While walking down the grocery store isles, my eyes are inundated with images of cows in pastures and red barns amid green grassy fields. But are these images testament to the truth behind where our food comes from? Absolutely not. Most big meat producers house hundreds of cattle in a single pen, the grass long gone from over grazing. The cows we eat have been trained to eat corn, since it is a cheap commodity, being subsidized by the government. Chickens are held in pens where most of them will never experience what it is like to spread out their wings, as the space provided doesn't allow it. Cases appear regularly in court from small towns or neighborhoods being plagued by the horrid smell and soiled water that flows from over-crowded pigpens and into their back yards. Even farmers of our vegetables cause problems when they plant vast fields with only one plant species, degrading the soil and making it easy for insects to take advantage of a delicious meal. Pesticides have been developed to deal with the bugs, and fertilizers to aid the overused soil, but what effect do these chemicals have on our foods? Better yet, how are they affecting the environment where the foods are being grown? The food production system in place in our country right now is certainly flawed. We have developed methods of growing mass amounts of food at low costs to the consumers, but with high externalities. By externalities, I mean factors that are being paid for in some way, but not by the money used to purchase the product.
Many of these externalities involve environmental issues that are often dealt with using tax dollars. In the end, we are still paying these costs. We are also paying them with our health. With so many chemicals, toxins, and hormones running through the foods we put into our bodies how can we expect to have good health? The chemicals introduced to crops also seep into our water sources. I work at an Environmental Testing Laboratory, and one of our clients continually deals with the presence of cyanide in their drinking water. Why? Old farmers used to put cyanide on their cows to kill the pests that would bother them. This was almost 50 years ago and yet this city is still plagued with the task of trying to ensure safe drinking water for its residents when its natural sources are filled with a powerful toxin.
There are many issues surrounding our food systems and many ways that we can respond to them, but one of the best ones is to invest our money into something better. When I was teaching in Arkansas, we called it "voting with your dollar." While not always a perfect solution to every ethical food issue, buying organic can certainly ensure that the environment is being saved from additional chemicals and toxins. Better yet, you are being saved from these.
Unlike traditional agriculture, organic farming involves using methods that will allow for healthy plant growth without artificial chemicals. Compost materials are often used to enrich the soil and varied methods of planting specific plants in specific patterns can actually combat many pest issues. The soil remains much healthier, and oftentimes the foods taste amazingly better. I have never had a watermelon so sweet as the one I picked from the organic farm in Arkansas.
With all of these benefits, why isn't everyone buying organic? It's simple. The traditional farming methods are still significantly cheaper for the consumer. Although they cost more in externalities, those costs don't show up at the cash register, making traditional foods much more inviting. Getting involved with a CSA, or community supported agriculture group, is a good way to get good foods for less. With these groups, each member pays a set amount up front and then receives a basket of foods each week with a share of whatever plants were successfully harvested at the farm that week. Usually, granted cooperative weather, you get about 1.5 times as much food as what you would get for the same price in a grocery store. And even better than just being organic, it is locally grown. No pollutants are emitted from shipping and your food is as fresh as it could possibly be. While CSAs aren't available to everyone, I suggest visiting localharvest.org to see what is available in your community. While shopping organic can often add a few expenses to the grocery list, I believe that with a slight restructuring of our budgets to really represent what is important, we can afford to buy what is better for everyone. Rather than buying that big screen TV, take an investment in your world and in your health, and try something organically grown. Your planet will thank you for it.