From Farm to Plate: What Path Does Our Food Really Take?
Posted by Sarah G
These days, major food retailers want nothing more than to convince the us that the produce lining their shelves is not only tasty and healthful, but produced under ethical conditions, without exploitation. In recent years Wal-Mart – the current world leader in food purchasing and sales – has launched initiatives aimed at increasing the availability of fresh, local produce in their stores, and trendy retailers like Whole Foods have us convinced that we're doing the best thing for our health by crowding their aisles – but how much of what they say is true? Where does the produce on their shelves really come from – and how is it affected by it's journey from farm to plate?
Unsurprisingly, 50% of all imported fresh and frozen produce in the United States is shipped from Mexico. Though Canada and the United States both have strict laws regarding imported produce, retailers are expected to conduct their own inspections of the supply farms. A 2014 LA Times investigation into the biggest agricultural businesses and farms in Mexico discovered that workers endure exploitation, and dangerous working conditions. One such farm, Agricola San Emilio, has been proven to supply or have supplied Wal-Mart, Safeway, and Subway, among others. Though Wal-Mart publicly denied receiving shipments from Agricola San Emilio, camp workers, supervisors, and even executives from wholesalers up the chain all stated that Wal-Mart inspectors visited the farm regularly.
Behind the barbed wire fence of Agricola San Emilio, a 370 acre farm 20 miles west of Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa, Mexico, impoverished aboriginal workers are housed in concrete and corrugated metal sheds with no beds or bathrooms. Provided with only meager rations, workers rise at 6 and work through the day, forbidden from returning to their shacks until 9pm each evening. Workers make between $8 and $12 per day, and although Mexican law states that workers must be paid at the end of each week, wages are often withheld until the end of the growing season, if they are paid at all. Pesticide poisoning is common, not only among workers but also among locals, whose water supply is poisoned by pesticide runoff from the nearby farms. An emergency clinic located in nearby Villa Juarez estimates treating between 50 to 80 cases of pesticide poisoning each week.
The harmful side effects of pesticide use extend far beyond farm perimeters. As plants grow, they absorb particles from their surrounding environment, including the pesticides sprayed onto them. Pesticide particles become trapped inside the fruit, meaning that no amount of washing will get rid of them. And unfortunately, more than 17 pesticides that do not meet health standards in the United States, are allowed under Mexican law. A seemingly simple way to circumvent the issue of pesticides is to buy organic, and every major health authority in the world encourages us to do so, but unfortunately even organic produce can't escape the nutrient loss caused by the standard journey from farm to grocery store.
To ensure that produce doesn't arrive in stores already rotten, workers harvest the plants up to 21 days before the fruit is ripe. Unfortunately, it is the ripening process that creates most of the nutritive content of the fruit or vegetable. In nature, fruit is created as a storage of back-up nutrients so that the seeds of the plant will have enough food to grow, even if the fruit is separated from the plant. Cutting the ripening process short reduces the plants nutritive value by up to 40%. Furthermore, once the plant is separated from it's root source, it immediately begins to break down it's stored nutrients as energy for transpiration. A zucchini, for example, will lose 75% of it's vitamin C content within the first 7 days after being harvested!
What can we do, then, to ensure we get the best produce possible? Of course the best option will always be: GROW IT YOURSELF! Now that the Vertical Organic Garden can save you money on your produce, why not grow your own gorgeous organic garden in your own home? If at-home gardening is absolutely not an option, buying local and organic is a fantastic way to get optimal nutrition while supporting your community, instead of profit-hungry mega-farms. When shopping at the grocery store, try to buy produce that was grown nearby – the produce stickers will always at least indicate the country of origin. The most important thing however, is simply increasing public awareness. So go ahead! Spread the word, and tell your friends and family where our food really comes from.