Ugly veggies and the future of food in cities

A new wave of agriculture is returning towards low-tech, local and community based. And it tastes wonderful. From Shir Halpern, founder of the Tel-Aviv Farmers Market.

10 years ago, when establishing the first Israeli farmers market I had no idea how much local markets can succeed. Today they are booming. In the US, in Europe, you can see it in Budapest and in Tel Aviv. But is it a new phenomenon? Can we call the oldest form of market, this low-tech model, that takes us back to shop like our grate grandmothers used to shop — revolutionary?

Something just doesn’t seem right about that. I believe the appearance of local markets like mushrooms after the rain in the past decade is truly revolutionary and innovative. This low tech model making a comeback is an honest reaction that is seeking of a new consumer experience. One that wants — simply put — to get out of the supermarket and florescent lighting, one that is fed up with plastic-looking vegies that’s tastes like plastic as well.

It is a new generation of people that wishes to go back and reconnect with their food. That are seeking for human interaction, as well as fairness. Rediscover seasonality. And taste.

But what made it all happen? In other words, how did we lose all that? What happened to our food system in the past 100 years and why I believe local markets are one good way to fix it?

You all know it. We walk into the supermarket. We pick an apple from a shelf packed with apples that pretty much look the same shape and color. We do this with full confidence that we have just got fresh, natural and healthy food. But let’s face it — we do not have a faint idea of ​​the apple we’ve just collected from the shelf. We do not know if this apple is imported or not, where it grew, who raised it, how it was grown, how many toxins were sprayed on it, and whether it was covered with wax. No one tells us when it was harvested, how long it was in transit or in refrigeration and how long it has been sitting on the shelf. And after all these questions unanswered we take this apple and put it into our body without thinking twice.

One of the biggest problems of the food system today is this black hole of knowledge. We lost touch with the source of the food we eat and we no longer know where our food comes from.

It is easy to see it when we try to decipher the connection between the animal in the field and the frozen schnitzel meal. But agriculture has undergone a real process of industrialization in recent decades as well. One of the symptoms of this process is the long food chain.

Most of the food in the world travels. About 80% of the fruit and veggies in the world are being exported and imported. They move from place to place in refrigeration trucks, ships, and airplanes. The distance that food passes from the moment it is picked until the moment it reaches the consumer is called Food Miles and its results are harsher than you might think. Only in the United States the export and import of vegetables has tripled over the past decade from $71 billion in 2001 to an unthinkable value of $223 billion in 2012.

And so vegetables and fruits fly half the world until they reach the shelves: asparagus from Peru, green beans from Kenya, papaya from Africa and the list goes on. In Germany, for example, 140,000 tons of produce lands daily. Think of the irony when in Italy — the country of tomatoes — you can find imported tomatoes from Australia. And in my country — Israel — where we have beautiful apples being grown in the north — apples are being shipped as well. What are the implications of this long journey?

First of all, environmental damage. The way we consume and produce food has a tremendous connection to climate change.

About 72% of global warming is caused by carbon dioxide emissions. And you’ll be surprised to hear that the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions is agriculture. Direct purchase from the farmer reduces this effect to 0 percent.

Food waste is also an inseparable side effect of transporting our food through the world — a fifth of it is thrown and destroyed on the way. All the veggies and fruit that are not in the right shape or size are being left on the ground simply because they don’t fit the supermarket aesthetic criteria. This creates massive food waste and also big problem for farmers who are left with perfectly good produce they can’t sell.

But the carbon footprint of the food is not only in the journey of the produce — but also in the food production itself. In order for the huge quantities of apples to cross this journey of transportation and refrigeration, they are harvested early so that they do not ripen naturally. And to reach the shelf when they look perfect and free of defects — they must undergo some modification; otherwise they will just rot on the way. A whole process begins from the growth stage, in which many measures such as spraying, gas and wax coating will be taken so that the vegetables and fruits retain their good looks at the end of the chain. Sadly, the nutritional value, freshness and flavor — are cast aside in the reach of durability and aesthetics in the industrialized agricultural process.

And this is also about culture of food. Because this process of industrialized agriculture also means that we are losing 85% of varieties of different fruit and veggies to generic varieties, that can be grown anywhere in the world, that have no connection to specific place or culture, and no connection to tradition or taste. Thus our accessibility to fresh veggies and fruit has been transformed by the industrialization of the food system. Fresh carrots — the kind that still has some soil on it and green leaves — can only be found today in children’s books — or farmers’ markets. It is simply does not fit the supermarket food chain and economy.

The supermarkets do not always want us to know the numbers behind the refrigeration times of fruits and vegetables. But today, apples, sweet potatoes, carrots, citrus and other vegetables and fruits may sit for a year in refrigeration. So the next time you see an orange in the middle of the summer at the supermarket, think about when it was picked. Young, delicate vegetables, such as baby beets, turnips or small radishes, cannot be found in supermarkets for exactly the same reason. The berries are too delicate for this long chain of food as well.

We all use the term seasonal vegetables, but the truth is that seasonality has almost disappeared from our lives. Supermarkets sell the same products almost all year long. A farmers market model cuts this chain short. The farmers can bring everything that they grew. It can be a small quantity, according to season, gentle variety, ‘ugly’ veggies and delicate produce that can’t be sold in supermarkets, fresh carrots and berries — anything goes.

The new wave of agriculture is moving (or returning) towards a much more local and community based. Instead of endless transportation, small centers of direct distribution are created that save energy and fuel and shorten the chain for the consumer who receives fresh produce directly from the person who raised it, without almost any intermediaries on the way.

The best solution to deal with the distance that food passes is simple — just buy locally. You know where it came from and who raised it. You can get fresh, healthier and tasty food and also support your local community and economy. Farmers and small producers of food (cheesemakers, bakers, producers of olive oil and honey) who display in the market focus on quality ingredients, non-industrial traditional process and taste rather than size and shelf life. 

The stalls in the market vary from season to season, sometimes even from month to month. A local market is no less than revolutionary because through a very simple win-win model it simply cut the long chain short and gives a true alternative consumer choice. One that doesn’t leave a carbon foot print. One that supports local economy and small farmers and producers. One that is all about meeting your community and getting to know them. That encourages small clean farming and brings back seasonality. And wonderful taste. The fact that you can make this impact on our food system no matter where you are by a simple consumer choice is truly revolutionary.

(On the cover: a photo illustration by Alive.com)

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