Urban Food Revolution

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Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers
Changing the Way We Feed Cities

InThe Urban Food Revolution (New Society Publishers, 2011), Peter Ladner draws on his political and business experience to show that we have all the necessary ingredients to ensure that local, fresh sustainable food is affordable and widely available. He describes how cities are bringing food production home by growing community through neighborhood gardening, cooking and composting programs, rebuilding local food processing, storage and distribution systems, investing in farmers markets and community supported agriculture, reducing obesity through local fresh food initiatives in schools, colleges and universities, and ending inner-city food deserts

Is Local Food Safe?

When an outbreak of E. coli in Minnesota that sickened at least eight people was traced to raw milk coming from the Hartmann brothers’ dairy farm in Gibbon in spring 2010, the debate between freedom and food safety broke out again. Michael Hartmann argued that his unpasteurized milk didn’t cause anyone to get sick, so he continued selling it even after state officials told him to stop until the farm cleaned up its act.

Once again, the freedom to eat and drink what we want clashed with the reality that someone else is deciding what is safe for us. As more people look to local food for sustenance, a lot of us want the freedom to make our own decisions about eating something grown by a neighbor.

Public health officials, however, have an obligation to protect us whether we like it or not. In the Hartmann case, the brothers’ customers may have disliked the state’s intrusion into their relationship with their milkseller, but no one wants E. coli poisoning.

In Wisconsin, a state famous for its cheese, a bill allowing direct sales of raw milk to consumers made it all the way to the governor’s desk before it got killed because of its “loose standards” — and a lot of lobbying from the state’s $26-billion dairy industry.

In the Hartmann case, four people ended up in the hospital, including a two-year-old who got a potentially lethal condition that can lead to kidney failure. Minnesota law allows direct sales of unpasteurized milk if it’s sold on the farm where it’s produced. Since the Hartmanns were delivering to drop-off locations, customers didn’t see what the Minnesota health investigators saw: “the extreme buildup of manure on virtually every surface in the dairy barn,” according to evidence presented to the court. The milk house ceiling was water damaged and crumbling. It wascovered by thick layers of cobwebs and dust; there were dead flies and live flies in abundance, dead animals, rodent droppings, chickens in the milking parlor, rusty and corroded equipment, and milking equipment stored in a sink.

This is a case where local food advocates had to acknowledge that industrial food isn’t the only threat to food safety. A lot of locavores prefer local food because they don’t trust the safety of imported industrial food from unknown places handled by a lot of unknown people. At least with local food there are fewer people involved, and there is a much greater chance that consumers can get personal knowledge about the farms where their food is being grown.

There’s good reason to be concerned about supermarket food: the vastly bigger scope of the industrial food system means much bigger consequences when something goes wrong. In 2010, between 400 and 500 million eggs had to be recalled due to salmonella contaminationafter 1,900 people across 14 states got sick. A year earlier, a peanut recall affected nearly 4,000 products. In 2008, a record-breaking 143 million pounds of ground beef got called back, including some distributed through the National School Lunch Program.

In Canada in the same year, 22 people died and hundreds of people fell ill from Listeria in tainted meat from Maple Leaf Foods cold cuts.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that food pathogens are responsible for 76 million illnesses a year, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths.

But is local food grown in and around cities any safer? It certainly has its own dangers. A community garden in Montreal had to be shut down in 2006 when food being grown in it was found to have metal contamination. It turned out that the garden (and four others in the city) wasbuilt on a former dump site. No one was paying a lot of attention to soil composition when it was built in 1984.

Eli Zabar, who built rooftop greenhouses to supply his restaurant and gourmet food warehouse in Manhattan, had problems with raised beds made of pressure-treated wood, the kind that’s prohibited on certified organic farms because of potential arsenic, chromium and coppercontamination from leaching.

One study of residential soils in areas contaminated by lead found that in a typical array of vegetables, fruits and herbs, lead was transferred from the soil through the root to the stem and leaves of garden crops.

