Somewhere in all the discussion about global warming, "green living", and organic produce, the cause for eating locally gets buried and forgotten. Fruits and veggies, be they organic or good ol' fertilizer and pesticide-fed, are usually from the grocery store. Whether we are perusing the aisle of Whole Foods or Safeway, we come across a wide array of season-less items, from delicacies like berries to resilient tubers and legumes. Year-long, we indulge in supplies to make dishes that were traditionally limited to their growing season: tomato and avocado sandwiches, berry salad, spring greens, and citrus infusions. A few generations ago, you needed to wait for the right season to have access to particular produce. A few generations before that, you couldn't get it regardless of the season, because it depended on the soil and climate of your region. Now, there are few limitations placed on our consumption as global trade patterns, markets, and improved technologies match the demands of our wildest imaginations. You may ask at this point, "Where's the problem? I have what I want to eat, when I want it." Can't it be that simple?
When it comes to eating, there are many hidden factors to consider. Let's start with the most basic purpose of eating from an Islamic stance. Our bodies are not our own to damage; they're an amanah (loan) from Allah, and we are charged with taking care of them to the best of our ability. Fresh fruits and veggies are a part of a good diet, and Allah has created wide varieties that grow specific to various climates and seasons. We plant them, wait for them to ripen, and then harvest. This simplified model has many more layers to it: what do crops need to succeed, and how to they get to the consumer?
Today, the most dominant system in place is the industrial food chain, a mechanized process that seeks to get the most yields from crops at the cheapest possible cost to the producer. This translates into neglecting the long-term health of the soil, as well as the health of the consumer, by using various pesticides and fertilizers. According to Michal Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), the petrochemicals that are so essential to this process are in fact remnants of surplus WWII weaponry. This ironic twist illustrates the departure of food as survival, and food as pure profit, as giant conglomerate owners such as ADM and Cargill buy out various small farmers, and dictate what will be grown. As Pollan discovers in his research, soy and corn are the two easiest crops to grow, and it is little wonder that they are converted into various by-products like high fructose corn syrup. In this way, corn finds its way into almost every meal we eat, from beef to bread to soda and juice.
If I have gone off on a tangent, forgive me and hold on as I steer back to the original topic. I must say that this is a topic of great importance to every nation, and that each of the points deserve to be explained in more detail (stay tunes for later editions). For now, this brief run-down will have to suffice as an introduction to the problems and solutions with what we eat. What I've tried to illustrate so far is that the food we eat daily and take for granted is the product of a toxic and unfair system that uses up left-over chemicals the way Grandma uses scraps of leftovers for soup. Except in this case, the only thing getting richer is the conglomerate's pocket, not the taste. In the meantime, we're unknowingly ingesting chemicals that we would otherwise never associate with food, and would try to avoid.
That's where organics come in: many assume that the existence of chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joes relieves us of the above-mentioned problems. And so we go back to perusing the Whole Foods aisles: ever notice that you can find the same out-of-season produce there that you find in a regular store? Aren't asparaguses for April, blueberries for June, and apples for October? If you were to try and grow these items yourself, you would quickly discover that this is the case. Quicker still, we may deduce that these luscious gems of the garden are not local, and were shipped hundreds of miles to get to us. The problem with this, regardless of whether or not pesticides and fertilizers were used, is the mileage itself. Any "global warming" advocate would tell you to reduce your driving as much as possible to reduce the carbon emissions. Imagine the quantity of fossil fuels required to deliver our food. Not only does this defeat the purpose of going organic, it is also extremely insecure as a way to feed an entire nation. This inefficient model, or rather, temporarily efficient model, is a disservice to any nation, not just America.
If you don't like how this sounds, there are plenty of things you can do about it. You don't have to go on a wild crusade to change everyone else. (Although you could certainly join national campaigns to raise awareness – Michael Pollan wrote a 14 page letter to the president with ideas and advice.) You can get in touch with local farmers markets to support small local farmers who often use minimal quantities of petrochemical, join a community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) cooperative, or join with members of your own community if you don't find one that exists near you.
Eating out of season and out of region has become the mainstream food culture for most of us, so it is very difficult to suddenly go colonial style and try to re-create the local harvest rhythm. But it is doable, especially if we begin with baby steps, like trying to locate something that does grow locally and supporting it, whether it is coffee or potatoes. We can also find inspiration in the diets and farming habits of the original inhabitants of the land, taking cues by observing what plants are native to a particular region. These suggestions are not for idealistic pansies; they can work for families today like they did hundreds of years before us. As Khalif-Allah, we are charged with being aware of the consequences of our consumption. Like anything else that we care about, we can make a dent in our toxic food system but working together, and making the best intention to take care of ourselves and our resources.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, 2007