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Saturday, July 28, 2007 | Since its inception in 1971, the Ocean Beach People’s Organic Food Market has become an $11 million-a-year coop that serves 8,000 members. Long before recent food scares in China, the People’s was serving up an all-organic, all-vegetarian menu. Across the country, the local food movement is growing. That’s the idea that buying local food has a smaller environmental footprint than food that’s shipped from thousands of miles away. With that in mind, we sat down with Nancy Casady, the coop’s general manager, to talk about sustainable food, whether the local movement is a fad and why she thinks apples from New Zealand are an unnecessary indulgence.

I read something today and I wanted your reaction: “It’s a dilemma faced by every environmentalist. We know it’s more effective to focus on the positive when talking about environmental crises, but we consistently find ourselves stressing sacrifice and impending chaos instead.”

I don’t know who said it was more effective to focus on the positive. You can look at a lot of examples, people are attracted to the drama, to the negative. Political campaigning is one example. I think in a world where we’re very fast-paced, it’s almost a necessity to get people’s attention by being alarmed. So I don’t buy that it’s more effective to somehow always be seeking the silver lining. When we’re about to go over the cliff, it’s really important for someone to notice that.

Are we about to go over?

I don’t know how close we are, but we’re headed in that direction and it definitely seems like we’re quickening the pace. There are some good things happening. The work that’s been done internationally to draw attention to some of the issues that Americans have been slow to come to is part of it. I detect among young people a concern for the global community — an identification of the world as a smaller place than among people of my generation. I think that’s a hopeful sign. I believe we do have solutions to the problems that are facing us. Perhaps even we’re reaching the tipping point where enough of us are going to demand change so that it happens.

Turning that notion to food. Can you imagine or describe a sustainable food future?

A sustainable food future as far as I’m concerned would be one in which we did a lot more whole food eating, so we did a lot less processed and packaged foods. It would be one in which we ate seasonally, and certainly one in which we ate a lot less flesh. Local food is the big buzz word. I think that’s one thing we need to look at — how many miles does an apple travel before it gets put in your lunch box? But the bigger issue really is how is the food produced? If we’re interested in living more lightly on the land and if we have economic imperatives that require us to do that, we’re going to have to look at a much more plant-based diet. And one that is more seasonal and requires some effort on our part to prepare. If you put the same amount of water to grow corn to feed cows — you could take that same equation and feed something like 10 times more people by just giving the people the corn directly.

If I’m going to eat locally in San Diego, what do I have to sacrifice?

You probably won’t be eating a lot of rice. In San Diego the definition of local could go as far as the Central Valley, the Imperial Valley, the Tijuana region. We’re pretty fortunate here. But mostly we’re going to have to give up strawberries in January. We’re going to have to give up the idea that we can have whatever we want whenever we want. We’re going to have to live much more in concert with our environment. I don’t think you can sustain yourself with just local food, because you wouldn’t be able to have chocolate. And no coffee. That would not be OK. But we can certainly reduce our impacts hugely if we were just more conscious about what was available to us in season.

When I think of indulgent, I think of eating a lot of junk food. For you, it might be eating an apple from New Zealand?

Exactly.

Do you see benefits to a food-mileage labeling system?

I do. We in our business identify all of our produce by the location of the farm. It really allows the consumer to make an educated buying decision. As the notion gets out there that there is such a thing as transportation costs added into an apple from New Zealand or a potato from China, that’s helpful to get people to be directed to things that may be easier on their budget and their health.

Is there a limit at which you say: We’re not going to sell something from a certain distance away?

We haven’t adopted that. We consider our food shed 150 miles. We put our finger on the map and draw a circle. We’re trying to educate our consumers by giving them as much information as possible. So they can look at the difference between pine nuts from Afghanistan or walnuts from Northern California. Pesto, by the way, can be made with walnuts.

Do you see people growing more aware as a result of the China food scares?

The good news about our customer base, they’ve already self-selected to be more conscious about what they’re eating. But we represent only about 3 percent of the population that eats out of a health foods store. So although our industry is the fastest growing channel in the food business — organics — it’s still going from 1.5 percent to 3 percent, not moving into the 50-60 percent range. [But now] it’s a part of the common culture, even though people are still predominantly making their choices out of conventional stores.

Do you see a point at which organic becomes the mainstream and conventional farming becomes the niche?

In my dreams, I see it. I just came back from a tour of the Midwest, and there are a lot of farmers that are not happy with the chemical-based growing systems. They’re not seeing the promise of the technology that they expected. … I think that milk is part of the gateway into the conversation. As we treat cows in these feedlots, and every problem is treated with an antibiotic, it turns out that humans … have gotten used to these high levels of additives. Milk is like that basic American commodity, like apple pie. We have been practicing agricultural methods that are not sustainable. There’s always been this promise that if we go down the corporate path, we’re going to seize the world and be prosperous beyond belief. But if we just assume we can arrogantly disregard [historical farming] methods and have the magical chemical answer, it can wreak havoc. In our store, we’re anxious about the genetically engineered philosophy. This is pretty arrogant when you consider we’re taking a whole human population as an experimental group.

Why do you choose the word arrogant?

When you get humans, who are kind of puny in the scheme of things — we don’t have the track record of even the cockroaches. And we think we can improve on nature. That we can take what’s taken millenniums to get here and try to get it down to this chromosome and that. To me, it’s just not honoring the complexity and history of life on our planet.

The genetically engineered imperative — this idea that you can take a pharmaceutical and insert it into rice and cure diarrhea or put a fish gene into a potato so it can sit on the shelf for six weeks — there’s not too much regard for what could go amiss. It reminds me of when the nuclear power industry was starting. There was a kind of a blind eye to the fact that we were working with isotopes that were going to last for hundreds of thousands of years. And they were in the hands of mere mortals. I worry that I live down wind of San Onofre, and I worry that my corn, soybeans and canola all have genes in them that I don’t know what they do.

To play devil’s advocate, I can imagine someone saying: I’ve eaten conventionally farmed food all my life and I’m 80 years old and doing fine.

They probably got started with something basic that helped them achieve 80 years. … But when you’re looking at one in three of us getting [cancer], I’m happy that you got to 80 years but I’m not sure my grandchildren are going to.

— Interview by ROB DAVIS

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