How many of you have been to a local farm market or store? Have you ever thought about the stark contrast between a farmers’ market and a supermarket? What do you prefer? Produce picked this morning or a week ago? Walking around outside seeing the farmers who are growing the food you are buying or pushing a shopping cart through the aisles full of miserable people in a box-store with lacklustre customer service?
The choice is easy for me and after thinking about it, the choice should be easy for everyone. Not only is the food coming from farmers’ markets fresher – which leads to better taste – but also foods grown locally generally have less environmental impact, promote food safety and security, support the local economy and help to create community. There are some difficulties that come along with shopping at farmers’ markets (seasonality and variety of products available) and obviously it is impossible to cut out supermarkets completely, but the benefits of eating and buying local food are definitely worth the bit of extra effort.
Produce found at the farmers’ market is the freshest and tastes the best. The fruits are allowed to ripen in the field and brought directly to you, which means no long-distance shipping or sitting in storage for weeks before you buy it. Not only do supermarkets warehouse produce for long periods of time, but also most of the food is highly processed and the produce that is available is generally grown on large-scale monocrop farms. Industrially farmed food often requires exorbitant amounts of pesticides, hormones and antibiotics, and more often than not, is grown using genetically modified seeds. Additionally, food being shipped long distances is usually waxed or gassed in transit (to promote ripening), which could be potentially harmful to the person ingesting it.
In contrast, local farmers generally go to great lengths to grow the best produce possible. Small-scale farmers have the ability to use alternative methods to combat pests such as integrated pest management – a practice that involves planting several types of crops that help deter pest – or methods such as crop rotation or the use of nitrogen fixing plants to replenishing soil fertility. If pesticides are used, it is in smaller amounts (due to the size of the farm) and generally done in a safer approach compared to crop-dusting used in industrialized farming.
Not only do local markets promote food safety, but also food security. Creating a demand for more locally grown food decreases our dependency on fossil fuels, which will become a necessity because today’s corporate-led industrialized farming is clearly unsustainable. Resources used to grow our food at this level come from finite and increasingly costly energy sources – for growing, watering processing and transporting food in this manner producing one calorie of food costs anywhere from a 7:1 to a 10:1 ratio in energy consumed (McAdam 46).
Food purchased at the supermarket uses large amounts of natural resources and contributes to pollution and excess garbage in our landfills. Supermarket food travels an average of 2,500 km to get to the store; whereas, food found at the local farmers’ market is transported shorter distances, usually less than 300 km, and is grown using methods that minimize the impact on the earth (Farmers’ Market Ontario). Another important natural resource affected by large-scale industrial farming is water. “Agriculture accounts for some 70 percent of water use worldwide and is considered particularly inefficient, returning only about 25 percent of water consumed back into the water table” (McAdam 122) and the water that is returned is contaminated.
An additional benefit from supporting local growers is that you are in turn supporting the local economy and community. Farmers at markets are receiving 100 percent of the revenue from the foods they are selling instead of profits padding the pockets of corporate bigwigs. At farmers’ markets they have the opportunity to determine the value and price of the produce. Supermarkets on the other hand require producers to accept a fairly low selling price to ensure a high profit margin for themselves and make it nearly impossible for local growers to have their product on these shelves due to standardization of size, shape and quality, removing what I see as the authenticity of freshly grown produce (McAdam 82). Shopping local becomes more about the atmosphere and surroundings at the market and less about the fast-paced, in-and-out trip to the store. It allows you the chance to connect with your community, plus you get to have face-to-face interaction with those who are growing your food.
As I mentioned earlier, shopping at farmers markets does not come without difficulties. They are often held at inconvenient times, or in obscure locations, seasonality poses issues of diversity and many people assume that the costs are significantly higher (and sometimes they actually are), but costs incurred cannot be simply linked to monetary means. We have to address the costs on all levels, environmental, health, local economy, social and budget.
Farmers’ markets are a great way to buy and eat local but if they are not available, there are other options. Programs such as Community Supported Agriculture, where you pay an initial investment and receive a season of weekly boxes of assorted fruits and vegetables or SPIN farming, where a farmer turns your unused backyard into an urban farm or market garden, generally in return for a portion of the harvest, are both alternative means to shopping at supermarkets for produce.
The importance and benefits of supporting local markets will become increasingly more apparent the higher fuel prices climb. The dependence our food system has created on cheap fossil fuel is unsustainable and the disconnection it creates between society and the source of our food is a shame. So next time you run to the supermarket ask yourself this, what is the real cost of those out of season raspberries transported from California? Or the bananas flown over 6,500 km from Ecuador? Think about the power your hard earned money has and use it instead to support sustainability, not degradation.
An essay by Lisa Balkenhol
Farmers’ Market Ontario. The Benefits of Shopping at the Farmers’ Market. MyMarket. 2008. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.my-market.ca.
McAdam, Rhona. Digging the City: An Urban Agriculture Manifesto. Rocky Mountain Books. Toronto, Canada. 2012. Print.