Ever wonder how your crisp, organic kale comes to your table without hundreds of tiny bug holes drilled into it?
Perhaps you thought all that squeaky clean, organic produce sitting in your shopping cart was pesticide-free?
What you need to quickly wrap your head around real quick is that “organic” produce is sprayed with an “organic” pesticide. And all pesticides share a common goal: to repel living things.
Look, bugs eat profits, I know this and so do large-scale organic farmers. And make no mistake, farming is hard work but there isn’t a farmer alive who’s about to risk crop failure and financial ruin just to bring you a fresh head of lettuce.
Here’s where the organic line gets a little murky …
According to the USDA, the organic label only restricts the use of synthetic pesticides. Pesticides like copper sulfate and rotenone are permitted to be sprayed directly onto your organic produce.
In 2012, evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox explained in a Scientific American article, that “organic” pesticides (such as copper sulfate) can be toxic and when digested and in large amounts. It can also lead to damage in the tissues, blood cells, liver, and kidneys.
I’m not writing this post to tickle your ears with sweet words like “all-natural” but you should be aware that Rotenone (a pesticide sprayed onto organic crops) is notorious for its lack of degradation. Studies show that copper sulfate, pyrethrins, and rotenone can all be detected on plants after harvest.
Rest assured, by the time you have finished reading, I’ll have shown you where to find the cleanest foods on the planet (spoiler alert, you won’t find them on your supermarket shelf.)
Here’s where the story gets interesting…
In the 1950s, my grandparents owned a fruit and vegetable shop in the North of England. Out of pure economic necessity, everything that came and went through their door was grown within a ten-mile radius. Fast forward to today and the words “local and organic” have suddenly become lucrative buzzwords.
BIG PHARMA — LITTLE FARMER
The controversy over “organic” food begins even before the first seed is planted. Whether or not the seeds are “organic” means only one thing: that the original seed-producing plant was grown according to organic standards. If a hybrid seed is planted, the resulting plant will still be organic so long as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers aren’t used. Hmm, I see.
Let’s take this a step further by looking at that pristine organic USDA seal of approval. It might surprise you to know, seals are handed out to products that use only 95% organic ingredients during processing.
To be clear, organic food that’s been grown specifically for supermarkets has its place and its an upgrade over what they usually try to sell us. The point I am trying to make is this: don’t be too quick to discount your small local farmer just because he/she doesn’t carry that holy grail of organic seals.
Try looking at it this way: there was a time when all of our ancestors’ food was truly organic. Today farmers who choose to grow “organic” food are often shackled in regulation. The irony is, those nonorganic farmers who drown our foods with synthetic pesticides are less regulated.
Surely we have this all twisted. Shouldn’t the regular farmers who are spraying copious amounts of carcinogenic pesticides on our food be the ones held accountable and buried in paperwork?
Either way, there are times when small independent farmers can’t get the organic certification simply because of the added paperwork and costs involved. Fees typically include paying the government for site inspections, application fees, and annual certification fees.
If an organic farmer wishes to conform to all the regulations he/she must find the time to stop work whenever a government bureaucrat visits the farm. If the small local farmer wants the organic seal, he/she is inevitably forced to jump through hoops to get it and in the process loses valuable time and resources. With the small local farmer now squeezed out, I sometimes feel we are quick to trust the large-scale organic label and slow to ask questions.
Perhaps we need to ask more questions of large-scale farmers, not fewer.
With that in mind, perhaps some of the smaller local farmers without an organic seal are being unduly overlooked. In case you missed it, there a hidden value of buying locally sourced food.
Am I saying organic food has a lesser value than non-organic? Nope, never did say that but I can’t help but feel we are sometimes manipulated into paying a premium. Often times, the big supermarkets fail to deliver on a promise we all desperately wanted to believe in.
Either way, enthusiastic young farmers (with or without the government organic seal of approval) are the lifeblood of the local food movement. They often bring clean food to farmers’ markets and shouldn’t be discredited for lack of paperwork.
Diversity in farming is a good thing and relying too heavily on a small number of people for our food should be an obvious cause for concern. Many small farmers are the backbone of independent farming and they deserve your support just as much as any large-scale organic farmer does.
The goal of this post isn’t just to get you to buy clean food, I’m asking you to go a step further and know the name of the farmer who grew it! Make a connection with the person growing your food. Small farmers need you to survive and you need them to thrive. Ask yourself, how many of your friends on Facebook are farmers?
Still not convinced, huh?
Imagine we find yourself shipwrecked on a desert island with 150 other people and one bag of seeds. Everyone agrees that three things are needed for our survival: food, water, and shelter. Fortunately, this island currently has enough coconuts to get us through the first few weeks while the (non-GMO) seeds grow. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have a plan beyond this so the group decides to put YOU in charge of its survival. I know, right? Now we are all up the creek without a paddle.
You quickly realize that you need to make some pretty big decisions. What percentage of this group will you send out to find water? How many do you put in charge of growing those seeds? How many do you put to work building a shelter? If you split the group evenly into 50–50–50, I think you’ll eventually be okay.
Even if you split the group 20–70–60 I still think you will make it. However, if you choose to have 149 people sitting around looking at computer screens all day while just one person grows the food, I’ll think you are certifiably insane.
How is this relevant?
It should make you feel a little uneasy to know that, statistically speaking, the U.S. has just one farmer responsible for feeding 155 people seven days a week. This situation becomes a little more unnerving when you understand that most supermarkets have an inventory strategy called JIT (Just-in-Time).
