“Well, I suppose we don’t need farmers much. Just three times a day.”
It has been a couple of years since I mentioned "The Big Three." With Earth month (April) starting on Wednesday, it seemed like a good time to refresh our collective memories!
The Big Three are the three things - in some combination - that all life needs to survive: air, water and food.
There is a concept known as the Commons which refers to all of the natural resources that do not belong to any single entity or individual, but belong to society as a whole.
Commons includes air, water, navigable rivers, the oceans and the like. Every living thing needs some combination of air and water to live. And rivers and oceans are in constant motion, so do not lend themselves to individual ownership.
What hasn’t always been clear is whether some have the right to pollute the Commons – or overfish the oceans, rivers and lakes – even if that spoils them for others. Before clean air and water laws, people and businesses used air and water to dumping waste because that didn’t cost anything, which was good for the bottom line. Nevermind that thick, brown smog blanketed urban areas and rivers sometimes caught on fire.
Over time, regulations were enacted to help protect the commonly used air and water so that the decisions of some to release pollution into them were balanced with the health and well-being of all people. These regulations improved life and the economy for everyone. Rivers don’t catch on fire, Lake Erie isn’t dead, and one cannot see the air in US cities.
Yet, problems persist. An “island” of plastic trash in the Pacific Ocean is larger than Texas. Coal mining companies literally remove the material from the top of mountains in Appalachia and dump the rock onto the surrounding landscape to mine the coal in the mountains. Hydraulic fracturing, “fracking,” to extract natural gas that is trapped in shale formations deep underground, has resulted in polluted water supplies from Pennsylvania to Australia.
The situation is what economists have long described as “the tragedy of the Commons,” meaning that when individuals make decisions about the use of shared resources, they will act in their own self-interest, whether or not that is good or bad for the community. Another way of putting it is that people and businesses tend to make decisions based on short-term gains rather than long-term sustainability.
For those who saw “The Lorax” movie, or read the book, the story is familiar. Use and despoil the local resources so long as a profit can be made, then when the money dries up, move on and start over some place new.
Personally, I object to the term “tragedy” because it implies that there is some aspect of fate that led to the bad situation. It is tragic when a man catches the early train to get home to surprise the family, only to be killed when that train is derailed in a collision with a truck. It is not tragic when a company injects toxic chemicals into a well knowing that 5% of the well casings will fail, and the chemicals then show up in local wells and people get sick. I would not call that a tragedy – I would call it a crime.
After all, everyone needs clean air and clean water to live. No one needs natural gas to live.
Do you know where your food comes from? When eating at a restaurant, picking up a quick fast food snack, or sitting down to eat at home, do you know where each of the ingredients in your meal is grown?
In many cases, the answer would be a surprise. Apple juice from China. Lettuce from California. Grapes from Chile. Lamb from Australia.
Transportation of food across such vast distances – by boat, plane, truck and train – has economic as well as environmental costs. Simply put, it costs more to transport a product to Woodstock from China than it does to bring it in from Iowa. With gas prices around $4 a gallon in the US (and much more elsewhere in the world), transportation costs will continue to be a significant share of the cost of food.
On the environmental side of the equation, all those vehicles use fuel that emits carbon dioxide, which contributes to warming the planet, which in turn leads to changes in the climate. Climate change is causing some areas to receive more rain, and others to receive less, and water availability is a critical element of growing food.
Long distance transportation of food also has a social cost, as it disconnects people even more from the sources of their food. When people start to see farmland as “scenery” and not as the source of food, there is a greater risk that the full value of that “open land” will not be recognized or valued by society. Ask the average person where his food comes from, and he is likely to say “from the grocery store.”
For those who visit the local farmers’ market, the answer might be “well, my beef comes from a farm in Greenwood, and my vegetables come from a farm near Harvard.”
People have been embracing the benefits of buying local food for several years now. So much so, that there is a word to describe them: locavore, n. meaning one who eats foods locally grown whenever possible. Locally grown food products are fresher than food that has been shipped in from far away. I also find local produce to taste better than store bought items. And buying directly from a local farmer is good for the local economy.
Restaurants are now promoting the use of locally raised meats and produce on menus. 1776 and Duke’s Alehouse in Crystal Lake both describe the source of many ingredients right on their menus. Expressly Leslie’s in Woodstock obtains as many of the ingredients for its vegetarian meals from vendors at the Woodstock Farmers’ Market.
Buying more of one’s food locally at a farmers’ market, farm stand or through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) operation builds community, strengthens the local economy, and is better for the environment. It is just that simple.
Here are a few resources to help you find local food:
- The website www.localharvest.org provides an abundance of information to help the consumer find farmers’ markets, CSA operations, specific products and even restaurants that use local farm products in any area of the country.
- A group is working to create a McHenry County Food Cooperative which would be member-owned and operated. The food would be organic and sourced locally, and the money spent at a food co-op would stay in the community to boost the local economy. The group has a website: www.mchenrycountyfoodcoop.com and also a Facebook page. Volunteers are needed to help implement the project.
- Join me for “Speaking of Nature” on Harvard Community Radio, August 15th from 6-7pm for a discussion of local food issues. I’ll be talking live with Rich Brook, pictured above, Andy Andreski from 1776 restaurant and Scott Brix who is involved in the Coop effort. www.HarvardCommunityRadio.com
As if we needed another reason to purchase our food from local sources, along comes the Great American Egg Recall of 2010!
Billions of eggs potentially tainted with Salmonella bacteria, and thousands of people sick as a result.
The photos of the factory egg "farms" are too awful for me to include here -- chickens packed in cages, stacked on top of one another in conditions that should be criminal. And why? Because Americans want cheap eggs. Lots of cheap eggs. At the rate of 150 (or more) eggs per person, per year, that adds up to nearly 50 billions eggs a year - and that's just the ones folks buy in cartons -- add in all the eggs that are used as an ingredient in the foods we buy, and we are looking at closer to 75 billion eggs consumed each year in the US!
At a price of about $1.00 per dozen, we are talking about at least $4 billion in egg sales each year.
There is an alternative, you know. Yep, more folks could buy their eggs from local farmers.