Every fortunate person eats every day. Most people do so without realizing the consequences of the choices they make about what they eat, where it comes from and how it is produced. The consequences of these choices are profound.
Eating is an economic act. When you purchase food from a local supermarket, you are supporting a corporation based in the Netherlands, Arkansas, Sunbury, Rochester, California or (soon) Essen, Germany. When you buy apples from Way or Harner farms, the money stays here, boosting the local economy. This is the whole justification for the “buy local, shop local” movement. Sales of locally produced food from local producers at Centre County’s farmers market put well more than $1 million dollars into the local economy every year.
Eating is an ethical act. Many industrial agricultural enterprises that supply our supermarkets with milk products and meat engage in practices that are ethically abhorrent. The methods used to produce veal by confining calves in small, dark cages for their entire lives have been widely publicized. When you purchase such veal at the supermarket or at a restaurant, you are implicitly supporting such practices. You can instead buy local veal, with calves “fed by Mom,” and beef grazed upon local pasture.
Eating is an agricultural act. Would you like to buy grass-fed beef or eggs from a local vendor who keeps his flock on pasture, or peppers from a local certified organic farm? Or would you rather have your dollars support an industrial-scale agricultural system focused on growing genetically modified corn containing pesticide residues, processing it into the high fructose corn syrup found in many food-like products, and feeding beef cattle in massive feedlots? Are your dollars voting for behemoth corporations or central Pennsylvania farmers?
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Finally, eating is an environmental act. The International Panel on Climate Change identifies nitrous oxide emissions from the nitrogen fertilizers that industrial agriculture applies as contributing 12 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. When all of the fossil fuel inputs consumed by industrial agriculture (for example, the manufacture of heavy farm machinery, the production of fuel to run it and to transport food, refrigeration and packaging, etc.) are taken into account, agriculture accounts for at least 25 percent of GHG emissions. Industrial agriculture cuts down forests, drains wetlands, depletes and erodes the soil, and kills pollinators. It injects massive quantities of insecticides, fungicides and herbicides into the environment. Sustainable agriculture uses no such chemicals, sequesters carbon, restores the soil and promotes the health of pollinators, birds and other forms of life. To put it starkly, when you eat industrial food at home or in a restaurant, you are furthering the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem.
We are fortunate to live in an agricultural paradise where many truly local producers of food using sustainable practices are struggling to survive. During the growing season, they are available from many harvest share programs (see https://www.localharvest.org/state-college-pa/csa for a list), and at the nine farmers markets in Centre County. But you don’t need to wait till spring to support local sustainable production. You can buy now from the Tuesday indoor Boalsburg Farmers Market, the Friday indoor market in the municipal building and Friends & Farmers On-Line Market. The online market offers products from 35 local producers, including pastured raised meat, sustainable dairy and eggs, fruit, vegetables and prepared foods, and offers home delivery.
To the many people who are worried about Earth’s climate and living systems but don’t know what they can do, I offer a simple answer. When you buy food, act as if your choices have significant economic, ethical, agricultural and environmental consequences, because they do. Buy local, and buy sustainable.
James Eisenstein is a retired Penn State Professor and local food activist.