Monday, August 18, 2008

Toastmasters Speech #2- "Food Safety, With Benefits"

This is a variation of an earlier post, streamlined for speech delivery and to fit the assignment. The assignment for the second speech is organization. I'd love to get input on it.

Are tomatoes safe to eat yet? Which peppers can we eat?

These are not unreasonable questions about our latest food dilemma, referring to the latest salmonella scare with the tomatoes or the peppers, but they aren't even close to answering the questions about the pickle we're in.

I contend the question shouldn’t be when or which; it should be why. And not an ordinary why, but a probing, brass-tacks, root-of-the-issue why.

I’m going to take the long view, rather than delve into the many theories and results of the sleuthing that have been reported on ad nauseam. Our media tends to cover the minutiae, but they never talk about the big picture. And the big picture is: Our food system is broken. That’s why our tomatoes and peppers are poisoned. Industrial agriculture is, plain and simple, not the way we should be growing vegetables. It’s a waste of fuel, a waste of water; it’s destroying our soil and draining our aquifers dry.

True fact: vegetables are 90% water. Water is heavy. Heavy stuff is expensive to move. We’re spending $5.00 per gallon plus now on diesel for refrigerated tractor-trailers to send little bags of water an average of 1400 miles across the US so folks can have tasteless, mealy tomatoes or bland strawberries year ‘round. But there’s more: these vegetables are mainly grown in California, with Colorado River water. Southern California is actually a semi-arid desert, not a food-growing oasis. Growing industrial quantities of vegetables in California is only made possible by stealing vast amounts of water from the Colorado River system. By the time the Colorado reaches its delta, there isn’t any water left. And it’s all for the sake of having out-of-season, tasteless vegetables, year round- and these are vegetables selected by growers for their abilities to withstand shipping- as you might have noticed, they are definitely not selected for their taste.

Ok, so here’s the rundown-- We’re transporting little bags of endangered river water from a region of the country that cannot afford to give up water, with fuel we can't pay for anymore. Like the great Wendell Berry said, though I’m paraphrasing- we took a system that wasn’t broken, and broke it.

But there are several solutions to this issue- the solutions are home gardening, farmer’s markets, and CSAs.

Home gardening really could be a major part of the solution. Now, of course, it can't take the place of all crops, especially calorie crops like grains (which are not typically grown in CA anyway). But think of all those little water bags in your grocery store- tomatoes, lettuces, leafy greens, beans, potatoes, onions, garlic, sweet corn, cabbages, herbs- which can all be grown on a surprisingly small plot of land.

So what I'm asking is this: I’m asking you to consider tearing up your grass. On the avarage American lawn, you can easily lay in three seasons' worth of vegetables and have plenty left over to preserve or pickle for winter. You can take this further if you like- If you set up a beehive in the corner of the yard to pollinate your own crops, you can also harvest your own honey- another very heavy product to transport-- and, bonus-- it’s been recently discovered that keeping home hives just might help with our ongoing global bee crisis. And there’s more: If you keep a few chickens, their droppings will enrich the soil. Chickens also work wonders in the bug control department, will happily eat all of your kitchen scraps, and home-grown eggs are every bit as fabulous as home-grown tomatoes.And-- by growing some of your own food, you also get a lot of exercise, you get to turn off the TV, and maybe you can have a conversation with the family or your neighbors. And you get to eat the best food that money can't buy.

There are other options for local and seasonal food, too, if you don’t have a yard or you can’t garden. Instead of going to the grocery store, do your food shopping at the Farmer’s Market, or join a CSA. There are Farmer’s Markets cropping up all over Detroit metro, and many sell food grown right in the city.CSAs are the new wave in the local food movement. CSA stands for community supported agriculture. CSAs operate very simply: They grow many different vegetable crops, and as the weeks in the growing season progress, CSA members pick up a box of whatever crop has come up that week. Some CSAs sell their own bread, meat, milk, and eggs, too. CSAs usually practice organic farming, so you don't have to worry about pesticides and chemicals on your food. The food is always local and seasonal; you get to know your very own local farmer, and get to know other families that support your farmer. Most CSAs will even let you to work in the field, to lower your membership price.

So how does eating locally make food safer? Industrial agriculture grows many tons of food and the food has many stops along the way. Each stop along the way is an opportunity for contamination. The food is then sent to many thousands of local distribution sites all across the US, and then on to stores. That’s why multiple states have to issue recalls, and the recalls are so confusing. Local food makes far fewer stops- as few as just one- and if there does happen to be a rare contamination, and it is very rare indeed, it stays quite local and is much easier to trace.

Of course, having all this in-season, fresh food around means that you’ll have to cook it. But I promise you-- home-cooked, in-season food, made with simple, super-fresh ingredients, is one of the great pleasures of life. Learning to cook with whatever happens to be in season is easy and fun, and gives you a whole new appreciation for the natural cycles of seasonal food: the 2 months of spring lettuce, and the 2 weeks of blueberries and cherries, and the 6 weeks of tomatoes. So give it a shot. Start small. Try it next year with just one tomato plant and a single pot of basil. You’ll probably get hooked. And you’ll never again have to worry if the tomatoes or peppers are safe to eat.


Ed said...

Uh, you know chicken droppings 'cause salmonella, right?

ilex said...

Ed, salmonella contamination from a very small flock of free-range backyard birds is highly unlikely if ordinary safety measures are taken in food prep. Salmonella contamination is far more likely to occur in industrial farming methods.

Rabbits' Guy said...

Well, OK ... I think the organization is pretty good and flows well from point to point. Good and timely topic. Hopefully a bunch of A and P guys aren't in the audience!

Because it has to be a rather short speech, there are some issues that get left hanging, like how nice an orange or some watermelon is in the winter in Michigan! I can forsee some questions needing answering afterwards.

Also, I think the start, about safe food and to the recent recalls, does not proceed well into your description of the current food producing and transporting methods. No doubt the salmonella issues could be solved and still produce food like we do. But the inefficiencies, the poor use of the land, and the tastelessness can't, as you note!

Have you seen the most recent Nat. Geographic? About Soil?

Carry On!

PS, one speechmaker's motto ... Tell 'em wht you are going to tell 'em. Tell 'em. Tell 'em what you told 'em!

ilex said...

Those are really excellent points, rabbit saint. I'm not happy yet with the flow, even in rewrite. I really appreciate your input.