By Mary Silva • Illustrations by Reed Dewinter 2016-05-25 03:24:41
IS LOCAL FOOD BETTER? Farmers in our region are helping develop a scientific case for the benefits of eating food produced locally and sustainably. Those of us who've caught the "buy local, buy organic" bug will argue passionately that buying from farmers in our area who embrace sustainable practices is the right thing to do. It helps keep small, family owned farms flourishing while providing us with fresh, unprocessed, pasture- raised meat, poultry, and dairy products. And, we add with a further dash of feel-good conviction, it's better for the land. But is it really? How do we know? Until recently, the idea that small farms run by well-intentioned farmers would produce foods that were better for us just seemed to make sense. But a growing number of farmers are looking for evidence that their efforts are reaping healthier rewards. And they're finding it by putting science behind their methods. HEALTHY PLANTS, HEALTHY PEOPLE Greenacres Farm in Cincinnati has been at the forefront of the organic farming movement in this region for nearly 30 years. The farm's managers are also taking a lead in efforts to demonstrate its advantages, engaging in a number of animal and crop-focused research projects. Chad Bitler, agriculture resource coordinator at Greenacres, brings a background in human nutrition to his role as lead researcher there. He welcomes the opportunity to put data behind our love affair with local, organic foods. "There hasn't been a lot of research in sustainable agriculture," Bitler says. "A lot is anecdotal, and we believe it, but without the data you basically have an opinion. We want to change that." For starters, Greenacres plans to conduct more extensive nutritional studies of its vegetable production this year. The farm uses biodynamic preparations to grow its crops, and currently conducts Brix readings, which measure soluble sugars and nutrients. Higher Brix levels indicate healthy plants that are naturally resistent to pests, which reduces the need for human (or chemical) intervention. This year, the farm will send crops out for even more extensive nutrient analysis; their goal is to show further evidence of the value of eating organically grown foods. "It makes sense that the healthier the plants, the healthier the people who eat them," Bitler says. "If the plant can fight off infestation strictly by soluble sugars and nutrients, those nutrients should be available to us when we consume them." And this fall, Greenacres is undertaking another project that will reach beyond its fences. The farm is developing the first large-scale database to examine whether grass-fed beef is actually healthier than its conventionally raised counterpart. "The two-year project will evaluate 1,000 grass-fed cows and correlate their nutritional levels with production methods used to raise them, including the grasses they have grazed on," Bitler says. What cows graze on should determine how healthy they are. But grass-fed means different things, depending on where the cattle live. "Our forage base is completely different from one in Florida, or Georgia, or California, and what it lends to the end product," says Bitler. He explains that Ohio grasses often contain high amounts of purslane, a "weed" that is edible and highly nutritious, loaded with omega-3 fatty acids. "And if you're lucky enough to have it in your forage base, the extra omega-3's can show up in your beef." Nutritional research is more likely to be undertaken by small scale farms, Bitler says. "We have 10 acres of garden space on our property, and we produce vegetables on 2 to 3 of those acres. When you have a 500-acre field of spinach, it's difficult to do this. When you are doing large quantities and monocultures, your priority is efficiency and process, not quality and observation." MERITS OF ORGANIC Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm in Georgetown, KY, is an avid proponent of proving the health value of smaller-scale organic farming. Stone calls himself "a bit of an evangelist" when it comes to growing organically, and welcomes opportunities to demonstrate its benefits. He chairs the Organic Association of Kentucky, which has received grants to study the nutritional differences in crops grown organically. Stone points to a recent study from the University of Kentucky that attests to the merit of careful cultivation and growth. The study, by UK's College of Agriculture, showed that vegetables grown organically had more diverse microbial profiles (a healthier plant biome) than did conventionally grown produce produced with fungicides, insecticides, and fertilizers. (Full results of the research can be found in Frontiers in Plant Science, July 10, 2015.) You can reap even more health advantages from your food by shopping at a farm or market close to where you live, says Stone. "After a few days riding cross-country in a truck, the nutritional quality of any kind of produce will deteriorate, so ideally you want to look for food that is both organic and local." Stone started his move to organic farming while working with Kentucky State University, where he managed the research farm. He was beginning to transition that farm to organic when he met his wife, Ann, at a conference, and she encouraged him to go all in. Today, he says, he and his family reap the benefits of eating the healthy produce and animals they grow at Elmwood. And he is enthusiastic about the research that backs up what they've learned from experience. Another research project, a collaboration between the Organic Association of Kentucky and the UK Health and Wellness program, provided $200 vouchers to 90 employees to join an organic community supported agriculture program. Members of a CSA pay a yearly or monthly fee in exchange for weekly portions of the farm's produce, grains, and meats. Five local organic farms, including Elmwood, participated in the project. The goal was to see if providing people with a regular supply of healthy, fresh foods would have a positive effect on their health. It most certainly did, Stone says. "The metrics were off the charts in terms of how much less people went to the doctor or used pharmaceuticals," he says. Statistics showed that the average Kentuckian visits a doctor eight times per year; participants in the CSA went just slightly more than twice. Their use of medications dropped significantly, as well. The program was so effective, the university is expanding it. "This year, they'll provide 200 vouchers," Stone says. "Next year they've committed to 1,000. They see the benefit." The advantages of organic growing go beyond our individual health. It also helps farmers and the land, says Stone. "We're not exposed to toxic chemicals. We're not constantly changing the flora and fauna of the farm with fungicides and pesticides. We're not introducing toxins into the environment." Healthier soil, air, and water create a healthier microbiome. "If you're not spraying insecticides and fungicides, the plant biome is more diverse and more prolific, and that's what we're feeding our human microbiome," Stone says. "So kale is not just cellulose and protein–it's the plant biome that it's in and on that's healthy for us. That's what we're after." In the Weeds It's difficult to get a clear answer on nutrition unless it's measured at the farm level. A lack of these studies is why there's limited information available to consumers about the nutritional benefits of locally grown or raised foods. VARIABLES IN MEASURING FOOD NUTRITION » cultivar/species » production method (soil/fertilizer/pest control) » ripeness at harvest » post-harvest handling » processing & packaging » storage » transportation In 2008 a study was conducted to compare Vitamin C levels in organic, conventional, and seasonally grown broccoli purchased at a supermarket. The study showed insignificant variation in the Vitamin C level between local and conventional heads, but out-of-season broccoli contained 50% less Vitamin C than in-season broccoli. Researchers concluded that the out-of-season broccoli was shipped from further away and its Vitamin C loss was a result of longer transportation time. Not addressed in the study: growing conditions, variety.
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