Friday, August 7, 2009

This is what non-local looks like

I know where much of my food comes from. I either buy directly from farmers, or they are dropping it off where I shop. This fosters a certain amount of trust and familiarity. Many farms open up for farm tours too. But what's the deal with the non-local items we get? I'm reading a fantastic book about just that, which devotes a whole section to food items. It's made me really think about those farmers and other producers of things like gold so far-away living a completely different life than me. I'll fill you in on what I've learned about our food supply. Fair-trade coffee isn't so great after-all, but it's better than the big companies. Those farmers are only getting a few cents more than the bigger companies pay them, luckily they supplement with community improvement projects. They are not even making $1.50 for every $300 that Starbucks charges us. These farmers support their families for an entire week off of the price of a one pound bag of coffee. Wild fish and herbs are basically becoming extinct every day due to over-harvest. Vanilla is mostly grown in Africa, but outside of its native environment (Latin America, so why are we getting it from Madagascar?) it doesn't have its natural pollinator around and must be hand-pollinated daily. Shrimp, just buy it farmed in the US if you are going to, because abroad this is a scary business. Think a country over-run by the mafia, with musclemen threatening small farmers and taking almost all of their profits so they can't pay back the loan sharks. People are destroying the natural environment because shrimp is more profitable than rice paddies. Palm oil is becoming big business's in everything from Girl Scout cookies to soap, to my new sleeping pad for camping, even Ben & Jerry's is involved. But it's not all that pretty of a thing. It is marketed as a great sustainable product, but what they aren't telling you is that they replace rain forest with palm oil plantations, increasing the rate of climate change and driving the orangutan closer to extinction. I guess there goes the Cherry Garcia! I'm really sorry to continue to pick on the poor banana, but it's going extinct. It's still a cloned sterile freak that humans have been cultivating since the Stone Age and evolution has finally caught up with it. Evolution of soil fungus that is, since the banana has little to no genetic diversity of its own there is little hope for it. The banana is already the most heavily sprayed food crop in the world, leading to leukemia, birth-defects, and male sterility in countries that produce them. And the newest fungus is untreatable. All that it will take to wipe out this fruit is someone who picked up some dirt on their shoes in the eastern hemisphere to fly to Central America for vacation and then it's over for the banana. After all this bad news, the good news is that chocolate might actually be saving rain forest ecosystems in Africa. It can be better for the environment if you look for 70% or more cocoa, fair-trade, organic chocolate made in small batches...and then treat it as a special thing, not your typical mid-day snack. But it is sad that the kids living on cocoa farms have never tasted the product of their family labor. Reference: Pearce, F. 2008. Confessions of an eco-sinner: tracking down the sources of my stuff. Beacon press, Boston, MA, 276 pp.

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