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Buy locally, eat healthily

By Ronnie Cummins

FINLAND, Minn. — The current state of America’s food industry reads like a litany of unmitigated disasters. Consider just a few of the most recent events:

  • The discovery of contaminated food imports — chiefly from China — with the potential for sickening and, in some cases, killing, tens of thousands of unwary consumers.
  • Congress once again bypassing sensible agricultural reforms and doling out billions of dollars in misguided subsidies to giant companies engaging in industrial-strength agriculture.
  • A massive bio-fuels boondoggle enticing farmers to grow corn for ethanol rather than food and, thus, sending supermarket prices soaring.
  • Widespread droughts and pest infestations fostered by an unstable climate threatening huge crop losses at harvest time.
  • Degraded soils and contaminated waterways as more and more family farms succumb to Big Ag conglomerates.
  • Spiraling epidemics of diet-related obesity, heart disease and cancer spawned by the food industry’s huckstering of fast food and junk snacks.

Fortunately, there are changes on the horizon. Having connected the dots in this patchwork of inconvenient truths, millions of Americans now are voting with their consumer dollars for foods and products that are healthy, locally produced, and eco-friendly.
Organic food and farmers markets are booming. Pesticide-free lawns and gardens, green buildings, solar panels, wind generators, "buy local" networks, and bike paths are sprouting. A critical mass is waking up to the fact that we must green our diets and lifestyles, drastically reduce petroleum use and greenhouse gas pollution, re-stabilize the climate, and heal ourselves before it’s too late.

For 10,000 years, locally based family farmers and ranchers have managed to grow and distribute healthy food, and ample feed and fiber, largely without the use of petroleum-based chemical fertilizers, toxic pesticides, animal drugs, or energy-intensive irrigation, processing, and long-distance transportation.

In 1945 most of the U.S.’s 6 million family farmers were still rotating their crops and cultivating a wide variety of fruits, grains, beans, and vegetables — organically, fertilizing with natural compost, and generally practicing sustainable farming methods they had learned from their parents and grandparents.

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By 1945, as part of the war effort, Americans were growing a full 42 percent of our vegetables and fruits in their backyards, schoolyards, and community Liberty Gardens.

The nutritious, usually non-processed foods that we cooked for our family meals were purchased from locally owned grocers who stocked their shelves with a wide variety of items — typically grown or raised within a 100-mile radius of our communities.

In the 1950s the average American household spent 22 percent of our household income for fresh, locally produced food.

By today’s standards, this post-war generation was relatively healthy in terms of low rates of diet-related diseases such as cancer — now striking 48 percent of U.S. men and 38 percent of U.S. women — not to mention heart disease, obesity, diabetes, food allergies, birth defects, and learning disabilities.

Sixty years, later we have a Fast Food Nation spending a mere 11 percent of our household-income for food, gorging ourselves on the industrialized world’s cheapest and most contaminated fare. Some 78 million cases of food poisoning are reported in this country every year.

The good news is that there is a solution at hand. Turning back to the time-tested practices of local, eco-friendly, organic food and farming will go a long way toward restoring our health and the health of the planet.

Organic and local farms can dramatically reduce energy use in the agricultural sector by 30-50 percent while safely sequestering in the soil enormous amounts of greenhouses gases. It’s time for a change before it’s too late.

Ronnie Cummins is national director of the Organic Consumers Association (www.OrganicConsumers.com).

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