Supermarkets employ JIT to increase efficiency and decrease waste by receiving goods only as they are needed. Even a small disruption in the JIT supply would see our supermarket shelves quickly stripped bare.
Are we there yet?
Okay, try this. With or without an organic seal, small local farmers have a passionate connection to their land — it’s in their blood. Local produce is always fresher from the local farmer and often less expensive. Superstores are now growing at an expediential rate with some of them now opening around the clock seven days a week, taking with them a huge slice of independent pie.
When the purchasing power of superstores is allowed to become disproportionately influential, income is taken away from the surrounding local businesses. When all the small businesses are gone, giant superstores will be free to dictate what you eat so long as it remains profitable for them to do so.
Fortunately, superstores are not the only game in town and you can still find clean food locally in small mom and pop shops or at your local farmers’ market so long as we get out there and support them. Buying food locally also gives you the added benefit of buying what’s in season and fresh.
Compared to the huge superstores (which never seem to close) small farmers’ markets are usually held just once a week, obviously reducing their competitiveness with the bigger players. Unless we get out and support them more, this way of trading food will soon vanish.
What’s in it for you?
When you buy locally, you actually get to meet the person growing it. Where there is a connection there is also accountability.
If you’ve been paying attention to my other Medium posts, then you already know the key to your health is your gut. It takes whatever nutrients you give it, and then loops it back into the cells. That's a pretty big deal for anyone looking to stay out of the doctor's office.
Am I saying you have to cut the giant superstores completely out of your food loop? Nope, but it’s important we try to adjust the balance by sourcing as much locally grown produce as possible. I get it, waiting once a week for a farmers’ market can increase your chances of going without, so rather than complaining about it don’t be afraid to take a shopping list with you on farmers’ market days. But why stop there?
Once you have made a connection with your local growers it’s totally okay to ask them if you can buy from them directly on non-market days. Often small local farmers will have additional eggs, vegetables, and meat for sale and they may even be pleased that you asked.
This is how food used to be bought and sold. Sometimes you just have to open your mind and be on the lookout for nutritional opportunities rather than following what everyone else does.
If you can’t find a local farmer, then you could try hooking up with a local gardener. Anyone who grows food for a hobby usually grows more than they need. Generally speaking, gardeners are a pretty friendly bunch and they enjoy doing what they do — it’s why they do it. Who doesn’t like to have their hobby appreciated?
If your budget is ultra-tight, keep a lookout for garden allotments. This untapped idea can be a nutritional goldmine. This leads me nicely into the suggestion that even if you only have a small window box, you can begin to grow something yourself. This won’t sustain you, but it does serve as an important psychological step to get you thinking differently about local food.
Growing your own food is like printing your own money.
– Rod Finley
People often complain about the price of clean produce, which is why our ancestors played a much bigger role in growing their own. Today you can still buy a pack of 250 organic lettuce seeds for a few bucks. A single fully-grown store-bought lettuce will cost you more. Lettuce seeds are super easy to grow and even when left unattended they grow like weeds.
The same applies to tomatoes. You really don’t need much skill or more than a couple of feet of soil to grow them in. I agree it all takes time, but so does checking your email. Once you see how easy it is to grow a few lettuces and tomatoes you may even become bold enough to grow even more things for yourself.
We spend millions of dollars keeping our lawns green, yet you can’t eat the stuff and you certainly can’t smoke it. Growing something, anything, that gets you thinking beyond the scope of the supermarket.
Superstores have become masters of distraction and even with the best intentions, we keep finding ourselves going back into them for organic food and leaving with a pair of socks. Think about it, these distractions put your food bill up every time you go to the store.
Perhaps we need to look at this problem from a different perspective. In Sweden, a small group of city folks took it upon themselves to grow just a few basic vegetables. At the end of the growing season, they traded with each other for more variety. It worked out well for everyone involved. So why does this feel so unnatural to us?
In today’s busy world of commerce, the only truly organic food is homegrown. Another option is to know the name of the farmer who grows it.
A little more food for thought (author knuckle bumps reader for unintended pun): imagine if one day visitors from another galaxy dropped in to visit and began observing those crazy Swedes growing their own food.
They then observed that other group, yup, you know who I mean, the ones being slowly poisoned to death by pesticides. Which group would the aliens regard as crazy? The group of humans working together to grow what keeps them alive, or the group of humans eating out of cardboard boxes while sitting on their excessively manicured lawns?
So, while we are waiting for our home-grown lettuce to come to fruition let’s ponder our options. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Promises and plans must be put into action, otherwise, they are useless. The way to make this work is to make the small local stores your first port of call and then fill in any gaps at the supermarket. Doing it the other way around rarely happens.
In all sectors, diversity is the lifeblood of healthy commerce; whether you are buying a cabbage or a carpet, small family business owners need our support.
After both of my grandparents passed away, the fruit and veg shop quickly changed hands. Today it sells bargain-priced booze and the only place to buy fresh produce is at the giant supermarket down the road. Perhaps as a reflection of our changing times, all the supermarket vegetables come tightly wrapped in plastic. Quite remarkably, it is estimated that those same vegetables will have traveled an average of 1500 miles to get to the supermarket. I know, right? It kinda makes a mockery of the whole cutting carbon emissions thing.
What did we learn from this?
On average, just one farmer is responsible for growing the food of approximately 155 people. Buying local produce in season will enhance your nutritional intake as well as help the local community grow. Without economic diversity, the world would become a very scary place.
Homework: Challenge yourself to know the name of your local farmer. Find a farmers’ market in your area and support it. Next, grow one thing from seed and see where it leads. Like what you read? check out my book