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Think You’re Buying Sustainably? Maybe not.

Katherine Leiner

In today’s world it is not easy to eat sustainably. We constantly have to make choices about organic versus local; how far is too far for our food to travel; how much pesticide or herbicide, if any, is acceptable. Do we only buy from a CSA or farmers market or is Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s acceptable?

Likewise, knowing whether our food is truly safe and healthy can be a challenge. It is easy to decide not to eat any genetically engineered (GE) food, but how do we know what we are eating when GE products need not be labeled? Has the meat we’re eating been fed GE corn? What if part of a farm uses GE seeds while other crops are grown from heirloom seeds? And how do we know the farmer’s pesticide/herbicide practices if we can’t ask at a CSA or in a farmers market?

That a product is certified organic does not answer all the questions we must ask. Many of the farms now at any farmers market are not certified because getting the certified stamp is too expensive. So what are the right questions to be asking and how do we decide where to draw the lines?

Let’s look first at what we know: Sustainability with regard to food means planting, growing and reaping while doing as little damage to the environment as possible. As one of the subjects in my newest book, “Growing Roots: The New Generation of Sustainable Farmers, Cooks and Food Activists,” said, “You to the plant. You to the plant.” Which means there is nothing between you and the plant except sun and water.

We know that chemical pesticides and herbicides are not good for us. Recent studies suggest they may cause many illnesses such as Parkinson’s, and certain types of cancers. It is now almost certain that chemical fertilizers kill bees as well as many other insects that are vital for our food supply.

When I started writing “Growing Roots” in 2006, there were fewer than 3,500 farmers markets across the nation. Now there are more than 7,500. That tells us that our appetite for fresh local food has grown exponentially. That means that a great many people want to know where their food comes from.

If your food comes from a local CSA or farmers market, chances are you have access to the farmer and can ask him or her whether they have used chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. And, if so, when did they apply them, what type and how much have they used? You can ask them whether their cows, their lambs, their chickens and their pigs are free to roam their pastures. You can ask them whether they are fed supplemental feed and what is in that feed, and whether the animals have been injected with hormones to make them grow fatter and bigger than nature intended or whether they have been given prophylatic antibiotics because they are living in crowded quarters. Better yet, you can go to the farm and check it out for yourself.

Most of us don’t know when we are eating genetically engineered foods because they are not labeled in the U.S. We really don’t know the effects the genetic manipulations have on the vegetables or our own bodies. What we do know is that 80 percent of processed foods sold in the U.S. now contain genetically engineered plant matter. At least 40 countries around the world don’t use them. The European Union, Japan, Australia and New Zealand are pursuing mandatory labeling programs for all GE food products. Studies have shown that mice, given a choice of eating traditionally grown grains or GE grains, will choose the traditional. On the other hand, mice not given the choice and fed only GE enhanced grains die sooner than mice given non-GE grains.

When I was working on “Growing Roots,” it was important that all of the folks in the book — farmers, cooks and food activists — agreed on certain simple principals, such as good clean food; food that has been grown by farmers who have been paid a fair wage, who don’t use chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides; farmers who don’t inject hormones or use prophylactic antibiotics or use GE seeds. The farmers should use sustainable practices (though some cannot afford the organic certification) or be certified organic or biodynamic.

I interviewed more than 150 people for “Growing Roots,” and there were many who, for one reason or another, didn’t make my cut. For me, the line was a sharp one.

One farm that I visited grew the most beautiful produce. They told me that their soil was rich and full of nutrients. They even used heirloom seeds for many of their crops — but, they also used GE seeds for their corn. And it turned out they sprayed all of their crops, including their flowers, with chemical herbicides. I wondered why, particularly with all their beautiful soil? And then I realized, people draw their lines differently. Some are willing to go part-way toward true sustainability but not all the way. So we still have to ask the hard questions in our supermarkets, at our farmers markets, at our food fairs and expos. We’ve come a long way, but we still need to fight for safe and healthy food.

Zester Daily contributor Katherine Leiner has published many award-winning books for children and young adults and, more recently, her first novel for adults, “Digging Out” (Penguin). Her most recent book, “Growing Roots: The New Sustainable Generation of Farmers, Cooks and Food Activists” won half a dozen awards, including the National Indie Excellence Gold Medal Award. Katherine’s next novel is due this year.

Photo: Katherine Leiner. Credit: Andrew Lipton


Zester Daily contributor Katherine Leiner has published many award-winning books for children and young adults and, more recently, her first novel for adults, "Digging Out" (Penguin). Her most recent book, "Growing Roots: The New Sustainable Generation of Farmers, Cooks and Food Activists," won half a dozen awards, including the National Indie Excellence Gold Medal Award. Leiner's next novel is due out this year.