Author Joan Gussow, photographed in her garden in New York, tells why and how we must move toward local, seasonal, sustainable diets.
PHOTO: MICK HALES
Choose a sustainable diet by buying local farmers meat and produce.
A young neighbor who watered and harvested my garden for a
few days last summer left a message on my answering machine
while I was away. She had read my new book, This
Organic Life, which tells the story of my
quarter-century effort to eat by buying local farmers meat and produce in downstate New
"I was just thinking," she said. "This may be the only time
in history when humans have had complete strangers —
strangers who are badly treated or ignored — growing and
preparing all our food."
One could nitpick her facts, but she has the right idea.
Not even a century ago, most of us had a pretty good idea
where our food came from. Now — if the eaters I speak to
are typical — most people can't identify the origin of
anything they ate yesterday.
And, as my young friend's comment suggests, if we knew
where our food was coming from, if we knew who and what was
involved in getting it to our tables, we would doubtless be
appalled at the evils wrought on our behalf — not only to
strangers, but to the planet and its other living beings.
We might even be scared. Here are a few reasons why we
• The contamination of crops — even organic crops —
with genetically modified organisms, whose long term effect
on our ecosystem is unknown and whose effects on human
health are untested;
• The horrors and cruelties of the hog factories with
their lagoons of waste;
• Meat and poultry plants with their speeded-up
disassembly lines threatening not only the lives and limbs
of the people who work them, but the health of those who
eat the flesh they produce;
• Our growing dependence on perishable foods shipped
to us from poor countries everywhere;
• And most critically, the hemorrhaging of farmers and
farmland from our national landscape. (The latest figures
show that for every farmer under 35 there are five farmers
over 65.) All these portend a future that seems anything
but secure where our food is concerned.
In losing farmers we are losing the capacity to feed
ourselves. A couple of years ago, economist Steven Blank
wrote a book with the ominous title The End of
Agriculture in the American Portfolio (Greenwood
Publishing Group). Blank believes agriculture may move
overseas because investing in it is just not profitable.
I'll say. In 1999 production costs rose 20 percent, and
prices for commodities fell an average of 7 percent. On
average, farmers and ranchers now get 7 percent to 8
percent of food system profit. Who'd invest in that?
As for what that means in the field, consider the potato.
In his brilliantly devastating book Fast Food
Nation (Houghton Mifflin), Eric Schlosser explains
that a few companies control most of the potato market.
Fast food purveyors now buy frozen fries for about 30 cents
a pound, reheat them in oil and sell them (with added
grease) for about $6 a pound. On every $1.50 order of fries
a potato farmer makes 2 cents.
The result was reported in The New York Times last
summer. Under the headline "Misery is Abundant for Potato
Farmers," the story pointed out that it costs a potato
farmer about $5 to produce a 100 pound sack of potatoes,
for which the processors pay him less than $1. What's a
farmer to do? The subhead said it: "Bumper Crops Turned
into Fertilizer." Many farmers plowed their crops under.
When that happened in the Great Depression, it was all over
the papers. Now it hardly makes the news.
In the Northeast, where I live, the loss of farmers is
catastrophic: Cranberry growers have been told to cut
production because a surplus has driven prices too low.
New York State dairyman and orchardists are going out of
business every day. Two years ago, I visited an upstate
dairy where the farmer had earned more for growing one acre
of gourmet potatoes than from a year of dairying. The next
year, lots of upstate dairymen grew gourmet potatoes,
prices dropped and that little stream of hope dried up.
And it wasn't apples my landscape-architect friend went to
buy at the orchard we visited one day. He was buying mature
apple trees for an instant antique orchard, part of the
multimillion-dollar landscaping of a new McMansion. The
trees the farmer sold that afternoon netted him more than a
month of apple selling.
It isn't just New York growers who are in trouble either.
Apple producers everywhere now compete directly with
China's cheap labor. The world's most populous nation, with
little land per capita for food production, has set out to
become apple producer for the world, although growing
apples for export utilizes precious land on which China
should grow food for her people.
Faced with such an ominously changing food landscape, what
can we do?
Almost 30 years ago, I went into the field of nutrition
because I was concerned about what was happening to the
U.S. food supply as the world faced a food and population
crisis. The products appearing on our grocery shelves
seemed increasingly frivolous in a world full of hungry
people. Could we feed everyone, I wondered, without
devastating the environment? Wasn't the array of filly
cereals and juice drinks a shameful distraction from the
real issues? My search for answers to those questions led
me to the - conclusion that our food supply was wasteful
and unsustainable, and the methods we were exporting to
increase food production around the world were likely to
end up making things worse.
