Food is critically important. It nourishes us and sustains us. It serves as a daily ritual for each of us and plays a central role in maintaining our health. From humblebeginnings over 10,000 years ago, agriculture has changed dramatically to meet the needs of a fast-growing human population. Some of us now have access to abreath taking abundance of food choices, and others have at least basic foods where previously there was only hunger. Food is produced in, and travels to, every part of the globe, sometimes making it seem as far as our plates are concerned that we have done away with the seasons. It's now possible, for example, to buy mangoes in Alaskain January.

Our bountiful food supply is a blessing in many ways, but it has also raised questions about the techniques we use to grow, process, and distribute food. In order to achieve high yields, varieties of crops have been bred that depend heavily on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These man-made chemicals can have serious andsometimes unpredictable impacts on the environment and on human health. The use of large amounts of water for crop irrigation, for example, depletes aquifers and spursenvironmentally and socially disruptive dam projects. Pesticides kill non-target organisms, including predatory insects and birds that would otherwise be helpful incontrolling pests. Many modern food production techniques also encourage alarming rates of soil erosion and reduce genetic diversity of crop plants, further jeopardizing our ability to sustain high yields.

We now find ourselves at a crossroads in agriculture. Even if current agricultural methods maintained soil, water, and other critical resources for future production,agriculture may not be able to keep up with population growth. About 85 million people are added to the world's population each year, and -- one can argue -- each of thesepeople has a right to an adequate food supply. Therefore, it is vitally important to adopt without delay sustainable methods of food production that conserve the natural resource base. Environmentally-sound, socially-responsible, and cost-effective approaches to agriculture are available, and we must begin using them immediately on awidespread basis.

Cultivating sustainability

We suggest the following recommendations as ways in which you can make an impact on the food and agriculture system and demand, through your food choices, thatthe system become a healthier one. These recommendations are intended first and foremost to reduce our ecological foot print, or impact on the earth, but it is also vital to evaluate the food and agriculture system from a social and economic perspective. If you and others followed them, many of these recommendations could have a positiveimpact not only on environmental practices in agriculture, but also on your health, your food budget, the health and income of farmers and food industry workers, and thewell-being of communities that rely on agriculture.

Can your personal food choices really make a difference in a food system that feeds 6 billion people? The impact of individual food choices is hard to estimate, let alone actually measure, but scientists and policy makers have made some attempts. We don't cite their work here, but our recommendations are based to some extent on their assessments. What is certainly clear is that individual actions add up. If even a few million Americans based their food choices on these recommendations, our food system would quickly begin to look very different than it does today. Ideally, actions taken by individuals will be coupled with well-crafted policy initiatives on a regional,national and global level, continued vigilance and creativity on the part of non-governmental institutions, and innovative partnerships formed with farmers and foodbusinesses.

You may be used to focusing on organic agriculture as a critical component of a sustainable food system, but it is essential that we also evaluate the sustainability of foodsystems at a higher level, that of the foodshed. Like the idea of a watershed, your foodshed is the geographic region from which your food comes. At present, most Americans get their food from a foodshed that consists of much of the world. To reduce the use of energy and materials in the food system and their associated impacts onthe environment, it is very important to "localize" our foodsheds by growing and processing food near where we live. It may not be either possible or necessary for you toeat only local foods (some "exotic" foods can be brought to you at relatively little cost to the environment), but many steps could be made in that direction without reducingthe quality or variability of your diet.

Buyer beware! Some thoughts about these recommendations

In putting together this list of recommendations, we tried to consider what information you could be expected to get about your food from labels, store signs, or othersources. We also tried to think about what you could reasonably be asked to do to help out. We know you're busy and may have limited financial resources, so our recommendations needed to be useful but modest. Even if we have chosen a good set of recommendations, we recognize that you may not pay attention to them. The reare so many lists out there of "10 things you can do to save the earth" that you may feel overwhelmed. That's a risk we're taking; but if you're reading this, then it has paidoff!

Choose foods that are grown and processed locally.

It's 30 degrees outside - the middle of winter. Inside the produce section of the supermarket, there are mangoes from Mexico, fresh vine-ripened tomatoes from Holland andlettuce from California. Thanks to global trade and advanced modern transportation, we see no seasons in our supermarkets. However, these foods come to the table at acost to the environment and to local economies that should not be ignored.

First, let's look at how food gets to the our tables. It is estimated that most foods in the United States travel an average of 1,300 miles before reaching us, burning largeamounts of fossil fuels. Adding together the energy used for machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, food processing and distribution, it is estimated that we put almost10 kcal fossil fuel energy into our food system for every 1 kcal of energy we get as food. The result is that the global food system uses vast amounts of energy of which wemay not be aware.

