The industrial revolution drove people off farmland and concentrated them in cities. Farmers became factory workers: disconnected from land and food source. The geographical, social and cultural gap between farm and consumer widened over the years and has created an entire generation of people who don’t understand the consequences to our health, economy and environment. We have forgotten that food is literally life, and we really are what we eat.
Most of the food eaten in North America bears little resemblance to the plant or animal from which it is made. We want fast and we want tasty. We don’t care where it comes from, or whether it’s good for us. Meat comes wrapped in plastic – it has no relationship to the muscle of a once breathing animal. Food comes from a box or a can – it is difficult to trace the biological origins, even if you read the label.
The industrial food machine has produced “abundance”, but the problem is that every stage of processing destroys the nutrition. Foods are engineered for maximum shelf life: they do this by adding preservatives such as salt, sugar and chemicals, and/or by removing the micronutrients which bacteria need in order to survive. Food becomes sterile and lifeless.
Processing vegetables and grains breaks down the complex carbohydrates into simpler sugars and removes the fiber that would have slowed the absorption of those sugars. The result is a spike of sugar in the blood, which the body then stores as fat. If the sugar spikes too frequently the cells of the body develop difficulty absorbing the sugar and diabetes is the result.
Too much fat causes inflammation. Inflammation causes vascular disease. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer: all can be traced back to the processed foods we consume.
Even minimally processed fruits and vegetables suffer from being grown on nutritionally depleted soils, then picked unripe and refrigerated for days to weeks before arriving at the supermarket.
It seems people instinctively understand their diet must be lacking essential nutrients because dietary supplements are one of the hottest markets these days. Our folly is to believe that a processed nutrient can fill the void.
If we are to have any hope of good health, we need to start eating more “whole foods”, and less processed ones. But whole food is just one-half of the food equation.
Just as the modern food system affects the health of the individual, it also affects the health of our environment. Industrial agriculture strips huge tracts of land. Rainforests are cut down, grasslands plowed under and marshes drained. Pesticides and herbicides are sprayed. Monoculture crops are planted. Rivers and aquifers are pumped dry. The result is declining soil health and loss of biodiversity.
Industrial Agriculture also relies heavily on fossil fuels. To compensate for depleted soils, the industrial system applies millions of tonnes of fertilizer every year – most of which is derived from natural gas. Furthermore, it is estimated that 10 calories of petroleum are burned for every 1 calorie of food produced: those tractors, trucks and machinery require a lot of fuel for plowing, seeding, fertilizing, spraying, watering, harvesting and transporting our food. From field to factory, from store to plate, most processed foods travel thousands of kilometers, from all over the world.
The Globalization movement claimed location was irrelevant. However, climate change and rising energy costs have suddenly made location very relevant indeed. Can we really reduce greenhouse gas emissions and continue to run refrigerated food trucks across the country?
We still need international trade: not everything grows in every climate, and I want my morning coffee and occasional treat of dark chocolate (preferably fair trade). Different regions have always had specialized products for export and can be encouraged to continue to do so. But does it make sense to import apples and beef from New Zealand, when BC produces the finest of both in the world?
There are many reasons why we need to start growing the food we eat a little closer to home. I don’t mean to say that each and every one of us needs to pick up a shovel and start a garden, although many are choosing that path. Rather, it is my hope that we will recognize the health, security and environmental stewardship that local food brings us.
Personal choice is the key to this movement. It is easy to feel insignificant, like “I can’t make a difference in the world”, but our entire society changes direction as a result of individual choices. It all adds up.
I don’t believe in absolutes: such thinking only leads to overwhelm and inaction. The “100 Mile Diet” is a beautiful ideal, but it is unattainable if not undesirable for the majority of people. It is not necessary to exclude all processed foods; it is not necessary to buy all your food from within a defined area. The solution is to simply try to eat more whole foods and make an effort to buy local whenever possible.
As more people make the choice to buy their food locally, there will be more incentive to produce food for that market, and as the market grows it becomes more affordable and easy to choose to buy locally, which grows the market further.
In economics, growth equals prosperity – the local food movement could literally grow us out of this global recession (pun intended). Eating local food improves the health of the individuals, the economy and the environment. It is a win-win-win situation.
We are in the midst of another agricultural revolution. This time the paradigm is shifting back to local, small scale organic farming. People are reconnecting to the land within the confines of the city: lawns, rooftops and empty lots are being reclaimed for growing food. “Pocket Markets” are creating a niche to sell the surplus produce of the smallest garden. Factory workers are, in essence, again becoming farmers.
I am excited for our future: we will strengthen the health of our bodies, communities and our Mother Earth with local, environmentally sustainable food.
Chris Semrick, B.Sc, RRT, CRE is a Registered Respiratory Therapist, Certified Respiratory Educator and a Smoking Cessation Counselor.