Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why Growing Food Locally is Key

In the coming tough times, food will be key -- and not just any food, but locally raised food from as close as possible, preferably grown right here in the heart of the Willamette Valley with as few industrial inputs as possible -- or else we get industrial commodity "phood" that is:

Less tasty -- and not as good for you

Industrially grown produce shows long-term nutritional decline

Posted by Tom Philpott

Talk to old-timers, and they'll often tell you that the tomatoes you find in supermarket produce sections don't taste anything like the ones they had in their childhoods in the '30s and '40s.

Turns out, they're probably not as nutritious, either.

In an article [PDF] published in the February 2009 issue of the HortScience Review, University of Texas researcher Donald R. Davis compiles evidence that points to declines in nutrition in vegetables and (to a lesser extent) fruits over the past few decades.

For example:

[T]hree recent studies of historical food composition data found apparent median declines of 5% to 40% or more in some minerals in groups of vegetables and perhaps fruits; one study also evaluated vitamins and protein with similar results.

He points to another study in which researchers planted low- and high-yielding varieties of broccoli and grain side-by-side. The high-yielding varieties showed less protein and minerals.

The principle seems to be that when plants are nudged to produce as much as possible -- whether through lots of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides or through selective breeding -- they deliver fewer nutrients. It evidently isn't just the flavor that's become diluted in those bland supermarket tomatoes.

This is a fascinating insight. We should reflect that for at least 50 years, the best-funded agricultural researchers are the ones work to maximize yield -- that is, gross output per acre. Even now, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is expending hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to increase yields in Africa.

Rather than isolate and fetishize yield, perhaps ag researchers should learn to take a whole-systems approach: study how communities can develop robust food systems that build healthy soil and produce nutritious food.

(It should also be noted that last year the Organic Center compiled peer-reviewed studies finding that organically grown produce tends to deliver significantly higher nutrient levels than conventional.)

Business as usual not working all that well, actually

For an important insight into many of the trends discussed in this SJ story excerpt, see "Misplaced Blame: The Roots of Population Growth" by the Sightline Institute's Alan Durning and Christopher Crowther (free pdf download at that link). Now, the local update:

Child-welfare data grim
Marion and Polk counties continue to rank worse than the state average on most indicators of child well-being, a new report from Children First for Oregon shows.

In Marion County, one in five children lived below the federal poverty level in 2007, according to the non-profit group's 2008 County Data Book, released Tuesday. One out of every 50 children was arrested, and one in 25 teenage girls became pregnant.

Alison Kelley, the director of the Marion County Commission on Children and Families, said local social service agencies, especially food banks, are seeing a dramatic rise in requests for help. . . .

In Polk County, meanwhile, the rate of child abuse and neglect doubled, to one in every 75 children. One in three children was obese. And there were only 11 child care spots per 100 children — the third lowest number statewide.

One in six children in both counties was uninsured — the second highest rate in Oregon.

Statewide, 16.9 percent of children lived below the federal poverty level in 2007, and 12.6 percent of children were uninsured, the report showed.

But the group's statistics, mostly from 2007, don't reflect the more recent economic crisis, spokeswoman Cathy Kaufmann admitted. . . .