Lead comes from paint and leaded gas residues, making soil near highways more prone to have a lot of lead in it. Lead is especially dangerous to children and infants, causing brain and nerve damage, but it can also hurt adults, causing high blood pressure, hypertension, nerve disorders and muscle and joint pains. Lead is less of an issue in fruits. But root vegetables are another matter. Because significant amounts of lead can accumulate in some roots, eating root vegetables grown in questionable soils is not recommended. But concerns about the safety of urban food should be kept in perspective. A study in the UK found that food grown on 92% of an urban area in West Midlands was only minimally risky to the average person, although “highly exposed people and highly exposed infants” faced potential hazards.

The lesson from these risks is simple: if in any doubt about what’s in your soil, get it tested. Growing crops like sunflower and spinach and digging in copious amounts of compost can help remove lead and other toxic metals, but testing provides certainty. It costs less than $30 to get soil tested for toxic metals.

Air pollution is more of a problem above the soil than in it, but fruits and vegetables growing in polluted areas are safe to eat as long as they are washed. Growing crops indoors in a greenhouse is even better protection from air-borne pollutants.

Where soil contamination from petrochemicals is a concern, exposing the soil to sunlight, fresh oxygen and microorganisms from compost helps break down many harmful compounds into harmless carbon compounds.

Ken Dunn, at City Farm in Chicago, likes to play it safe after more than four decades of urban farming. “Almost everything in urban areas is contaminated to some level,” he says. His solution is to grade and compact bigger urban plots, then lay down an impermeable four-inch layer of local clay that he sources at construction projects. On top of that he loads 24 inches of uncontaminated compost, which he controls by making it with kitchen scraps he collects from restaurants. Ironically, city safety concerns about composting required City Farm to shut down itsone-acre row composting site and truck all the farm’s food waste 80 miles to a commercial composting operation. Composting with food waste that includes meat and dairy is a safety issue when it attracts rodents.

A good way to ensure soil safety is to use raised beds (without pressure-treated wood!) filled with imported, clean soil and compost piled on top.

Will Allen at Growing Power, Inc. in Milwaukee has a formula for starting beds right on top of pavement: Start with 10-16 inches of wood chips laid down on the asphalt. Then add a 24-inch-tall mound of composted soil, 36 inches wide. To start another row, make an 18-inch path between rows with chips and old newspapers, then repeat. Allen says plant roots don’t go looking for bad soil when they’re surrounded by rich compost.

Larger-scale cleanup of big abandoned lots is beyond the capacity of most urban farmers. Toronto is working around that problem by getting and sharing better information about soil conditions on prospective urban farm sites. Toronto Public Health’s Environmental Protection Office is putting together a soil-contaminant protocol to assess the potential risks in various uses of soil, so the city can better identify lands suitable for urban agriculture. The next step would be to assess soil being removed from construction sites and banking it somewhere for delivery to urban farms in need of good soil.

Industrial Safety Standards Hurt Small Producers

Efforts to ensure that safe food is coming out of big industrial farms are always in danger of trampling on smaller producers who can’t meet compliance costs. In Canada, changes to federal meat inspection standards for abattoirs effectively shut down local meat production in many areas. The costs and loss of product identification that comes with shipping livestock to distant, centralized slaughterhouses caused some smaller meat producers to pack it in. Some are re-entering the black market in sheer defiance of regulations; others are counting on a more understanding application of rules intended for large operations (such as providing separate washrooms for inspectors). It’s hard to justify the same extensive regulations for shorter local food supply chains as for big international importers and exporters.

The 2010 shutdown of the Estrella Family Creamery in southwest Washington illustrates the impact of safety regulations on smaller producers. Estrella’s award-winning hand-crafted cheeses were enjoying national and international accolades when Food and Drug Administrationinspectors seized all its cheeses. They had found Listeria monocytogenes in the creamery’s products, although no illnesses had been linked toEstrella cheeses. The owners are facing the loss of their farm, unable toconvince the FDA to help them overcome the problem rather than seizingeverything in what the family calls a “Gestapo-like” way. A bigger, better-capitalized operation could much more easily rebound from a hit like this. Estrella is fighting back in court, forbidden to sell a lot of the cheese it had produced.

