05 August 2009

Au Naturel

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Out of some kind of basic (theoretical) common sense, I live in a household that tries to purchase organic fruits and vegetables when possible. We're not rigid about it, but we tryparticularly for those nutrient-rich (e.g., spinach) or skinless (e.g., strawberries) foods where pesticide exposure is known to be worst.

We also belong to a "Community Supported Agriculture" (CSA) food co-op, that delivers fresh fruits, vegetables, and eggs to a drop-off location once a week, where we (walk to) pick it up. While not every CSA is by definition delivering "organic" produce, ours does. So three benefits for the price of one: support for local farmers; support for a process that delivers locally farmed produce direct to consumers; and support for organic agriculture. This is (again, theoretically) better for our bodies, but also for our environment: reducing the amount of pesticides and other kinds of run-off in the ground and water, and hopefully good for the CO2 issues by delivering the food with reasonable efficiency.

Not to mention that I've read my Michael Pollan, and my this and my that. I'm on board with the program: industrial farming is helping to kill our planet and I should be mad about it. I am mad about it. Which is why I am bemused to find myself this evening mad about something else, and questioning two distinct assumptions of this whole sustainable food model.

The first assumption concerns the “it’s good for the environment” argument, because our delivery tonight included a bush of basil—beautiful, red-colored basil with great flavor and lots of fresh, tender leaves.

And tons of dirt. Normally, the veggies from the CSA require some extra scrubbing relative to what I might purchase at a Fairway or Costco; even organic produce from these stores is “industrial,” in the sense that it comes from large farms and distributors who wash and package the food for sale. But tonight’s basil included obscene amounts of dirt, enough dirt that it probably took two gallons of water to get the basil really clean (as in, rinsing cleanly).

This has me asking: is this actually environmentally friendly—or sustainable? I washed the basil in my sink, with tap water and a salad spinner, having stripped off the roots. Commercial packagers probably have special machines that maximize the efficiency of the water-washing process; or at least, one hopes they do. Surely I could have done all sorts of other, better-for-the-environment things with those two gallons of water than wash this basil. Surely the CSA farmers could have done a better job knocking more of the dirt off the basil before throwing it on the truck to bring to me.

And surely someone, somewhere has done some kind of actual, factual, non-partisan quantitative analysis of this issue, to determine whether this whole food model makes sense. But if it’s out there, I can’t find it.

This leads to the second issue: in addition to the water, it also took time and other kinds of energy, energy to keep the lights on, to pump the water, to dispose of the dirt, etc. Now, I’m no slouch in the kitchen or around the house, and food is important to me; it’s worth time and energy. But this isn’t about a cost-benefit analysis for my time. This is about whether one reason it’s hard to analyze the environmental efficacy of this food model is because so much of the energy—human and other—has been transferred from the food producer (read: farmer) to the consumer. It must be easier to measure the CO2 emissions of a farm truck, or the more regular input and output of energy, water, etc., at a single farm, than it is to track the energy usage and environmental impact of hundreds of thousands of households around the country that are essentially completing part of the food chain process that many consumers have skip entirely by buying from large farms.

It would be great if the organic and sustainable food movements could do some better analysis of this whole situation. Now my basil is clean. But my conscience?

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Blogger Joshua said...

rach is answering this through me:

- the clean non-organic produce in stop and shop has been washed many, many times already. and then it is sprayed with a wax sealant for shipping and storage that must be removed nonetheless. the two gallons of water you use to wash the basil is going to be used one way or another. if you were next to a river you could simply dip it.

8:22 AM  

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