting disease,” he wrote.


Image: istock

Later came the rise of E. coli in cattle, the gastrointestinal bacteria proven to be the result of feeding cows cheap grains, rather than their natural diet of grass. A study conducted by Cornell University determined that, of the cattle tested, those that were grass-fed had an incidence of 80 per cent less E. coli than those that were grain-fed.

In order to prevent the spread of bacteria and disease to humans, the industry – instead of spending a little more money to let cows eat grass – began administering antibiotics to all livestock as a method of preventing more deaths and scandal. However, as Pollen states, “the shortsighted practice of routinely administering antibiotics to food animals, is not to treat disease but simply to speed their growth and allow them to withstand the filthy and stressful conditions in which they live.”

Doctors are increasingly wary of handing out prescriptions for antibiotics. It is widely accepted by the medical community that the overuse of antibiotics is leading to antibiotic-resistant bacterias. Why minimize our direct intake of antibiotics yet allow so much indirect intake through our daily diets?

6. Global warming sounds like a good thing, no? GHGs and agriculture states that “in the past 20 years in North America, the import and export of food have tripled with agriculture and food now accounting for more than a quarter of the goods transported on our roads”. Road transport produces 60 per cent of the world’s food-transport carbon emissions.

Meanwhile a study by Toronto’s Food Share program estimated that a meal produced using ingredients from a local farmers’ market travelled an average of 101km, while a supermarket-sourced meal travelled an average 5,364km. The supermarket meal produces roughly 100 times more GHGs than it’s locally produced counterpart.

“As the value of agricultural trade has increased, so too has the volume. Today, some 817 million tonnes of food are shipped around the planet each year – up fourfold from 200 million tonnes in 1961. All this food traffic requires staggering amounts of fuel (and probably wouldn’t be feasible without abundant and cheap oil). A transcontinental head of lettuce, grown in the Salinas Valley of California and shipped nearly 5,000 kilometers to Washington, D.C., requires about 36 times as much fossil-fuel energy in transport as it provides in food energy when it arrives” according to Home Grown: The Case for Local Food.

7. Bringing it home: the agricultural situation in B.C.
On a per capita basis, B.C. is one of the lowest GHG emitters in North America. However, the total GHG emissions in British Columbia in 2008 were 68.7 megatonnes, an increase of one per cent from 2007. But this doesn’t account for the GHGs produced outside the province (and country!) to bring our non-seasonal food here. We can do more.

Agriculture is B.C.’s third-largest industry after fishing and mining. Seventy-nine per cent of B.C. residents live next to land responsible for 78 per cent of B.C.’s farm revenues. The Lower Mainland, Southern Vancouver Island, and Okanagan – B.C.’s most heavily populated regions – have the majority of the provinces’ high-quality soils. However, B.C.’s agricultural sector supplies less than half of the province’s food requirements. “

A study by the New Economics Foundation in London found that every £10 spent at a local food business is worth £25 for the local area, compared with just £14 when the same amount is spent in a supermarket – that is, a pound (or dollar, peso, or rupee) spent locally generates nearly twice as much income for the local economy” (Home Grown: The Case for Local Food).

8. It’s business . . . A $130-billion-dollar a year business (in Canada alone!)
Although farmers’ markets are growing in numbers, getting closer to our homes and happening more frequently, they’re still not as convenient to attend as the 24-hour ‘super’market. In the realm of business, as we’ve all heard before, money talks. So if your money is your voice, it’s time to consider what you’re saying. We empower these businesses with our dollars. We make both the industry and the government believe that we are content with the way things are. We give them no reason to think otherwise. Until the economy stops pumping, the industry and officials are business as usual.

We can no longer afford to be apathetic.