Why Sustainably Grown Food Matters

A year and a half ago, in a pre-Covid world where I traveled more than two miles from my house, I was in Santa Fe at the farmers market, looking to buy some New Mexico chili powder to bring home from my trip. I asked the farmer if the chili powder was organic and he told me that it was grown without pesticides, but wasn’t certified organic as he was too small to afford certification. He shared with me that he was passionate about pesticide-free farming as for years he at worked for a large farm and was exposed to large amounts of pesticides that made him extremely sick with cancer. The owners refused to change their farming practices even though many of the workers were falling ill. Eventually, he quit and was fortunate enough to start a very small operation of his own, one that wouldn’t kill him. I happily bought his chili powder and went on my way, but his story stuck with me.

I started out buying organic food more than a decade ago because I figured that it was healthier for me than eating food sprayed with pesticides. At the time, I never thought for a moment about the communities where pesticides and herbicides were sprayed, or the workers at those farms who got exposed to large dosages of those noxious chemicals at work. Over the years, I’ve realized that was a very selfish reason to buy organic and that the true reason to do so is for the people who live and work in those farming communities. Living far from agriculture, it is easy to turn a blind eye to the human cost of cheap farming. Yet, watch a few documentaries and you’ll learn about how prevalent cancer is in farming communities, both in farm workers and their families. You’ll learn about high rates of birth defects and asthma in farming communities, about children who can’t go out for recess because of it raining pesticides and herbicides from airplanes spraying fields nearby. Many environmental issues are also social justice issues, and this is just one more example of that.

If I can afford to spend a bit more on groceries and in doing so, ensure that people who work and live in farming communities have cleaner air to breathe and water to drink, and lower rates of cancer, isn’t it my social responsibility to do so? Having seen two of my family members die from cancer over the last decade, I know firsthand that cancer a slow, painful death. Having grown up with asthma, I know what it’s like to struggle to breathe and to go to urgent care for help breathing. Why would I willingly take others health from them just to have a little bit more in my savings account at the end of the year? I realize that not everyone can afford to spend more on groceries; sadly, many in our country cannot put any food on the table for their family and have to rely upon federal programs to feed their families. They have no choice but to eat conventionally grown foods, even when pregnant, a critical time when doctors recommend eating organic produce to avoid exposing your growing fetus to toxic chemicals that might interfere with their development. Being able to eat clean foods is a privilege today but we need to make it the norm. How?

If you believe in capitalism and free markets, by supporting sustainable agriculture and rejecting food grown with toxic chemicals, it sends a message to farmers: there is growing demand for sustainably grown foods. When demand for conventional foods goes down, supply will outpace demand and the price for those goods will go down. Many farmers will see the writing on the wall and start to transition to sustainable farming methods, seeing that the market for those goods is growing and that the price they can get for those is higher. Over time, this will lead to supply of sustainably grown food increasing and according to economic theory, the price for these goods will drop, making those foods more affordable for everyone. You have the power to drive real change in our society by voting with your pocketbook.

As a final note: you may notice that I distinguish here between sustainably farmed foods and certified organic. Organic certification is something that I look for when shopping at a grocery store, as it is a validation of farming methods for large scale farms. This is helpful, as without it, you’d really have no way of understanding what you are buying. Yet, these certifications are expensive and small, local farms often cannot afford them. So, when I can talk to my farmer at the farmers market about the way they grow their food, I ensure that they are following the practices associated with organic certification and don’t worry about the fact that these farms haven’t been through the certification process and lack that official stamp of approval. Not all of them do, so you have to ask as local does not mean sustainably farmed. Encouragingly in my town, many of the farms have opted for farming practices that are even more sustainable than the methods practiced by large, certified organic farms.

Want to dive deeper into this issue? Here are a few documentaries that I enjoyed:

  • Transgenic Wars – looks at farming communities in Argentina impacted by the spraying of chemicals.
  • Last Call at the Oasis – covers the impact of the common herbicide Atrizine on drinking water.
  • Seed: the Untold Story – investigates impacts of large agro-business on farming worldwide, especially in regards to biodiversity and seed ownership.

These links are for Kanopy, a free streaming service accessible with nothing more than your library card. It has an incredible selection of films of all kinds but especially award-winning documentaries. You can also find these on Amazon Prime.

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