Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Op-Ed Columns

Time to visit reinventing U.S. food systems

THE closings of Aldi and Food Basics should serve as a wake-up call that something is seriously wrong with the way we approach food.

Other symptoms include: sprawl (i.e. loss of farmland), the decline of the family farm, food-based health problems, environmental damage from pesticides, and pollution from the long-distance transportation of food and mountains of municipal garbage (specifically food and food packaging).

Taken individually these problems seem insurmountable. Increasingly, communities are realizing that all these issues are symptoms of deep-rooted problems in the food system.

To find solutions, it is vital for communities to address these problems in a comprehensive way.

Today, just 10 companies supply more than half the food and drink sold in the United States. Corporate consolidation of the food industry has reduced farmers to less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, and because of centralized production and distribution, food now travels on average 1,500 to 2,500 miles from farm to plate in the United States.

Such a sprawling food system perpetually invites a terrorist attack.

Consider the recent remarks of Tommy Thompson, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who said he worries about a terrorist attack on our food supply about "every single night."

Perhaps even more troubling is our food system's heavy reliance on non-renewable energy sources.

From farm to plate, a typical food item may embody input energy between four and 100 times its food energy. Modern industrial agriculture is energy-intensive in every respect.

Tractors and other farm machinery burn diesel fuel or gasoline. Nitrogen fertilizers are produced from natural gas. Pesticides and herbicides are synthesized from oil. Seeds, chemicals, and crops are transported long distances by truck. And foods are often cooked with natural gas and packaged in oil- derived plastics before reaching the consumer.

This energy deficit can only be maintained during the temporary availability of non-renewable fossil fuels.

A dynamic community food system integrates sustainable food production, processing, distribution, and consumption to enhance environmental, economic, social, and nutritional health.

The food system has a powerful impact on our overall quality of life.

In addition to the health of individuals, the food system is a major aspect of the local economy. It impacts local land use and transportation, it affects solid waste problems, and it influences the quality of local water, air, and soil.

The food system is especially important to the poor, for they pay a higher proportion of their incomes for food.

Ohioans spend 13.7 percent of their budget on food but little of this money stays in the local or regional economy. This November, a two-day northwest Ohio "food system congress" will be held to explore how we can retain some of the billions of dollars spent in our region on food while enhancing public health and the environment.

Food system planning is an essential element of a sensible regional approach. Preservation of a thriving agricultural economy and urban revitalization are interconnected.

Businesses considering investment in our region realize that the health of their workforce has real bottom line implications. Improving the health of our population can positively impact our local economy.

Significant long-term health-care costs are associated with hunger, poor nutrition, and unsafe foods.

Sixty percent of Lucas County residents are obese or overweight. Although hunger is still a reality for many living in poverty, obesity is now a greater threat to health and well being than hunger.

Another major problem aggravated by our current food system is waste. A recent study by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources found that food is 15 percent of the total landfill waste. Intelligent waste management is crucial for our region.

Our flat topography and relatively slow surface and subsurface drainage, coupled with water tables at or near the surface, put Toledo at a high risk for ground water pollution from landfills in the metropolitan area. A great deal of food waste could easily become an input for agricultural enterprises as compost.

Some will object that our region lacks the natural advantages to compete in the agricultural arena. But it is important to understand that California (the nation's primary producer of fresh fruits and vegetables) diverts water from several states and Canada.

As the water and energy crises intensify, food from distant sources will become less viable.

Furthermore, produce destined for distant consumption is harvested long before it's ripe so that it will appear fresh at the time it's sold.

Most vitamins increase in concentration with the increasing ripeness of food, reaching their maximum concentration when a fruit or vegetable is fully ripe.

As soon as plants are harvested, fruits and vegetables start losing their vitamins because of enzymatic decomposition and oxidation.

Thus, fresh, locally grown foods have inherent nutritional advantages.

Our region has a diverse array of sustainable agricultural endeavors including production of fresh fruits and vegetables, orchards, wineries, food processing, livestock production, dairies, apiaries, greenhouses, and municipal composting.

Note that I am referring to family farms, not mega-farms (a la Buckeye Egg), whose horrible environmental and labor records require no elaboration here. Our region has all of the competitive advantages necessary for a thriving food system: an abundance of water, farmland (if it is preserved), a favorable climate, and a history of food and floral production.

Today, two of Toledo's community development corporations are partnering with Toledo GROWs - which is Toledo Botanical Garden's principal outreach program - to create a cutting edge greenhouse facility on a former brownfield site. Such a site would provide training in cutting edge food production modes and propagate the next wave of green entrepreneurs.

We still possess the ingenuity and resources to reinvent our food system and in so doing revitalize our economy, environment, and community.

Michael Szuberla is director of Toledo GROWS, the community gardening outreach program of the Toledo Botanical Garden and chairman of the Lake Erie West Foodshed Network.

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