Unfortunately, Listeria is dangerous no matter where it enters our food system, so there’s no justification for letting small producers off the hook. In 2010, when FDA inspectors found Listeria in 102 soft cheese samples, half of the 24 farms where it was discovered were artisan producers. But what if a pathogen is present in such small amounts that no one gets ill? The FDA’s zero-tolerance principle for certain dangerous bacteria could shut down most artisan producers even though the actual danger to consumers is minimal. The level of risk is far greater in large national operations than in small operations, just based on the number of people exposed to the products.

Libertarian organic farmer Joel Salatin has a more cynical take on food inspections: “The reason local food is expensive is non-scalable regulations that discriminate against small producers,” he told an audience in Vancouver. “This is the ugly truth of the food police. The industry fears food freedom. If we had it, we’d drive them out of business. The bureaucracy is there to protect the status quo.”

New Federal Food Safety Act Won’t Hurt

The Estrella seizure was one of many that is leading to more flexibility in federal safety regulations. Most local food boosters agree that the US federal Food Safety Modernization Act passed in late 2010 is a longoverdue upgrade to food safety — the first since the 1930s — that won’t kill smaller producers with red tape. It has more realistic standards for small farms and mom-and-pop producers that sell directly to consumers via venues such as roadside stands, farmers markets and community supported agricultural programs.

Illusory Safety

Food safety is a much bigger issue than simply checking for contaminated food that causes illness. What about excessive soda consumption that causes diabetes? Excessive sodium consumption in snack foods that causes heart disease? What about the antibiotics used in livestock production (more than are consumed directly by people) that are breedingresistant superbugs?

Then there’s the haphazard nature of inspection: 98% of the imported food eaten in Canada isn’t inspected. Canadian food importers aren’t required to provide documentation that traces a primary food source to its origin. Only with the new Food Safety Modernization Act will US imported foods be subject to the same standards as local food.

When it comes to fresh local produce, contamination is a low risk. “Most of the stuff at farmers markets has been deemed a low hazard food,” says Vancouver Island Health Authority Officer Doug Glenn. “If people wash and cook their foods, there is little chance for bacterialinfections.”

“Food safety is entirely subjective: junk food is OK, but homegrown chicken is not,” says Joel Salatin. “Food safety is all about faith in the person inspecting.”

Amid all that capriciousness about what gets inspected is a simple truth: local food can always be traced to its source, so it offers a greater chance for the consumer to know if the grower can be trusted. Consumers understand this. In a July 2010 poll, 77% of Canadians said they were either “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the safety of the food they eat, up from 66% in 2007, according to an Ipsos Reid poll conducted for Postmedia News. Another 87% trust food that comes from Canada more than food that comes from abroad. In return for that trust, almost 70% of the people polled said they are willing to pay more for Canadian food than imported food, and 85% of respondents said they make an effort to buy locally grown and produced food.

The best protection against unsafe food is knowing where a particular food item comes from, how it has been grown and taking personal responsibility for eating only what’s safe. That’s not always going to be possible, but it’s a lot more possible with food grown closer to home. Theinspectors just can’t cover all food. As Joel Salatin has said, “If I don’t have the freedom to hurt myself I don’t have the freedom to help myself.”


Food grown in contaminated soils in and around cities, especially root crops, can be unsafe to eat. Urban food growers should have their soil tested, or they can avoid the issue by using raised beds with fresh, safe compost. Air-borne pollutants from city-grown food can be washed off.

Smaller local producers are just as capable of producing contaminated food as large producers, even if their impact is limited. However, new US food and safety laws have exempted small direct-sale operations from stringent national standards, accommodating small-scale producers who can’t meet zero-tolerance standards.

Consumers prefer local food because they perceive it as safer. They have a better chance of knowing how local food is grown than they do with imported food. Most imported food isn’t inspected, and the primary source of imported products is sometimes unknown.

Reprinted with permission from The Urban Food Revolutionby Peter Ladner and published by New Society Publishers, 2011.

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