Eating locally is becoming a bigger trend in many American’s diets. But how did we get here? Didn’t we all used to eat local food? Yes we did – up until the mid 1940’s, after World War 2 ended. The end of the war resulted in a technology boom for agriculture, and this is when Industrial Agriculture really took off in the United States. That’s when mass produced single crops like wheat, soy and corn began to take over small biodiverse farms. It’s also when factory meat farming began.
Quick Introduction to Industrial Agriculture
For those not familiar with the concept, Industrial Agriculture has many names: It also goes by Big Agriculture (Ag for short), Conventional Produce, Factory Farming, Fast Food, Corporate Food, and Mass Produced Food. But all these names mean the same thing. Essentially, it is any food (vegetables, fruits, breads, single crops, eggs, dairy, meats, or highly processed food) grown and/or cooked by very large food corporations.
If you study their history, these corporations have all started out as mid-sized family-owned operations. What sets them apart is that they have grown aggressively, buying or pushing out smaller competitors. Many of these companies have ethically dubious pasts. Almost all of them have become multi-national, with gross revenues of $1B or more. Today, they have become huge monopolies – largely ignored by the public, and protected economically by the USDA.
Food from these giant corporations comprise about 90% of what the typical American eats every day, in one way or another. The monoliths hide their size and their practices with a plethora of different sub-brands and labels, some of which sound healthy, natural and organic.
Tyson Foods, for example, has over 40 subsidiary brands – including Nature Raised Farms, and Smart Chicken (a recent acquisition). Bimbo Bakery, the largest bakery in the world (and based in Mexico) owns familiar brands we associate with health, such as Orowheat.
In fact, most “Industrial Agriculture” companies are owned by Wall Street, and investors are their real consumers.
A fun side note on Tyson and Bimbo: While researching this article, we came across the subsidiary “BallPark” brand on both companies’ websites. Tyson owns BallPark Hot Dogs, and Bimbo owns BallPark Buns. The really interesting piece of this is that the logos are almost identical. Clearly, the two corporations are coordinating their subsidiary products to give the illusion of a single company.
For good reason, a lot of Americans have become concerned about the food being produced by Industrial Agriculture. Increased scrutiny has put pressure on these corporations, causing even more misleading advertising and labeling.
Within the Industrial Food realm, there are many concerns. There are concerns about toxic chemicals on crops. There are concerns about animal welfare and contaminated processing conditions. There are concerns about freshness and flavor as well. These are all really valid concerns. These reasons are why many people have chosen to return to the way their great-grandparents ate: With food from small vegetable farms, small bakers, small dairies, and small meat producers.
When it comes to food, Small is Good.
Our Eating History
We know that Americans have more diseases like diabetes and cancer than similarly wealthy and industrialized nations. Food industrialization, preference of processed and sweet food, and a consumerist mindset are three factors contributing to this epidemic. The standard American diet now relies on the ability to enjoy nearly any food, from anywhere, at any time of year. Unfortunately, research has also shown that your body reacts to a so-called “Western Diet” (high fake fat, high sugar, high refinement) as it does an infection.
This diet represents a significant departure from how human beings have always eaten in nature, and how our digestive systems and microbiome have evolved.
The homo sapiens species has been around for about 200,000 years. And we are masterful omnivores. However, for only the last 100 years has our species NOT eaten whatever is local and seasonal. Industrial Agriculture and the Global Food Trade have altered human beings’ food landscape almost overnight – we’ve been eating it for only .05% of our existence.
But now we have a choice: to continue eating along with the seasons of nature, as our ancestors did…or to eat by the convenience of the global food trade and mass food production.
Choosing to eat local and seasonal does not mean we need to forage for all our food. We have so many modern conveniences that it is easier than ever to choose Local Food over Industrial Corporate food.
Let’s dive deeper into why Local Food is a superior choice to its mass-produced cousin.
#1: HYPER FRESH
When local food arrives in your kitchen, it is as FRESH as it can get. Most farms harvest food for the Market or CSA pickup the same day or day before you get it.
Compare that with the typical large chain supermarket produce. On average, lettuce is 2-4 weeks old by the time it is displayed on a large grocery store shelf. Tomatoes are typically a month old, carrots can be up to 6 months old, potatoes up to 9 months and apples up to a YEAR old, due to long-term oxygen-controlled deep chillers, which put the apples “to sleep”.
Eating Farm-fresh local food will make what you put on the table come alive, with big bold vibrant flavors – not muted and dull. It also means you have less to worry about in the washing/soaking department. Sure, you still need to get any last dirt off – but you don’t have to worry about corporate mega-chemicals or ship & truck exhaust fumes that may be not only on your food’s skin, but absorbed within it.
