Local Bounties, Sustainable Harvests

Buy locally, impact globally Today, the most dominant system in place is the industrial food chain, a mechanized process that seeks to get the most yields from crops at the cheapest possible cost to the producer. This translates into neglecting the long-term health of the soil, as well as the health of the consumer, by using various pesticides and fertilizers. 

Buy locally, impact globallySomewhere in all the discussion about global warming, “green living”, and organic produce, the cause for eating locally gets buried and forgotten. Fruits and veggies, be they organic or good ol’ fertilizer and pesticide-fed, are usually from the grocery store. Whether we are perusing the aisle of Whole Foods or Safeway, we come across a wide array of season-less items, from delicacies like berries to resilient tubers and legumes. Year-long, we indulge in supplies to make dishes that were traditionally limited to their growing season: tomato and avocado sandwiches, berry salad, spring greens, and citrus infusions. A few generations ago, you needed to wait for the right season to have access to particular produce. A few generations before that, you couldn’t get it regardless of the season, because it depended on the soil and climate of your region. Now, there are few limitations placed on our consumption as global trade patterns, markets, and improved technologies match the demands of our wildest imaginations. You may ask at this point, “Where’s the problem? I have what I want to eat, when I want it.” Can’t it be that simple?

When it comes to eating, there are many hidden factors to consider. Let’s start with the most basic purpose of eating from an Islamic stance. Our bodies are not our own to damage; they’re an amanah (loan) from Allah, and we are charged with taking care of them to the best of our ability. Fresh fruits and veggies are a part of a good diet, and Allah has created wide varieties that grow specific to various climates and seasons. We plant them, wait for them to ripen, and then harvest. This simplified model has many more layers to it: what do crops need to succeed, and how to they get to the consumer?

Today, the most dominant system in place is the industrial food chain, a mechanized process that seeks to get the most yields from crops at the cheapest possible cost to the producer. This translates into neglecting the long-term health of the soil, as well as the health of the consumer, by using various pesticides and fertilizers. According to Michal Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), the petrochemicals that are so essential to this process are in fact remnants of surplus WWII weaponry. This ironic twist illustrates the departure of food as survival, and food as pure profit, as giant conglomerate owners such as ADM and Cargill buy out various small farmers, and dictate what will be grown. As Pollan discovers in his research, soy and corn are the two easiest crops to grow, and it is little wonder that they are converted into various by-products like high fructose corn syrup. In this way, corn finds its way into almost every meal we eat, from beef to bread to soda and juice.

If I have gone off on a tangent, forgive me and hold on as I steer back to the original topic. I must say that this is a topic of great importance to every nation, and that each of the points deserve to be explained in more detail (stay tunes for later editions). For now, this brief run-down will have to suffice as an introduction to the problems and solutions with what we eat. What I’ve tried to illustrate so far is that the food we eat daily and take for granted is the product of a toxic and unfair system that uses up left-over chemicals the way Grandma uses scraps of leftovers for soup. Except in this case, the only thing getting richer is the conglomerate’s pocket, not the taste. In the meantime, we’re unknowingly ingesting chemicals that we would otherwise never associate with food, and would try to avoid.

That’s where organics come in: many assume that the existence of chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joes relieves us of the above-mentioned problems. And so we go back to perusing the Whole Foods aisles: ever notice that you can find the same out-of-season produce there that you find in a regular store? Aren’t asparaguses for April, blueberries for June, and apples for October? If you were to try and grow these items yourself, you would quickly discover that this is the case. Quicker still, we may deduce that these luscious gems of the garden are not local, and were shipped hundreds of miles to get to us. The problem with this, regardless of whether or not pesticides and fertilizers were used, is the mileage itself. Any “global warming” advocate would tell you to reduce your driving as much as possible to reduce the carbon emissions. Imagine the quantity of fossil fuels required to deliver our food. Not only does this defeat the purpose of going organic, it is also extremely insecure as a way to feed an entire nation. This inefficient model, or rather, temporarily efficient model, is a disservice to any nation, not just America.

If you don’t like how this sounds, there are plenty of things you can do about it. You don’t have to go on a wild crusade to change everyone else. (Although you could certainly join national campaigns to raise awareness – Michael Pollan wrote a 14 page letter to the president with ideas and advice.) You can get in touch with local farmers markets to support small local farmers who often use minimal quantities of petrochemical, join a community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) cooperative, or join with members of your own community if you don’t find one that exists near you.

Eating out of season and out of region has become the mainstream food culture for most of us, so it is very difficult to suddenly go colonial style and try to re-create the local harvest rhythm. But it is doable, especially if we begin with baby steps, like trying to locate something that does grow locally and supporting it, whether it is coffee or potatoes. We can also find inspiration in the diets and farming habits of the original inhabitants of the land, taking cues by observing what plants are native to a particular region. These suggestions are not for idealistic pansies; they can work for families today like they did hundreds of years before us. As Khalif-Allah, we are charged with being aware of the consequences of our consumption. Like anything else that we care about, we can make a dent in our toxic food system but working together, and making the best intention to take care of ourselves and our resources.


Finding Local Food

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, 2007

Show More

Related Articles

  • Ali A.

    Thank you for writing once again a very insightful piece. You write quite persuasively. However, while reading this piece I felt that the pros and cons of eating local food and eating organic need to be analytically separated in order to evaluate the argument better.