Second, only a small fraction of the money we spend on food benefits the producer of that food. There are many "middlemen" involved in transportation, storage,processing, marketing and retailing of food once it has left the farm. It is estimated that in the United States, only 22 cents out of the average dollar we spend on food goesto the farmer. For some foods, the farm value is even lower. For instance, only 7 cents goes to the farmer for every dollar you spend on bread.

By supporting local growers, we can shorten the supply chain. This may lead not only to savings in energy and a reduction of our ecological footprint, but may also result inhigher incomes for farmers through the elimination of middlemen. In doing this, we can help to stimulate the regional economy. Having direct contact with local farmers mayalso enable us to encourage the use of more environmentally friendly practices or the protection of natural resources. The best way to achieve a balance between food,land, and people may be through local, community-based agricultural systems that are tied to ecologically responsible resource use.

There are, of course, strong arguments for the global liberalization of trade. In addition to the desirability of having access to a variety of foods from all over the world,"comparative advantage" is considered an important factor. Some supporters for a global trade regime contend that liberalizing the rules of international farm trade wouldallow the world's best farmland to produce the crops for which its climate and soils are best suited. This would allow for the maximization of yields and theoreticallyminimize the environmental impacts of food production. However, community based agriculture does not mean that communities isolate themselves from the global foodsystem, but rather that they include alternatives to enhance the local economy, to adapt food production and distribution to their region, and to link consumers moredirectly to the food they eat.

When we eat locally, we can help to preserve local farmland and enhance local economies. By shortening the supply chain, we can reduce the energy needed fortransportation and processing. In addition to all the potential environmental and social benefits, consuming local produce may bring nutritional benefits, because localvegetables are likely to be fresher than produce that is transported hundreds or thousands of miles on a refrigerated truck!

Choose certified organic foods.

What is organic?

Organic agriculture takes its inspiration from nature - the cycling of nutrients among plants and animals, the natural composting on the forest floor and the diversity andbalance of organisms in a healthy ecosystem. The following definition of "organic" was set by the National Organic Standards Board in 1995:

Organic is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal useof off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.

The basic principles of organic production systems are:

Replenishing and maintaining soil fertility -- Caring for the soil is at the heart of organic agriculture. By building up organic matter and the diversity of life in the soil, theorganic grower makes it easier for plants to obtain what they need for healthy growth.

Building a biologically diverse agricultural system -- A system that is biologically diverse may also be more stable and better resistant to environmental stresses suchas pest infestation or disease. The use of methods such as crop rotation can prevent plant pests from building up by attracting a variety of insects, ideally creating aprey/predator balance that will minimize insect damage to crops. The integration of livestock into an agricultural system is another method of diversification with manypotential environmental benefits. Livestock manure can be recycled into the environment, reducing the need to use chemical fertilizers and creating a closed nutrient loop.

Eliminating the use of toxic and persistent chemical pesticides and fertilizers -- Protecting the life in the soil is one of the reasons for not using strong chemical fertilizers or toxic pesticides. The latter are frequently as effective at killing helpful and benign organisms as they are at killing pests. These "beneficial" insects include bees and other pollinators necessary for the health and reproduction of many wild plants, as well as many orchards and other crops. Pesticides may lose theireffectiveness as insects quickly evolve to become resistant to the chemicals. Even worse, residues from these chemicals may contaminate ground and surface waters,damaging the health of fish, birds, other wildlife and humans. Many EPA-approved pesticides were registered long before extensive research linked these chemicals tocancer and other diseases. Now, the EPA considers 60% of all herbicides, 90% of all fungicides, and 30% of all insecticides as potentially cancer-causing.

Certified organic

When a grower or processor is certified as organic, a public or private organization verifies that it meets or exceeds defined standards or guidelines. Recommended,permitted and prohibited materials and methods for soil preparation, planting, weed and pest control, harvesting and packing are specified in these guidelines or standards.In addition to certified organic farm produce, there are also certified organic dairy products, and recently standards have been put in place for the certification for organicmeats. Organic standards for livestock exclude the use of rBGH and other synthetic growth hormones, or the routine use of antibiotics. Additionally, all animals must haveaccess to the outdoors and to natural living conditions. The animals are fed only organic feed, and the processing for all meat, poultry and dairy products must meet organic standards as well.

In general, organic farmers focus on preventing problems rather than curing them. Building healthy soils and encouraging natural enemies of crop pests allows for maximumuse of fertilizers and helps plants to better resist the pests. When pest populations get out of balance, however, growers use biological options such as the release of insect predators, use of insect hormones that disrupt the mating of pests, traps and barriers. If these fail, some certifying agencies give permission to apply certain botanical and other non-persistent pesticides.

National Organic Standards

In addition to the 17 states that enforce organic standards, there are a number of private certification agencies that verify organic production according to industry standardsacross the country. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is also in the process of drafting a set of regulations and definitions that will establish a set of nationalstandards to which foods labeled and sold as "organic" must conform.

