Asking Questions

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Because there are no official standards for sustainable food, you need to ask the right questions to find the information you need to make the best choices for you and your family. There are generally three types of places you can buy fresh food from – direct from the farm/farmers’ markets, stores and restaurants – and you can ask questions at each outlet.

To start, know that it’s okay to ask questions. When I first started eating sustainable food, I tended to look for organic because I was hesitant to ask farmers questions about how they raised their meat, dairy and produce, and I knew what I was getting with organic (or so I thought). My biggest concern was that I wouldn’t like something about the way the farmer produced the food and would have to walk away. It seemed a bit rude.

So, first off, understand that you are not rude or inappropriate for asking questions. If you buy a car, you ask questions, and odds are you won’t buy the first one you look at. You shop around – and you don’t feel guilty for doing so. You do the same for any large purchase – appliances, computers, electronics – so why would any of us feel uncomfortable asking questions about our food? It’s your money and your choice.

Also, asking questions sends a clear message to farmers and businesses. If all of us asked for pesticide-free or pasture-raised food and shopped around until we found it, farmers would find a way to start producing food that was completely pesticide free or from animals raised on pasture. Many consumers may not understand that even organic food is permitted to be produced with a certain class of “natural” pesticide. This is much better than the chemical pesticides sprayed on industrial food, but if you want to go a step further and you make some inquiries, you may find farmers who use no pesticides at all, and yet their produce may not be labeled organic. So it’s important that we learn the issues and then go out and start asking questions.

Farm Direct/Farmers’ Market
If you’re shopping at a farm stand or a farmers’ market, odds are you’ll be speaking with one of the farmers who works the land. Ask them general questions about their farm so you can get to know them better – remember, they’re your neighbor. Questions you could ask include:

Where is your farm?
How long have you been farming?
What type of farming do you do?
What do you raise?
What are your favorite crops?
What’s your favorite way of cooking (kale, chicken, squash, any product they produce)?

You can also ask about their growing practices. Sustainable Table has wonderful handouts that give you both questions and answers for meat, dairy and poultry, so you can find out such things as –

How are the animals raised?
Are they fed anything besides grass (if a cow)?
How are they finished?
Were antibiotics ever given?
Were any added hormones used?
Were feed additives used?
If they say their animals are free range – are your animals raised on pasture or are they confined?

You can print out Sustainable Table’s questions and answers and take them with you when you go shopping at a farm or farmers market. They include:

Questions for a Farmer – Beef
Questions for a Farmer – Dairy
Questions for a Farmer – Eggs
Questions for a Farmer – Hogs
Questions for a Farmer – Poultry

When you’re looking to buy fruits and vegetables, the two key questions are:

1. What type of fertilizer was used? Fertilizers are applied to provide nutrients to the soil. Compost and manure are good as fertilizers when used appropriately. Compost is what you get from the decomposition of organic matter such as vegetables, leftover food, manure, straw, leaves, etc. Manure is fine and will add nutrients to the soil, as long as it’s not over-applied to the land. Over-application could lead to runoff and pollution and can actually damage the soil, so you want to find a farm that uses manure and/or compost in amounts the land can handle. The proper use of manure and/or compost is called organic fertilization and adds nutrients to the soil that encourage healthy plant growth, so you want to look for farms that use organic fertilizer applied appropriately.

You might want to try avoiding food treated with chemical fertilizers, which are made synthetically from inorganic material such as ammonium sulfate, potassium chloride and calcium nitrate. I wasn’t able to find studies that concluded eating food treated with chemical fertilizers was harmful to our health, but I also didn’t find any saying they weren’t. The main problem with these types of fertilizers is that they can pollute the surrounding environment and ground water, and can also harm individuals who live near application sites. The over-application of nitrogen and subsequent run off into waterways has created a huge 5,800 square mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, creating an area where fish and other aquatic life cannot live.

2. Were pesticides used and, if so, what type? Ideally, you would like the farmer to say no pesticides were ever used. These types of growers exist but may be a little hard to find. Second to that, you want to find a farmer who uses a natural pest control, such as Integrated Pest Management, where every effort is made to get rid of pests using natural methods, including introducing bugs that eat pests, planting specific pest-discouraging plants around more vulnerable plants, and growing small batches of different crops that are rotated regularly. In these cases, pesticides are used very sparingly and only when necessary. These could be organic or sustainable farmers. Also, if pesticides are used, you want to look for a natural pesticide, and steer clear of any food sprayed with a class of chemical called organophosphates, which includes parathion, malathion, methyl parathion, chlorpyrifos, diazinon, dichlorvos, phosmet, tetrachlorvinphos, and azinphos methyl. If you’re confused, certified organic food is still a good option.

To be frank, the pesticide issue is more complicated than it might first seem. As the Guide to Good Food is developed into a book, I’ll look more deeply into the pesticide issue and try to come up with easy-to-understand information so you can know exactly what to look for when buying fruits and vegetables.

Now that summer is here, farmers’ markets are overflowing with delicious, wholesome food. Visit one today – and take your questions with you!

Next week we’ll continue with Part 2 of Asking Questions and what to ask for in stores and restaurants.

(Diane Hatz is the Founder of Sustainable Table, Executive Producer of The Meatrix movies and co-Founder of the Eat Well Guide. This is the 16th installment in her series Sustainable Table’s Guide to Good Food.)

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