The same goes for local bakery bread, local pastured meats, and pastured eggs and dairy.
#2: NUTRITION PACKED
When we call a food nutritious, we mean it is packed with healthy Macronutrients (Protein, Carbohydrates, Fats, Fiber) and Micronutrients (Vitamins, Minerals, Trace Metals) that our bodies need to function optimally. Sadly, corporate food system practices have resulted in ever-diminishing nutrients in food.
Plant nutrition arises from two sources: Seed Genetics, and Soil Management. Let’s break each down a bit further.
Small farmers care where their seeds come from, often choosing heirloom varieties tracing back hundreds of years. The people who are “seedkeepers” are very special to our entire human race, because they preserve species in the way they naturally occur – free from modification by corporations. Seed banks exist around the world preserving tens of thousands of edible plant species.
Corporate modification of seeds is known as GMO or GM – Genetically Modified. GMO foods have come under fire because the public has confused them with mutations and associated it with mutations such as cancer in the body. Genetically modified seeds don’t behave in that way. They don’t cause cancer in an of themselves. However, we need to look closely at *what* modifications are being made. Why are corporations spending millions on this technology? They would only invest R&D dollars if they expected a far greater profit. And therein lies the problem with GMO seeds.
One of the largest seed modifiers is a corporation called Monsanto. Monsanto makes a lot of monocrop seeds such as wheat, corn and soy. In fact, 88% of all corn in the US is genetically modified. But Monsanto also produces the top US herbicide, called Round-up. Becuase it owns both products, Monsanto breeds monocrop seeds specifically to tolerate high doses of its herbicide. Seeds of this nature are literally called “Roundup Ready” by the industry.
While we do not yet fully understand the trade-offs these genetic modifications have, many scientists believe that a consequence of modified wheat and corn is decreased digestibility in humans and animals alike, along with decreased nutritive value as the plant switches from thriving into survival mode in a corporate farming environment.
Seed manipulation has led to a misguided demonization of these plants in general. Many people who have sensitivity issues with Monsanto-engineered corn and wheat end up doing much better on non-GMO, local and sustainable grains.
For more information on Genetically Engineered Food, including “Roundup Ready” crops and the Pesticide on Corn seeds you can’t wash off, see this article.
Small farms practice sustainable soil and crop management. They rotate crops, they remineralize the soil (kind of like a deep conditioning for dirt) and they use natural fertilizers. This results in bigger, tastier plants who are given more nutrients to absorb, and more time to absorb them.
Studies have shown that an orange your grandmother ate had 35% more Vitamin C in it than the ones we eat today. Studies with other common foods like carrots and broccoli have shown the same decreased nutrient trend. This is because Industrial Agriculture does not practice careful soil management. The soil they plant in is typically totally depleted of nutrients. They have to spray huge quantities of chemical fertilizers to make the plants grow. Overall, it is system rife with expensive “technologies” from superbred seeds to highly refined pesticides and fertilizers. None of this would be necessary if we were simply practicing good Earth stewardship.
Finally, in a large-scale food system crops must be harvested before they are ripe, given lengthy transit times to stores. This means crops are not given adequate time to absorb any nutrients present from the already-depleted soil.
All this leads up to dull, flat food.
#3: GUT HEALING
Did you know there are roughly 10 times as many bacterial cells as human ones, in the average person? That technically makes us 90% bacteria! Supporting our beneficial bacteria while keeping bad bacteria away is a huge factor in our overall immune health.
Local produce is superior to corporate produce in several ways. As mentioned above, the dirt it grows in is healthier. Also, it is washed simply with water, not given harsh bleaches and waxes for long storage and transit times. Finally, it does not have to endure long transportation. Unhealthy soil, harsh preservatives and long transports result in less beneficial bacteria.
For people who worry about leaky gut, who are taking probiotic or prebiotic supplements, have an immune disorder or weakened immune system, or find themselves with frequent brain fog or fatigue, improving gut health should be a top priority. Eating local produce grown in local soil is an important part of overall gut and immune system management.
Mass produced food not only has huge quantities of soil microbe-killing chemicals sprayed on it, but as mentioned above it is also usually harvested before it is ripe. Unripe crops have higher levels of a plant chemical that has received a lot of fuss lately, called lectin. Lectins are everywhere on the planet but some of them can be toxic to humans. However, they are almost never an issue in mature/ripe plant foods which have been cooked when necessary, such as in kidney beans.
Lectin is part of a plant’s defense system for its babies (seeds and unripe fruits). Lectins decrease naturally as fruits mature enough to be passed on. But when fruits are picked unripe and artificially ripened, excess lectins remain on the plant. Unfortunately, eating too many of these chemicals on a chronic basis can lead to autoimmune reactions and inflammation in the body.
