Eat Local, Think Global

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Many Americans are buying food grown locally not only to get quality produce but also to reduce carbon emissions. P. Hari on the growing popularity of the movement for sustainable living.

RED ALERT: The US meat industry is one of the most polluting ones in the world
.Susan Osofsky, a computer scientist by training, was working at Adobe Systems in the Silicon Valley when the idea struck her. She had volunteered in organic farms in the past. She decided to use her knowledge to teach people the practice of sustainable living — eating healthy while making sure that our planet stays healthy too.

Today, Osofsky holds workshops on cheese making, fermentation, landscaping with edible plants, and other activities that help people grow or make their own food. Osofsky says that people’s interest in such workshops is growing. “One of my workshops on cheese making was sold out a month in advance,” she says.

All over the US, people are discovering the huge burden food production places on the environment, and are volunteering to reduce it as much as they can. Some of them grow their own food, buy only local produce, avoid processed food and often give up meat.

“There has been a tremendous increase of interest in sustainable living since 2007,” says Erin Barnett, director of Local Harvest, in Santa Cruz, California. Local Harvest puts consumers in touch with local farmers so that they can buy food grown locally and avoid being participants in the high carbon emissions that are involved in transporting food over long distances.

Local Harvest is part of a movement called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Under CSA, you pay the farmer in advance for a specified amount of produce every season. Farmers use this money instead of a loan from a bank to buy their seeds and other things necessary for farming. If the crop fails, both the farmer and the consumer suffer. “It is a shared risk,” says Osofsky, who acts as a node for several farmers around her home in Palo Alto, California.

Apart from getting quality produce, buying food locally has the important effect of reducing global warming. The food industry is the most polluting industry in the US, and produces at least one-fifth of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the country. While the main reason for this is the excessive amounts of meat Americans eat, transport of food also plays an important role in raising emissions. The food found in supermarkets in America travels, on an average, 2414km. So buying locally grown food immediately cuts transport emissions.

But there’s more to the sustainable food movement than just reducing one’s carbon footprint. It also involves taking an entirely new look at how people relate to their food.

Three years ago, Barbara Kingsolver, a novelist, spent a year consuming food only grown near her home, if not in her garden. This meant eschewing several things that people take for granted. For example, she could only eat tomatoes when they were in season. Kingsolver has narrated her experience in a book called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, which immediately became a bestseller.

Since then there has been a raft of books on sustainable living. Michael Pollan, professor of journalism at the University of California in Berkeley, wrote a book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Jonathan Safran Foer, considered one of the most promising young novelists in the US, recently published a book called Eating Animals. Both became instant bestsellers. Foer’s book in particular was a frontal attack on the meat industry, now widely recognised in America as among the most polluting and unethical industries in the world.

The sheer statistics of meat production and consumption in America are mind-boggling. More than 10 billion cows are slaughtered every year. The industrial production of meat is so carbon intensive that it accounts for 18 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is because of the inordinately large amount of resources needed to support the animals. “You could reduce your carbon footprint significantly by reducing your meat consumption,” says Eugene Cordero, climate change researcher and professor of meteorology at San Jose State University. Cordero also recently wrote a book on food and climate change.

The spate of books has also added to a growing awareness among Americans about the need to take sustainable food practices seriously. The website of Local Harvest had 40 million unique visitors this year, up from 32 million last year. There are over 5,000 farmers markets in the US, versus 1,700 in the 1990s. And The Eat Well Guide, another website that provides information about aspects of sustainable food in each town in the US, gets about 30,000 visitors every month. “We do not focus on carbon footprints but it is a wonderful side effect of sustainable agriculture,” says Dawn Brighid, marketing manager of Sustainable Table, the non-profit organisation that publishes the Eat Well Guide.

Sustainable food practices currently constitute only about 1 per cent of the US food industry, but the current movement could gather momentum. And that could make a significant impact on US carbon emissions.

Source: The Telegraph (Kolkata, India)

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