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Food for thought over the holidays

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: December 3, 2008 9:44 p.m.
Updated: December 4, 2008 4:55 a.m.
As we gather with friends and families over the holidays to enjoy the abundance and variety of food our country offers, perhaps we might want to give some thought to how that food is produced.

We can make many choices that will not only please our palates, but will help our world.

Buying locally is perhaps the easiest choice. With two farmers' markets conveniently located in our community - at College of the Canyons on Sunday morning and in Newhall on Thursday afternoon - getting fresh, local fruits and vegetables has become an enjoyable routine for many of us.

But there is more to buying locally than just fresh produce.

Transporting food from distant locales and keeping it refrigerated uses lots of energy in the form of fuel.

Buying locally reduces those transportation costs and the pollution that goes along with them.

Do you like that scenic drive down Highway 126 through all the farmland in Ventura County? Small local farmers may not be able to raise a large enough crop to sell to supermarket chains. So buying from them at roadside stands encourages nearby family farms to stay in business by providing an outlet for their products.

Then there is the choice of buying organic or non-organic foods. Organic fruits, vegetables, milk and eggs have become easier to get, with even the large supermarket chains regularly offering such products.

But they are more expensive. For instance, a half-gallon of organic milk, free from growth hormones and antibiotics, usually costs a dollar more than a full gallon of milk produced with unwanted byproducts.

But in the end, do we really save that money? Won't the growing tolerance to antibiotics throughout our society, driven in part by the doses given to our livestock, result in higher medical costs?

Are residual amounts of growth hormone given to cows really as harmless as the industry claims?

Part of the reason factory farms must medicate their animals is that they are packed close together. Such tight quarters make the spread of disease easier.

Producing milk organically means that dairy cows cannot be crammed as close together, a humane practice approved by more than 66 percent of California voters who passed Proposition 2 in the recent election. But humane farming costs a little more.

Pesticides applied to our crops not only kill unwanted insects, but often also wipe out a whole ecosystem. Applications to a cranberry bog may silence the frogs and birds along with eliminating the buzz of insects.

When those bogs are drained for harvesting, the water carrying the pesticides is emptied into local streams or rivers, increasing the problems from agricultural runoff.

Organic cranberries may cost twice as much, but we are all bearing the indirect costs of pesticide use to produce the cheaper berries.

Another choice is just the question of eating meat or not eating meat. Eating "high on the food chain" means that grain is raised to feed the cattle that we then eat.

Large quantities of water, pesticides and fertilizers must be used to produce that grain. Then cattle and pigs are often fattened at feed lots where large concentrations of animals create water pollution problems for local communities. Transporting meat of course results in high fuel usage and all the accompanying pollution costs.

One way to easily reduce all these problems is to simply eat less meat. Doctors tell us this is a healthy choice for our hearts, too.

So as we give thanks for our families and friends, and for the abundance before us on our holiday tables, let us make choices that well benefit our loved ones and the world as well.

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Environmentally Speaking" appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmental writers.


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