This doesn’t mean you should avoid plants with natural high lectin content. It simply means you should prepare them properly, as generations before you have discovered through trial and error.
#4: TOXIC CHEMICAL FREE
Big agriculture makes liberal use of chemicals to help plants survive in less-than-ideal conditions. These chemicals include pesticides such as herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides, along with fertilizers, bleach, and waxes to help artificially grow, ripen and store produce. These chemicals are used for corporate profit – they increase yield in less than desirable growing/living conditions. They also minimize overhead costs like physical labor. Who wants to weed by hand or tractor when you have Roundup?
It is important to note that many of these chemicals are not automatically toxic – or we don’t fully understand them yet. Glysophate in its pure form, for example, has been found to be roughly as toxic as baking soda – that is to say, not very toxic, at least in terms of what will kill you. However, most systems in the body have simply not been studied yet. Just because a substance doesn’t kill fish or worms in high quantities does not mean it won’t still wreak havoc on our nervous or immune systems, or harm our microbiome.
Further, pure active ingredients are very different from finished commercial products. Roundup is the commercial product whose active ingredient is glysophate – but Roundup also contains dozens more chemicals that are unknown. Companies are not required to list all ingredients in commercial products, so it is widely unknown what exactly is blanketing our food. Corporations simply won’t share it with researchers.
Further, these chemicals are not being applied in inconsequential amounts. We tend to think of sprays as nothing more than a light dusting. But Monsanto’s Roundup is the most-used agricultural chemical in human history. Since 1992, 2.6 billion pounds of Roundup has blanketed US crops.
Roundup is just one product of the roughly 900 registered for agricultural use by the EPA today. Each year, the United States utilizes about 1 billion pounds of pesticides for food production. Worldwide, that number is 5.6 billion pounds annually. These are not insignificant numbers. Scientists are beginning to discover small amounts of pesticides in our rain. It is being picked up by the planet. It is entering the macro ecosystem.
With our current agriculture landscape, wheat is no longer just wheat, and corn is no longer just corn. Because Roundup and many other pesticides are systemic chemicals, they are meant to get inside a plant. Whether you ingest it directly, or you ingest animals who have eaten corn and soybean feed treated with pesticides, it ends up in your body.
The amount of chemical use in conventional food brings into question the nature of recent grain sensitivity in some individuals. Some people truly have an allergy to grain proteins. But many others are experiencing autoimmune and digestive distress-type reactions to mass produced crops. These symptoms gradually lessen or disappear after switching to local, sustainable and organic grains. One of our favorites is Bobs Red Mill. It is available almost everywhere.
In contrast to these corporate chemicals, small farms stay small on purpose because they care about sustainable soil and pest management practices. They reject the use of harsh corporate chemicals. By and large, your small family farmer will be far more transparent about their growing practices than the big agriculture corporations.
#5: REDUCED BACTERIAL RISK
Salmonella, E.Coli, and other dangerous bacterial outbreaks are happening more frequently. In the summer of 2018 there was a nationwide Beef recall from a huge meatpacking plant out of Arizona due to salmonella contamination and related deaths. During Thanksgiving 2018, a nationwide recall of ALL romaine lettuce was issued due to E.Coli – just 3 days before the holiday.
Contamination in large food systems happens for several reasons. Increased capacity by large plants often means that quality control suffers – in both produce and meat packing plants. Improper washing or handling can result in bacteria spread, particularly in large storage warehouses where produce is sent to many different states. One or two contaminated plants or animals can quickly spread to hundreds or thousands of others in these environments. And often, the length of time in storage or transportation results in bacteria having the time to multiply to dangerous levels on the food.
Because local produce is grown in small lots and handled and transported minimally, it is far less likely to contain dangerous bacteria.
#6: VARIETY OF FOOD
Whereas industrial agriculture is all about producing just a few staples that store and sell well, a small farm may experiment with fun new varieties of heirloom plants and heritage animal breeds. You may get the treat of chocolate tomatoes, purple sweet potatoes. You may also learn how to cook new foods like broad beans or celeriac, which are common in other parts of the world but deemed non-profitable by industrial agriculture here in the States.
Try some of these fun new flavors and you are likely to find some new favorites. Wider variety of breeds means a far broader array of nutrition than the standard American vegetable allows. A favorite in our household is baked purple sweet potato fries. We’ve also recently introduced purple cauliflower, and ate an heritage breed turkey for last Thanksgiving. An incredible array of flavors and nutrition are available when we vary our diet. Who wants to eat 100 varieties of corn? Eating local encourages you and your family to eat the rainbow, and that is a good thing.
