Locally Grown Conservation

Is your cooperative selling local salad greens and prominently telling people about it?

The most recent E. coli problems led prudent retailers everywhere to toss the spinach and salad mix of the day if the greens came from California, the source of much of the nation’s fresh food and also much of its E. coli contamination. Yet such problems are an opportunity for retailers to boost sales of fresher, healthier greens from nearby producers, an opportunity to educate more customers about their food sources.

Nothing so underscores the absurd and dangerous nature of the present food production and distribution system as the spread of diseased spinach from one valley in California to most of the states in the nation. A calorie derived from distant sources of salad greens is variously estimated to require from 30 to 50 calories to reach the table! This is a cheap-oil anomaly, a seductive but destructive habit that cannot be sustained. All those calories burned also mean more carbon spewed into the atmosphere.

It’s not a matter of organic versus “conventional” produce. Certainly a big part of the ongoing revival of local agriculture is certified organic or practices akin to that. But most of the organic produce sold by retailers, while much less toxic in its field conditions, also partakes of wasteful and polluting long-distance supply.

Local produce is “a thousand miles fresher,” sometimes several thousand miles fresher. With increased customer demand as well as improved infrastructure, local growers could supply much more. Most regions could produce greens year-round, thereby providing better food while strengthening food security and the local economy.

Education of customers is key to achieving more of this potential. In this effort, co-ops have many allies, from local to international.

Awareness is growing concerning deep problems with food and agriculture as well as the deep benefits of local food. What can be learned through your co-op’s displays, newsletter, website, and classes?

  • A long-distance food supply is vulnerable to disruption and adds damage to the environment. Buying local food can be cleaner and safer.
  • The earth has only so much fossil fuel; demand is growing, so these fuels are going to become more costly. Buying local food can be cheaper and more sustainable.
  • Fuels derived from energy-intensive crops and genetically modified crops are not improving our food security but rather are worsening food supply problems. Buying local food can be cleaner and more long lasting.
  • Attempting to control distant energy resources has led our nation into war and a shameful betrayal of international standards of decency and democracy; it exacerbates the ongoing corruption of public policy and the economy; and it supports enormously wasteful production and consumption practices. Buying local food can be more community-minded.
  • Meat derived from feeding grain to confined livestock—rather than from livestock based primarily on grazing pastures—is very wasteful of water and fossil fuels. Buying local food can conserve more natural resources and is kinder to the animals.
  • E. coli (including the strain recently in the news) flourishes in the stomachs of confined cattle that get too little grazing and too much grain. E. coli often is another manifestation of a meat industry out of control, its huge manure lagoons financed with public funds and releasing toxic leaks into the water supply, when the nitrogen-rich manure should be spread out on the farm pastures. Buying local food can be cleaner and safer.

Thoughtful shoppers, gardeners, and citizens—your customers—are helping grow a stronger, safer, more humane food supply. The more we build such local food systems today, the better prepared we will be for further disruption and damage to our food supply and overall environment.

Most Americans, protected from doubt and disturbance by a temporary energy glut and the propaganda of a once triumphant empire, do not believe that encroaching climate change, recession, war, and loss of democracy will affect them deeply. But many people are waking up, and in fact nearly everyone is already being impacted by these converging trends.

Co-ops can help their communities prepare and adjust to a new era. Conservation will be on everyone’s agenda, and cooperative values support such an outlook. Community-based values are the foundation and the branding for our cooperative future.

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Dave Gutknecht is editor of Cooperative Grocer ([email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #127 November - December - 2006