Buying "certified organic" may not be a perfect guide for making food choices, but it is one of the best available. If you are concerned about the production of food and howthat can affect your health and the environment, you should get involved and stay informed. Most organic food stores have literature from the local or state organic farmers association. You can also voice your opinion to institutions such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or USDA, or to your Congressional representatives.

Buy food through farmers' markets, food co-ops, or a community supported agriculture program; and encourageyour supermarket to carry local and organic produce.

Farmers' markets

Thousands of cities and towns across America have farmers' markets that are open one or two days a week throughout the growing season. Some are open all week inseason, and a few remain open throughout the year. Even small markets may carry a wide range of foods, from fruits and vegetables to pasta, baked goods, jams and jellies, eggs, cheese, and other dairy products. This food is often fresh and unprocessed or minimally processed, and may be more nutritious than comparable foods bought at grocery stores. Many of the farms that grow for these markets are organic.

Although not all of the food sold at farmers' markets is necessarily grown or processed locally, much of it is. Since the average food item in a supermarket travels morethan 1,000 miles from farm to store, buying more foods at farmers' markets probably means a large reduction in fuel used in shipping.

Food from distant places is handled by brokers, shippers, processors, marketers, and retailers, who together take more than three quarters of each dollar you spend onfood. When you buy directly from farmers, they get a much larger fraction of the money and can have higher profits. This doesn't mean that the middlemen are not earningtheir pay; but in a time of very low prices for agricultural products, farmers need all the income they can get to stay in business and keep farms going.

Your support of farmers' markets is particularly important for small farms and new farmers who are not able to provide the large, continuous supplies of food whichsupermarkets and processors require. At a farmers' market, farmers simply offer what they are able to grow, and you buy what you want. This doesn't mean that you haveto settle for a poor selection or low quality - all of the growers at a market together can provide a wide variety of foods, and quality is often higher than you can find any where else. If you don't already shop at a farmers' market, check one out. Contact the nearest county extension office or your state department of agriculture to find outwhere markets are in your area.

Community Supported Agriculture Programs

Community Supported Agriculture programs, called CSAs, represent another, higher level of commitment to local agriculture. To join a CSA, you buy a "share" in a farm,and the farmer agrees in return to provide a certain amount of food each week during the growing season. Farming is an unpredictable business, and your financialcommitment can help reduce the risk a farmer faces at the beginning of a season. Specifically, farmers can gain by having a guaranteed market and by avoiding debt totraditional, high-interest lenders. In exchange, you get fresh produce (and, in some cases, meat, milk, eggs, and other foods), and a sense of connection to a farm. SomeCSAs allow members to work on the farm to help pay for their share.

As you might expect, CSAs can have their drawbacks. If the farm has a bad season, your share may not be what you expected. In a good season, you may get a lot offood. but find that it's not what you are used to eating. These are things to consider before joining a CSA.

Food Cooperatives

There are many types of food cooperatives, but by definition all of them involve some degree of support by members. Your support may be just financial (you buy a share,as in a CSA), or you may be a worker who orders, prices, and stocks food. Cooperatives generally stock a wide variety of processed and whole foods, including produce.Much of the food in co-ops is organic and some of it may be local.

Working with your supermarket

Whether you shop at a cooperative or an ordinary supermarket, you can pressure your food store to carry products that are organic and are grown and processed locally.Supermarkets often protest that it is too complicated to deal with small, local suppliers who cannot serve them year-round, but there are certainly successful examples ofsuch cooperation. It does take more management by the stores, but they can charge more for the food and you, the customer, benefit from a fresher product and thesupport of the local economy.

Buy foods with the least packaging and recycle or compost packaging and food waste.

Foods with minimal packaging

The materials used in packaging require energy and other resources to manufacture. By choosing food items that are packaged efficiently, you choose items that may havea smaller impact on the environment because they use fewer natural resources. This also reduces the amount of waste that may end up in landfills. One of the beststrategies for minimizing packaging waste is to buy items that are sold in bulk.

Recycled and recyclable packaging

Another good strategy for using fewer resources and for minimizing waste is to buy foods that are packaged with recyclable materials and ensuring that those materials arerecycled. Recycling packaging reduces the need for both extraction of new raw materials and the energy it takes to process them. Recycling an aluminum can, forexample, saves both aluminum ore and enough energy to power a typical television for one hour. Showing a preference for recyclable packaging also may encouragemanufacturers to use more recyclables in their products.

Composting food waste

Almost 25 percent of the household waste stream is made up of food and yard waste. Most of this could be composted and returned to the environment in the form ofmulch or fertilizer, but is currently thrown away and buried in landfills. This results in the gradual loss of nutrients in the areas where food is produced and the contaminationof areas where wastes are stored. Composting organic waste can reduce disposal costs and improve soil quality on farms and in community or home gardens.


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