#7: FINANCIALLY ECONOMICAL
Purchasing your produce and even your meat through a CSA often yields lower prices even on top of the quality and nutrition boost. That’s because you’ve eliminated multiple middle men, transportation costs and other overhead costs that small farms don’t have.
A very popular CSA here in Portland, a farm called Working Hands Farm, has a weekly Summer Season cost of $44. When broken down by the pound, their members get all their organic, local produce for an average cost of just $1.48 per pound! I don’t know ANY grocery stores that have anything that cheap, even storage onions.
#8: VISITING THE FARM
Heading out to a farm to purchase fresh food is a highlight of many peoples’ weeks – particularly if they work in a corporate or urban environment. There is something about being in a rural setting that is incredibly relaxing. Visiting the country or even a Farmer’s Market is a great stress management technique. They are both really fun places to be at. You can talk to the farmers directly.
It’s a great feeling to be a part of a farm’s community of people it supports. There are so many benefits to having a trusting, direct relationship with the people who grow your family’s food. Many farms also allow weekend visits, which makes for awesome family and stress relief time. Kids LOVE visiting farms, and many farms report that their households have noticed an increase in kids eating veggies when they get to see where it came from. Cool!
There is a reason “Community” is the first word in CSA! Supporting your local farm is supporting the local economy, which strengthens your immediate community. Additionally, farmers feel very connected to the families they support. Many farms offer brunches and dinners, either exclusively for their members or by opening the farm to the general public. Visiting a farm and sharing an experience or a meal together enhances the relationships of community. That is something we can all use a little more of in our technological world.
Industrial Agriculture is placing a very heavy burden on our our water, our soil, our air, our plant and animal life, and our bodies. What started out as a promising way to grow food less expensively has become rife with problems. Nature is finding a way around our attempts to control it. Weeds and bacteria are growing resistant to pesticides and antibiotics.
Our current model of industrial food production is simply not sustainable. 50% of all soybeans, and 60% of all corn grown in the US go to feed domestic poultry and livestock. Even the Amazon Rainforest is being cut down to plant soybeans to feed beef cattle in the US!
We just can’t keep doing what we’re doing. Experts believe that much of the cause of climate change has been due to mass agriculture practices, particularly of factory farmed animals. We need to correct our practices – not to save the planet, but to save our own species’ ability to survive on it. Earth has been through 5 mass extinctions already. If it experiences a Sixth, our planet will continue to exist – but we likely won’t.
One of the key challenges facing agriculture today is scalability of the small to mid-sized food model. We need to figure out how small to medium sized farms can serve our population, particularly large urban populations, at scale. We are so excited to see many brilliant minds, top scientists and industry thought leaders working on this right now.
Meanwhile, YOUR family can begin to make small changes for your own immediate health, by starting to opt out of the unsustainable food system. Choose local for the top two things you eat, and go from there. Whether you join a CSA or begin purchasing local pastured dairy and meat, every change makes a difference.
Your Next Steps: Going Local
If you’re ready for a consistent stream of local food, finding a CSA is a fantastic way to begin your adventure away from industrialized food and back into your local economy.
Enrolling in a CSA may feel like a bit of an adventure, and it may not cover your family’s entire produce needs (everyone’s going to need to run to the store for an extra tomato on occasion, and not many CSA’s grow bananas, at least around these parts), but its still great for your belly, your brain, your stress, your happiness, and your bank account.
Check out our Intro to CSA’s article here. You can Google “YOUR CITY CSA” and you’ll likely get a listing of individual farms.
Although nearly every CSA in our area sells out each year, they aren’t the only option for eating local.
Farmer’s Markets are a great option for ala carte purchases and comparing local goods. If you’re not ready to commit to a whole season of CSA, or want greater control over your weekly menu, these are a fantastic option. Most of them start sometime in March-May, and run through October. That’s a pretty good start for eating local 8 months out of the year!
Many Restaurants now serve seasonal and local menus. Live in Portland and looking for restaurants that use local food? Our Portland Restaurant Guide will be up soon. Other cities to follow!
And finally, many Small Grocers are catching on to the local trend and will offer as much as they can from local or regional food growers. Even larger places like Trader Joe’s and Costco will occasionally have local or sustainable goods.
More Reading on Dinner In Provence
Industrial Food Facts: This article goes into more depth about history and current practices of Corporate Agriculture and Factory Farming.
More Reading around the Internet
More on Eating Locally
Today’s Food System: How Healthy Is It?
Diverse Bacteria on Produce Varies with Farming Practices:
161 Species of Bacteria on Produce
Grocery Store Produce Ages