So 23 years ago, I published a book, The Feeding
Web, about our role in the global food system. Its
message was that we in this rich country can pull food from
wherever on the planet it's produced, so it looks as if we
can always have everything. The trouble is that
"everything" often is being produced and brought to us at a
true cost that is horrendous: wasted and irreplaceable
groundwater and fossil energy, eroded top soils, polluted
soil, water and air, and so on.
What could be done? Obviously the problems I had identified
were invisible to U.S. eaters, most of whom had no idea
how, where or by whom their food was grown. As a teacher, I
knew how hard it would be to make food production relevant
to eaters who had long ago learned from the abundance of
the supermarkets and the blandishments of advertisers that
they could expect to eat anything any time.
How, I wondered, could U.S. shoppers be made to understand
the need to protect the people and places that grew their
food? How could they be taught to care about farmers in
California, let alone in Ethiopia or Guatemala? I concluded
people had to be helped to unlearn the anything, anywhere,
anytime lessons about food by being taught to eat from
closer to home. Unless the demand end of the food supply
could be changed, we rich consumers would continue to pull
in foods from everywhere, no matter how hungry the rest of
the world became, and no matter how much damage our demand
was doing to our mutual biosphere.
Relocalizing the food system in this way seemed almost
impossible to achieve, but worth trying, given the scary
alternatives. In the early 1980s, I began to suggest to my
colleagues in nutrition that we needed to change the
content, not just the methods, of nutrition education and
move people toward more local, seasonal diets. This radical
idea that we should move away from the overflowing global
supermarket, this marvel of modernity — was judged both
impractical and silly given the convenience and abundance
of the supermarket.
I disagreed with the silly part, but as for impractical, I
wasn't sure. I had begun to talk about local eating with no
clear idea of what a New York diet would taste like when
the ground was frozen. I decided I had to walk my talk and
move toward local, seasonal eating. Because farmer's
markets were few and far between, my husband and I set out
to do it in the only way it could then be done, by
producing it ourselves.
I think I said we intended to "grow our own food," a
formulation that seems remarkably naive in retrospect,
since we only grew fruits and vegetables. But since the
things people worry about most when you talk about eating
locally are fruits and vegetables ("What would I do for
salad in January?") the effort seemed worthwhile.
My goal was not to prove that everyone could grow her own
if she wanted to. My goal was to create a model of what
local farmers could make available if we set out to create
a market for what they could produce. I was trying to model
— and I still am — the sort of eating choices I thought we
all needed to work toward if we were to have a sustainable
food system and world. I wanted to demonstrate that
responsible eating could be done without real pain. And 25
years after I decided to live by my convictions, I know
that it can be. I demonstrate the tastiness of local eating
every time I serve a splendid local meal in the dead of
Having made my point, I obviously would help farmers more
by buying their food than by growing my own, assuming I
could find a local year-round source. But now I'm totally
addicted to growing the vegetables I eat and eating only
the vegetables I grow. To assure myself that this obsession
is rational, I use my own farming crises to teach me
lessons about what farmers go through to feed us all. So I
want to conclude this manifesto with a couple of stories
from my book to illustrate two of the lessons I've learned
in 30-odd years. The first of those lessons is that if we
eat locally, weather will matter a lot more.
Two summers ago, we had a drought in my region, and it got
so dry that rats chomped into every one of my tomatoes as
they ripened. I live on the Hudson, a tidal river with a
wedge of salt flowing upriver under the surface. When
there's no rain going into the river to dilute it, it gets
increasingly salty. Well into my rat crisis I learned from
the mayor, a former fisherman, that the rats couldn't
handle the salt. They were eating my tomatoes for liquid.
So I called Roger, the village's exterminator, who is paid
to keep the riverfront free of rats. He scouts the
community garden out of generosity, and, since I'm right
next door, fits me in, too. In the midst of my despair, I
shared his diagnosis and my own frustration by e-mail with
the community gardeners:
Fellow Gardeners: Just thought you'd like to know that
I haven't harvested a ripe tomato yet. The rats have gotten
them all. Roger came, announced that there were no rat
burrows on either my property or in the community garden,
so he couldn't put poison down the den. He said he would
put out bait stations, but then he said, "Joan, vegetables
and fruits are rats' favorite food. They're going to stand
here. " He looked back and forth between the bait station
and the tomatoes. "And they're going to say 'Chicken or
sirloin? Chicken or sirloin?'' and they're going to choose
So if you find chomped tomatoes, don't, DON'T throw
them on the ground, but remove them to the compost pails.
