Photo: Bigger isn't always better--the health benefits of small-scale, local farms

What kind of impact does buying locally have on our health? The answer: a big one! (Credit: Natalie Maynor)

By Krista Daniszewski, DSF Volunteer

We are indeed much more than what we eat, but what we eat can nevertheless help us to be much more than what we are. — Adelle Davis

Following the convenience-food craze of the '90s, the last decade has seen a new, local food movement gaining a great deal of momentum. People have begun to recognize the numerous environmental and economic benefits of fresh eats grown nearby. But what kind of impact does buying locally have on our health? The answer: a big one!

Here are the top health reasons to "get local":

It's more nutritious

In the larger, globalized food system, fruits and vegetables are bred for growth rate, yield, and transportability over nutrition and taste. Each strain offers a different taste and appearance, and varying mineral, vitamin, and phytochemical content. That perfectly round, red tomato on the grocery store shelf is but one of 7,500 varieties!

Food produced for a local market is picked at the peak of ripeness and contains more vitamin C and other nutrients than what's shipped prematurely to ripen during transport. Studies show that fresh food can lose up to 50 per cent of nutrients three to five days after harvest, which means produce may have lost the majority of what's good for you by the time it hits your dinner table! Buying direct from local farmers helps ensure that key nutrients are retained.

Factory farms really stink

"Factory farm" or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) refers to livestock raised in a dense and confined manner to produce the highest output at the lowest cost. Aside from the ethics of this type of farming—and trust me, I could go on—there are serious health risks associated with it.

Large-scale farms produce a huge quantity of waste in one location, which sits in giant, open-air lagoons until it can be pumped away, releasing noxious gases that produce an almost unbearable stench, contribute to global warming, and can negatively impact human health. People who live in the vicinity report increased occurrences of headaches, excessive coughing, and burning eyes.

These lagoons are also notorious for breaking and leaking waste, contaminating water supplies. Food produced near giant feedlots also faces contamination. Recent incidences of E. coli found on raw spinach and tomatoes were linked to waste run-off from nearby animal farms. Smaller farms produce manure in manageable quantities, so it acts as a valuable fertilizer for crops, and not a hazard.

The natural diet of cows is grass, but since grains such as corn fatten them quickly and require far less land, that's become the feed of choice for large-scale agribusiness. Benefits to grass-fed cows from smaller farms include improved food safety (up to 80 per cent less pathogenic E. coli in their guts than grain-fed animals) and better nutrition (grass-fed beef has a lower fat content, and higher levels of vitamins A and E, and omega-3 fatty acids).

In factory farms, diseases can easily spread between animals. To combat this major problem, low levels of antibiotics are added to the animals' feed, which encourages bacteria to develop a resistance. The U.S. Center for Disease Control states that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are one of its top concerns, noting that people infected by drug-resistant organisms face longer hospital stays and higher risks of death. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that up to 70 per cent of antibiotics used in North America are for non-therapeutic use in animal feed, and many of the antibiotics used in animal agriculture are also used in human medicine.

The spread of disease is greatly minimized by less crowding, so smaller local farms do not need these inputs.

It's less processed

Experts unanimously agree that a diet rich in whole foods—like those found at your local farmers' market—is the best choice. The World Health Organization identified processed food as a key cause of the rise in obesity and chronic diseases worldwide, recommending a diet with less sugar and salt, and more fruits and vegetables. Farmers' markets are bursting with fresh, whole foods that contribute to a healthy diet.

Eating food from nearby, small-scale farms is an excellent way to improve your health while protecting the environment and benefiting the local economy. Make local food a part of your sustainable lifestyle today!

Check out our suggestions for eating for a healthy planet.

August 10, 2011

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Feb 07, 2013
7:45 PM

nice job!!!

Aug 15, 2011
10:51 AM

Thanks, Krista, I was going to mention that pesticide “rule of thumb” but I didn’t have any info to back it up. Great point about being able to talk to the farmers.

It’s true. We should aspire to the best we can do, not to perfection. Knowledge also comes in handy for solving a problem like, “I’d can my tomatoes for the winter, but I don’t know how, so I’ll just buy them at the store.” I should get on that.

Mmm, winter blueberry muffins…

Aug 14, 2011
3:32 PM

With regards to the expense of organic fruits and vegetables, perhaps a barter arrangement could be worked out with a local farmer. One of our CSAs was offering produce in exchange for labor.

Aug 12, 2011
9:41 AM

Great points, Erika! I couldn’t have said it better myself. If possible, local-organic is the best choice, but it is true that this is not always available. It is also worth mentioning that, though this is not a hard-fast rule, local farms tend to use fewer pesticides than conventional growers. Many small farms employ the more environmentally sensitive Integrated Pest Management techniques which employs a variety of methods (including biological pest control ie. bugs) to combat pests, but the occasional use of pesticides keeps them from being fully certified as organic. The advantage of shopping at the farmer’s market is that you can talk to the farmers themselves and inquire about their growing practices and how they manage pests.
I also think it is important to keep in mind that being environmentally and health conscious is not about always making perfect choices. It is about possessing the knowledge to make informed decisions, and then making small changes (within budget, location, time restrictions) that add up to big change on a larger scale. As a student this past year, my budget limited my food choices, but with creativity and a little extra effort seeking out deals, I managed a lot of great meals! A little planning goes a long way too. For example, blueberries are in season right now, and are a steal at $2.99 a pint (3/4 of a pound) so I am stocking up and freezing batches for winter muffins and smoothies. Easy! I am a strong believer that knowledge is power, and the more information we have, the better equipped we are to make decisions and lifestyle changes that create a lasting impact. No one can be expected to lead a perfectly green lifestyle, but the small changes we make now will help create a healthier future for all.

Aug 11, 2011
10:32 AM

SilenceIsGolden: I hear that dilemma. Author Marion Nestle recommends choosing our food in this order: Local organic, local conventional, non-local organic, non-local conventional. Shipping food long distances pollutes everybody’s air and results in poorer quality food, even if it’s organic. Adequate nutrition is vital to disease prevention. And the fact of the matter is, if we don’t support local agriculture, it will disappear. A compromise to your dilemma would be to choose local non-organic (when the organic isn’t available) in foods that are lower in pesticides.

Aug 10, 2011
6:41 PM

I agree completely with the above post.

My only problem is that for those who are on fixed income, unemployed, subsisting below the poverty line, buying fresh local fruits and veggies is impossible due to the higher cost. Until that issue is addressed, you will have many canadians city dwellers having to resort to buying the imports that are cheaper. Even though they fully realise that they are not better nutritionally. When you have 30$ for groceries for the month, the first thing that goes off the shopping list is fresh fruits and veggies sadly enough. I know, I’m part of the group.

Aug 10, 2011
12:50 PM

Now if only I wouldn’t have to choose so often between organic OR local food. I wish you would’ve addressed that dilemma. I see no reason why local non-organic food should get a preference — when actually we are much more affected by non-organic local food since all the pesticides go in OUR water.

A take on that in a future article would be much appreciated! :-)

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