This week, I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. It is the story of one family's attempt to eat only locally grown produce and meat for a year. It was entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking. Kingsolver definitely has a political agenda, as evidenced in this and other books, so I took some of the information with a grain of salt. However, overall, I think she made some very good points. I have always been very skeptical about organic produce. It is so expensive, and it's unclear to me how much it actually differs from other produce. Well, turns out my skepticism was somewhat founded. "Organic" food from large, national companies is very loosely regulated and often not substantially different from other produce.
Which is one reason Kingsolver advocates locally-grown food and/or maintaining a personal garden. When you know the farmer, you can be sure that his or her products are actually organic and that the workers are fairly paid. Another big concern of Kingsolver's is reducing fuel consumption. Each item in a typical American meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles. The number of calories expended in producing, packaging, shipping, and refrigerating food can often be hundreds of times the calories available in the food itself. Some of this is understandable for foods that don't grow well in the Northern hemisphere, for example. But, the U.S. imports 1.1 million pounds of potatoes and exports 1.4 million pounds. That seems a little ridiculous, even to a non-tree hugger like myself.
The information about cattle and chicken farming was particularly disturbing. Animals are often forced to live in tiny cages, eating their own excrement and the by-products of their own kind. This greatly increases risk of disease, especially mad cow disease. The UK now tests 100% of its cattle for mad cow. The U.S. tests less than one-half of one percent. Yikes.
I'm not sure exactly what I'm going to do with this information. I try very hard to keep our grocery budget low, and the prices at our farmer's market seem high to me. But, I could probably cut out some other items in order to afford more local produce and perhaps some grass-fed beef or free-range eggs. I could not rely solely on locally-grown produce, though. First of all, Illinois' growing season is fairly short. Second, I could not give up tropical fruits like bananas or pineapple completely. I will definitely look into the issues raised by this book more (in some less-biased sources) and take some baby steps toward changing our food habits.
If you're interested in gardening, cooking, or where your food comes from, I highly recommend this book. While I think sometimes it leans toward "the sky is falling" thinking, (the author predicts near-starvation conditions in the not-too-distant future due to the lack of biodiversity and fuel shortages), it does present a great case for growing your own food, eating more whole foods, and supporting small farmers. It also includes some good recipes.