Pick up and compost all dropped tomatoes. Surround your
plants with netting if you can. Stake them high;
get a little rat doll and stick pins in it, and hope that
Roger's bait is more attractive than he thinks!
And if you ever wonder why rats will outlast
us on the planet, just re member they don't
contribute to global warming by driving to the
store in a humvee, and they love fruits and
— Cheers, Joan
Some of this was probably hysterically bad advice, since if
the tomatoes were left ly ing around the rats might have
finished off the ones they had already started instead of
chomping into fresh ones every night.
The rat crisis ended with a flood. Six and a half inches of
rain in a few hours put my entire yard underwater. This
killed off the tomato plants and a number of other
weather-sensitive crops. Although the sweet potatoes — a
mainstay of my winter diet — looked fine, I learned when I
dug them later in the year that the water had cracked them
open and a third of the crop had rotted, leaving the others
looking like true Frankenfoods.
This was not the first time I had lost a crop to the
weather. Two years earlier we had the wettest year in
history, and I lost two-thirds of the onion crop (100
pounds the year before) and at least a third of the
potatoes. I found myself deeply depressed about the loss of
the crops. What was bothering me? I could buy potatoes and
onions when I needed them. Then it dawned on me: I was
suffering sympathetic angst.
It really didn't matter if my crops failed. I have a market
within walking distance and can afford even their high
prices. But the same could not be said for my fellow
farmers, the ones who feed you and provide for me when my
own crops fail. They have no divine dispensation that
protects their crops from the devastation mine experienced.
If I was having trouble salvaging drowned onions that year,
the Upstate onion growers surely would be sharing my
problem — and they were. That year's crop was a disaster.
As for the potato farmers, a close cousin of the potato
blight organism that set off the 19th-century Irish famine
had turned up in the Northeast a year or two earlier; the
wet weather that damaged my potatoes encouraged the blight
Of course, no sensible farmer would have chosen my
flood-prone land, and they're certainly better at what we
both do. But they're also vulnerable to the weather. When I
bought peaches at our local farmer's market in September, I
mentioned to the grower that all my tomatoes had simply
collapsed. He said, "Mine, too." In the narcissism of
relief I said, "I'm so glad." I caught myself, apologized
and said, "I thought it was me." He smiled for the first
time since we began dealing with each other weeks earlier
and said, "No. When fullgrown plants are suddenly hit with
stress, they just collapse." I realized with relief that it
wasn't my soil, my skills or wilt from the manure I brought
in. It was the weather.
By restricting myself to eating the vegetables I grow, I'm
constantly reminded that food is the generous outcome of a
collaboration between our species and the rest of nature,
not simply another product of industrial civilization. The
lesson I learned from the realization that crops sometimes
fail wasn't that regions can't be relatively self-reliant.
They can be. It's just that if we eat locally, we sometimes
have to adjust our choices and our appetites to what Nature
decides to provide that year.
This leads directly to the second major lesson I've
learned: We'll need to change our eating patterns — a lot —
if we want to live by the seasons. Because I restrict
myself to what I grow, I recognize that I narrow my winter
choices more than most people would need to, but some hard
truths would affect everyone. Fresh tomatoes are only
available in my home July through December — when the last
ones have ripened from green in my cold cellar.
Asparagus comes for one month in the spring almost anywhere
north of the equator. And in winter I never have a lettuce
salad unless I've been far-sighted enough to plant in the
cold frame. It's encouraging to know that inventive farmers
like Eliot Coleman are teaching other farmers to grow
lovely winter greens in unheated greenhouses in chilly
places like Maine, which means local limitations may be
eased by inventiveness. But in some parts of the country,
we're going to have to adjust to several months of more
root vegetables than most of us are used to.
Seasonality, alas, is not what people know or have been
taught. In this taste-blind country, we've been taught to
think that a meal is a meal is a meal whether it's June or
December. One example of this is the widespread conviction
that the salad of iceberg lettuce and tomato is an
essential food group year-round; another is the notion,
encouraged by the California produce marketers, that
five-a-day, even in December, means a banana, orange, bunch
of grapes and a lettuce-and-tomato salad, rather than, for
example, an Indian stew containing five winter vegetables
in a single dish.
