When I was a girl, my mother used to buy New Dundee butter from Zehrs. In the winter the butter was a pale yellow. In the summer it was a yellowy creamy colour. The taste was different too. I preferred the summer butter. The butter looked and tasted different because in the summer, the local dairy cows ate grass instead of the feed of the winter. New Dundee Dairy with its beautiful tasting butter is long gone. All butter now tastes like winter butter as dairy cows live inside.
The Grand River has a few dead spots where algae use up all the oxygen needed by plants and fish and there is a plume of algae coming out of the mouth of the river as it enters Lake Erie.
How do these two things even relate and what does it have to do with Big Oil? Glad you asked.
I am reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, that my daughter gave me for my birthday.
Pollan follows American food from corn in Iowa to a MacDonald’s eaten in a car driving in California.
The hybrid corn creates huge yields (Yet strangely, farmers are losing money, see the book). Part of that yield is caused by artificial fertilizers. Nitrogen helps plants grow but until humans learned how to fix the nitrogen in the atmosphere to create artificial fertilizer, nitrogen was pretty much a closed system with some made by the bacteria growing with soybeans or already in the soil or manure or plants. All energy came originally from the sun through plants. Now that energy comes from oil (yes I know oil is from million year old plants but it can run out vs. the sun has a few billion years left)
Like the poem, “The House that Jack Built” (this is the cat that ate the mouse that ate the grain that lived in the house that Jack built), oil is at the beginning of a long food chain. Oil is used to make the nitrogen fertilizer that feeds the hybrid corn that feeds the cows (pigs and chickens) now in huge feedlots or factory farms (versus our local Waterloo county mixed farms with different crops and animals or smaller operations) that go to the slaughterhouses that make the hamburger from cows all over American that make the boxed patties and BBQ chickens that are eaten by us. This chain is heavily subsidized by the American Government but not in a good way.
In Canada, we still have egg and milk marketing boards and the wheat marketing board that protect the farmers from the ups and down of weather. Not so for beef and hogs as shown with the problems caused by the mad cow scares that crippled our beef industry. (Canadian steers end up in American feedlots)
Including cost of creating pesticides, driving tractors, cost of driving corn to terminals and feedlots, it costs more than a calorie of fossil fuel to produce a calorie of food. Before chemical fertilizer, one calorie of energy created two calories of food.
This food chain uses a tremendous amount of cheap oil to transport it all over North America and the world.
The artificial fertilizers are so good that the excess that runs into the Grand River feeds algae that create the dead zones. Nitrates from fertilizers are the biggest problem in the Grand, not sewage.
The sad Gulf of Mexico that is now being destroyed by the BP oil spill already had a large dead zone caused indirectly by oil. The excess artificial fertilizer from the corn farms in the US mid-west travels down the Mississippi and the nitrates and nitrites create a large dead zone in the gulf.
So eating local food is more than how far it travels from the slaughterhouse or fields of Mexico or Peru or the US. It is also about using our local smaller mixed farms and finding organic farms that don’t use artificial fertilizers to grow monoculture corn fields. This is a huge topic, for example,did you know that most of the small abattoirs (slaughterhouses )in Ontario are gone. It’s not just the disappearance of local creameries.
And despite what the supporters of business as usual will tell you, local and organic food isn’t about any difference in taste or driving to the farmers’ market or whether there are spoiled peaches in the basket (The lady at the Martin’s stall was so offended by that. Mmm. Martin apples),it’s about whether we want to be dependent on oil that destroys the ocean or a monoculture agriculture based on cheap GMO or hybrid corn that creates an unhealthy diet and climate change. Organic isn’t about taste it’s about eliminating pesticides and artificial fertilizers. Yes the yield is reduced but the environment improves.
The good news? A visit to St. Jacobs market, internet search and a glance at www.foodlink.ca shows that local producers are popping up all over Waterloo Region and Perth County with organic or local veggies, fruit, meat, cheese and butter. Go local.