I have been working at MOM’s for exactly five and a half years, and throughout my time, I have become a conscious consumer who reads labels, goes for organic and fair trade and buys in bulk. But there is an element to consumerism that has just been uncovered to me on a recent journey to Nicaragua with Mayorga Coffee. This element is greater than cost, labels and environmentalism. This is what I believe to be the most forgotten element in consumerism, but is the greatest key to maintaining sustainability and environmental stewardship. It is humanity.
MOM’s is a natural foods store. We carry spectacular products made with high quality ingredients. We are intentional about our product selections and put much thought into choosing products that we will carry on our shelves. We work with many local producers. We have a fantastic local produce buying program where we work directly with farmers to bring their product to our stores. We carry products with labels such as “USDA Organic”, “Fair Trade”, “Rainforest Alliance Certified”, “Grass-Fed”, or “Free Range”. Our seafood is sustainable. Our produce is all 100% certified organic no matter what day or what time. We don’t carry meats that were raised with the use of hormones or antibiotics. Our brand name milk is a high quality, organic, grass-fed milk pasteurized at the lowest temperature possible to preserve flavor and beneficial enzymes. We sell some fantastic products and support some great companies striving to do the right thing.
One of the biggest questions I get asked not only when working in the stores, but also in my every day life, is basically this: Why does it cost so much? Why does it cost so much to be a conscious consumer who supports organic products, environmentally friendly products, sustainability, worker/animal welfare and fair trade? The simple answers are that it costs money for certifications, it costs money to pay people better, it costs money to use sustainable packaging, it costs money to pay labor to raise animals by hand, it costs money to pay the business side of things, and it costs money when a farmer is not receiving assistance or subsidies of sorts. While all of those are accurate reasons for higher costs, I believe we need to dig a little deeper. I believe that the higher costs are associated with benefits to humanity. The costs are associated with real people, people just like us, not only trying to make a living, but also working hard to maintain environmental stewardship in a system unsupportive of such efforts.
Growing organically is not easy. Rather than jump to the medicine cabinet for the treatment that will fix the plant disease or bug infestation, the organic farmer is constantly looking for another solution. An organic farmer looks for the remedy in biodiversity, crop rotation or geographical measures. The organic farmer learns that nature works together in a perfect harmony and does not need to be controlled synthetically. The organic farmer works to not only preserve the land he is given, but he also strives to improve it. Is this as easy as mono-cropping, using genetically modified seeds, and dumping synthetic fertilizers and pesticides? Ask any organic farmer and they will undoubtedly tell you that organic farming is hard, honest work. They deserve to be paid for producing good food and preserving our precious land.
The EPA states that “Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations”.
For example, when we purchase products like sustainable seafood, we support a way of fishing that does not put that fish species at risk, nor does the fishing cause disruption to the natural ecosystem by destroying the underwater environment or pulling unnecessary by-catch. Pole fishing is much harder work than bottom trolling, and honest fisherman are finding it harder and harder to catch anything due to the oceans being intensely overfished. They deserve to be paid for their hard work and patience doing the right thing in maintaining our oceans.
Whenever I walk onto an organic farm, I am blown away at how abundant and diverse nature is, and it all has a purpose in working together to maintain sustainability. Farmers rely on nature and it’s natural functions for their farms to be successful. I remember standing in a cow pasture at Polyface Farm listening to Joel Salatin ask a 7 year old girl: “If cows are herbivores and are supposed to eat plants, why are we grinding up dead cows and feeding them to the live cows for food?” We cannot be a sustainable species if we are not conscious about the way we treat our natural environment and that which provides us with sustenance. The farmers respecting the environment and working towards soil, animal and food preservation deserve to be paid. What will we be eating in 100 years without those ethical farmers?
Media and environmental groups spend a lot of time talking about animal welfare and how cruel the industrial farming system is to the animals involved. I’ve been to the famous Farm Sanctuary and witnessed the beautiful personality of farm animals. And yes, I agree wholeheartedly that industrial farming is a saddening system with troubling environmental impacts. I also agree that using pesticides is damaging to the environment and is loading up our soils with harmful chemicals. I question whether we should be using GM (genetically-modified) crops without truly understanding the holistic impacts, and it does cost more to purchase alternatives. But what is more important than the above is the safety and welfare of the farmworkers and the producers. Industrial meat processing facilities pose great health risks to the workers. Constant exposure to pesticides put workers’ health at risk. (I read a statistic that 300,000 farm works die every year due to pesticides. In the book Tomatoland, I learned that exposure to pesticides caused women to have babies born with deformities. In the film Bananas, I learned that some farms use airplanes to spray pesticides over the banana farms with no regard to the workers below.) The truth is that many products we consume are produced irresponsibly, rob cities and countries of resources and exploit people for work. Fortunately, the Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade labels protect workers from the exploitation commonly found in industrial scale food production. Unfortunately, those not working under a label are not guaranteed fair payment and working conditions.
Last week during my time in Nicaragua with Mayorga Coffee, we visited a chia farm. This is a new project designed to give the coffee farmers another source of income beyond coffee. The chia field was located at the bottom of an incredibly steep hill, the path filled with rocks that only increased the challenge of the trek. It was easily a 15 minute hike each way. On the way back up, in between breaths, I asked one of the Mayorga staff if the farmers had to carry the chia up this hill once harvested. He said yes, and mentioned that the coffee was even further down than the chia field was. He went on to say that people should think about that next time they want to complain about the price of coffee. Wow- I couldn’t agree more. These farmers deserve to be paid very well!
We are a society with a one sided view on food. We go to the grocery store, buy what’s on sale, eat the food and that’s the end. We drink our cups of gas station coffee, eat our cheap fast food and buy the 30 cent per pound bananas. But how often do we stop and think about the source of all the products we enjoy- the farmers and producers? How often do we think about the toll on the natural environment? How often do we think about what the future generations will be left with? How often do we think about the farmers behind our plate?
When you think about the social and environmental factors that contribute to food production, it seems that food, label or no label, is too cheap. We have forgotten the faces behind the food, the people just like us working hard to make a sustainable living. How much should we pay for someone else to carry our coffee up a steep rocky hill every morning? How much should we pay someone else to spray pesticides on our tomatoes? How much should we pay someone else to raise and process our meat? Yes, being a conscious consumer does cost more upon first sight. But when considering the social and environmental impacts, the cost is well suited.
Krista works in multiple MOMs locations.