Some groups of consumers who support farmers directly
through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) are learning
lessons we all need to learn about weather and changing
seasonal menus. Faced with unfamiliar early spring and late
fall vegetables, people learn to change their diets with
the seasons. But everyone can't join a CSA, and there are
lots of people who need educating — food writers, among
others, who all too often feature recipes that have nothing
to do with what's seasonally available.
I am moved and encouraged by the thousands of efforts
around the country to connect schools and farms, chefs and
farms, and consumers and farms. I chair the board of a
group in New York City, called Just Food, which has helped
start 19 CSAs. Using the new census figures and estimates
of the number of people our CSAs feed, I calculated our CSA
farmers are feeding one out of every 2,000 New Yorkers.
That's a fabulous beginning. But small.
The overwhelming majority of people still choose their
foods mindlessly from the global supermarket the rest of
the world provides for us, choosing for price, taste and
variety (with an emphasis on variety and price, good taste
being represented by what they're used to), heavily dosed
with sugar and salt.
It won't be enough to convince those people to shop at
farmers' markets in the summer, helpful as those are. We
need people to shop mindfully year-round, seeking out
seasonal local produce even in the winter.
There's much work to do. Those of us working toward
relocalization need to talk seriously about just what we
mean by local. How local? Grains and beans might reasonably
be shipped, for reasons I explain in my book. And I see no
reason why people who live in colder climates can't
sometimes have oranges, though a daily glass of fresh
orange juice north of here oranges grow is prob ably
self-indulgent. Spices which are light and of high value
should be shared around the world. But, overall, produce is
about 90 percent water: We are warming the planet
shipping cold water around the world It costs 435 fossil
fuel calories to fly a 5 calorie strawberry from California
to New York. Yet a strawberry researcher from
Ithaca told me that we could have a much longer run of
local strawberries in the East if there were rewards for
raising them, and they would be grown here if California
produce didn't arrive so cheaply in our markets. Many food
trade patterns are irrational.
My food-system radicalization occurred when I found Haiti,
the poorest country in the hemisphere, exports meat to us.
Another insanity is that we export what we import. My
favorite economist, Herman Daly, noted we in the United
States both import and export Danish butter cookies. He
suggested we might better exchange recipes.
Once, after I spoke about the problems of global
agriculture, someone came up and said, "Do you really
imagine there will be a time when our cities will be
surrounded by farms producing much of their food?" I don't
know. I can't imagine how we're going to get to such a
place from where we are now, but I know what's out there
now isn't going to last. The planet is already showing
signs of a terminal illness. The simple fact is a global
food system isn't sustainable; we might, just might, be
able to make local ones that are. As someone concerned with
food, I can't imagine any other way to live.
At the beginning of the 21st century, I'm no longer alone
in my concern about the future of the food system; the idea
that we might chose diets more responsible to the places
where we live is no longer viewed as silly and impractical.
Around the country are thousands of organized efforts to
move the nation toward more seasonal local eating. What all
are trying to teach to everyone from preschoolers to
homemakers, from chefs to retirees, are these lessons: Get
to know your farmer, because someone out there is growing
you . Wherever you are, eat what your own
landscape can provide.
I have lately learned to admire the novelist Arundhati Roy,
who is using the fame she earned from her writing to wage a
public campaign against nuclear arms and large dams in her
native India. This is what she said: "When you go to Europe
or America for the first time, you arrive in a city where
you don't see any mud, and everything looks really nice,
all the cars and the steel and the glass. But I look at a
car and I think, `This came from earth and water and
forest.' How? I don't know. But you need to know - you need
to know what the connection is; who paid the price of
That's what I would say about the foods we eat. We need to
remember that somehow they came "from earth and water and
forest." We need to know how, and who paid the price. We
need to know what the connections are, and then we need to
use our power as eaters to demand delicious food produced
by local food systems that are economically sound,
ecologically sustainable and socially just.
A leading advocate for sustainable diets based on seasonal,
local produce, Gussow is a long-time organic gardener and
former chair of the Nutrition Education Program at Columbia
University. Her most recent book is This Organic
Life: Confessions of a Suburban
Homesteader. Her column "Home Food" will be featured
regularly in MOTHER EARTH NEWS.