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The Food Connection: Uphold and defend
When recently asked about sustainability, we realized that “sustainability” means different things to different people and this of course prompted a little research.
“Sustainable” is a word used often these days and applied across industries from agriculture to social entrepreneurship. Sustainability is not only a lifestyle; it is also a blog, a nonprofit organization, a college degree and a magazine.
Sustainable is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” The secondary definition is more interesting: “Able to be upheld or defended.”
But what does “sustainability” mean in the food industry? Is the humble peanut butter sandwich sustainable? Well, if you have purchased a jar of peanut butter or a loaf of bread recently, you may have noticed it cost you a little more than it did six months ago. In fact, the cost of these staples has risen nearly 50 percent in the past three years.
Margaritas may not be considered a staple, but they are our favorite drink. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to afford to purchase limes since the cost of a box went from about $20 to $120 almost overnight.
The rising cost of peanut butter, limes – and food in general – is felt by us all. But we live in a country of abundance right? With so much food out there, why are prices so high? The role of petroleum in our industrial food system is one answer.
Behind the cost bump
Petroleum is used to manufacture the fertilizer, run the tractors that plant the seeds, spray the pesticides and harvest the food. Petroleum is used to transport the food to warehouses, and from there to processing facilities and grocery stores. Diesel prices have been at near-historic highs for the past three years. It’s no coincidence that’s about the same time the price of peanut butter began to rise.
The fact that our entire food system relies so greatly on a diminishing, non-renewable resource means that our current system is not “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” In other words, it is not sustainable.
In addition to petroleum, industrial agriculture also uses tremendous amounts of water — our most precious resource. The drought in California is so severe right now, water engineers are considering reversing the flow of water in the California Aqueduct, pushing water from emergency underground reservoirs uphill to irrigate vast groves of pistachios, grapes, almonds and pomegranates.
While our Sequim irrigation pioneers may have had some advice for pushing water uphill, they were taking advantage of what, at the time, seemed to be a limitless resource. Today, we know better.
Ready for that margarita? Not so fast! It seems that 98 percent of the U.S. lime supply comes from Mexico, where a combination of unusually heavy rains and an aggressive bacterial infection has severely limited the crop. Limes are now so valuable that criminal gangs and drug cartels are hijacking shipments, sending prices even higher. We are paying for our exclusive dependence on one country for a product that doesn’t grow well in our own climate. This is clearly not a sustainable model.
What does sustainability mean to you? Do you make choices to promote this ideal? Is the food you eat “able to be upheld or defended?” We each need to answer these questions for ourselves, but each one of us can make a difference.
Seek out local foods that are not a part of the industrial food system. Keep a garden and harvest your own produce for a few months. Eat less supermarket beef and instead spend a bit more on sustainably raised, local grass-fed options. Purchase chicken from a local farmer committed to feeding their neighbors. Buy eggs from the farm stand you pass by each day. Consider eating a seasonal diet.
If you want to make a difference, strive to make your own food actions sustainable: “maintainable and defendable.”
The side benefit? If you eat like you care, there is no doubt you will “Eat well and be well.”
Mark Ozias and Lisa Boulware are owners of The Red Rooster Grocery. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.