    Eating year round the food which may not be in season damages body? Not sure if you were making that argument, but you started something on that line when you mentioned that our bodies are amanah in the second para. But then you moved on to another argument that basically supported eating organic food and not necessarily eating local. The two are analytically different issues. Because it is (now) possible to consume organic food which may be imported from another part of the world (and may not be part of the local variety and/or in season) or taken out of freezer (stored several months ago). Now, is eating that organic food (which is not local) bad for body in the physical sense? How do we know that? Is it in spiritual sense – perhaps, yes… if nothing else, at least with the human and environmental cost attached to it (in terms of exploitation of human labor and resources by big corporations).

    Another point was about the consequences on the environment. Can eating local help? I think to some extent in some cases. But in areas that are water stressed, eating local may be more resource intensive, costly, and less efficient. Moreover, areas with high population density may not be able to sustain themselves with just local production. (One can for sure argue that we should not have large urban areas in the first place. I am sympathetic to that argument. But in terms of dealing with the current reality that idea may not be very practical.). In consideration of these two issues, at some places transportation (food-miles) may be a more affordable expense (esp. when we can transport large numbers of goods on the same ride) than producing major quantities of food locally.

    The third point was about industrial food chain and global markets. I would agree with you that simply eating organic won’t solve the problems – for example, that of eradication of bio-diversity and exploitation of other people’s resources. Eating local would help to some extent.

    It should also be noted that according to one analysis food production process is more environmentally costly than food transportation, and if average Americans replace 1/7 of their meat consumption with vegetables, it can minimize environmental cost equivalent to that which can be obtained through maximum localization.

    Some people want to make it an argument about “food miles vs. food choices”. I think we can incorporate all of these good ideas into our lifestyle – as we encourage eating local and organic (wherever it’s realistically possible), we should also encourage cutting down on meat consumption.

    Some like Raj Patel also emphasize that a lot of food related problems (particularly, food shortages) are connected to the distribution (global food markets) and not as much with the production itself. I feel that the problem is equally connected to demand and production (the demand for meat, among other things). To address both of these causes, we need radical changes. Given that we are at the tipping point of many environmental, economic, and social crises, taking small steps with eating organic food, recycling, etc. won’t do too much. What we need is a fundamental re-vision of our lifestyle, cultural taste, consumption patterns, and our outlook of the world. Some may say that it is too radical or idealistic. The answer is that if we are really cognizant of the extent of those crises we really do not have any other choice but to be that “radical”.

  • abdullah

    I have always believed that the concept of “halal food” extends beyond the obvious slaughtering issues. In fact, “halal food” should be a lifestyle which includes fair trade. Muslims should make sure that the food being consumed came from a “just means”
    I believe Certified Fair Trade Organization does a great job of that: http://www.transfairusa.org/

  • Sabira

    Salams brother,

    You did a fantastic job of breaking down the general topic that I introduced. Inshallah, in the upcoming articles I plan on focusing on a specific issue within the food theme. My intention was to give a cursory introduction. The various sub themes are overwhelming, especially when we begin to weigh our choices and possibilities.

    My current understanding is that we should try to eat locally, organically, and fair trade whenever possible.

    When that is not an option, we should try to eat local, which helps to counteract this impersonal, profit-driven, industrialized food machine that uses means to produce and transport our food to us that hurt our bodies, hurt the environment, disrespect the resources Allah gave us, and distance us from the natural rhythms that Allah put in place to guide us and help us.

    I started talking about organics b/c “organic agriculture” was supposed to fight the mechanized approach to agriculture by using sustainable methods, like not introducing more toxins into the environment, would not strain the earth like monocultures do. But they, too, lost sight of the big picture by going to far-away places to bring us our food, which means a huge carbon footprint. Now, I’m not against world trade, but I do think food that food grown closer to our homes has to sit in a truck for a shorter period of time (smaller carbon footprint), and is fresher (healthier for us).

    I also agree with the food distribution problem: there is MORE THAN ENOUGH food on this planet, but when big corporations come into play, they loose sight of food as food and instead think of it as commodity. That is why food gets dumped into the water instead of being given to the HUNGRY, so that prices don’t go down.

    I absolutely agree that we need a revision in our culture, which is the base for our consumption…You should consider writing an article about it!!

    Thank you for your attention, for raising excellent points, and sharing them with us! 🙂

  • Ali A.

    Salaam Sister Sabira,

    Once again thank you for sharing your insights on this topic, and the followup discussion. Look forward to reading the upcoming articles!

    Writing on what would be the contours of that radical re-vision and ideal culture, as you know, is a very daunting task, and I don’t consider myself qualified enough. But I have worked on some aspects of this issue. Inshallah, I hope to share them here soon enough and benefit from the comments of people like yourself.

    I do want to share one concern though about the choice between suggesting small steps vs. radical revision. Small steps are good to encourage people to do something (‘better than nothing’) and in the process allow them to think about the consequences of their consumerism. But this can also make people passive. Small steps like recycling or signing up for a green peace petitions or subscribing a green magazine or small donations, all demanding not too much, may allow people to feel that they have done what was expected of them, and now they can return to their usual materialistic lifestyle, this time guilt-free! They may still feel sorry when they hear about the exploitation of humans and environment, but that sorrow may not turn into anger – anger to do something about such exploitation, to change. (Of course, there are other factors that also contribute to this kind of passivity. And the political-economy of the NGO industry: Many of them have – like other marketers – turned the environmental cause into a commodity… Comes with easy installment and delivered right to your door, at your convenience!)

    People may also have reservations about the idea of a radical social change in order that it appears too aggressive and impractical.

    Hope you could share your thoughts on this also in your future articles. JazakAllah.