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How Green is Your Farmer's Market?

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It’s almost time for the local farmers' market to open and isn’t that wonderful? Well, yes. The popularity of farmers' markets has been on the increase in the last few years, and this trend isn’t showing any sign of slowing down.

Of course, we all know that farmers’ markets foods are the healthiest. Or are they?

Isn’t most food at a farmers' market organic or non-GMO?

Unfortunately, the answer is usually no. And that should be a concern for all health-conscious consumers. Consumers who go to the local farmers’ market may assume that everything in the market is organic.

Local may mean fresh and it may mean quality, but it does not mean that food is raised without synthetic pesticides or without use of genetically modified ingredients. More often, it probably means that the food is raised with GMs and with synthetics.

Why? Economics.

A 50 pound bag of chicken feed is $16 at the feed store, whereas a 50 pound bag of non-GMO feed is $20 or more. And organic feed is often $30 plus. Poultry must have grain and cattle need supplementary hay in winter if a farmer doesn't have adequate pasture (it takes 3 acres to support a cow and calf without additional food). Organic hay is almost impossible to find.

Many small operations cannot afford the cost or the time-investment to go organic or to go Non GMO.

So consumers who don’t want GMs or pesticides may go to the local market and see wonderfully fresh food—all the while getting to know their local farmer who will smile at them and tell them how the animal is humanely raised on fresh pasture, but who won’t say a word about the animal being fed genetically modified grain in order to produce the milk, butter or eggs.

This is a tough issue. Supporting local food has value for many consumers. But those same consumers, according to market trends, prefer food that is produced organically or without genetically modified content. And if needed resources were available organically at an equivalent cost, it's likely most farmers would choose organic and non gm over "traditional" resources. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

Farmers' markets are everywhere, and they’re packed. In fact, they’ve seen dramatic growth in the last five years. Some are well-established, some are new efforts by entrepreneurs, and interestingly, many are located near local hospitals, initiated by those with a focus on health who want to see consumers making better food choices.

And farmers' markets are frequently touted as the best source for healthy food, because the food is locally produced, with the thinking that consumers get the freshest food, and the healthiest food, from a farmer they know. Foodies who support the local food trend have given this trend the name “Locavore.”

A Takepart columnist wrote a article earlier this month about “local food” becoming the “new organic," arguing that organic certification doesn't count any more; that it's more important to buy local. But a focus on “local” alone ignores many aspects of the food production chain, and doesn't acknowledge the depth of the problems in our food production system—such as how incredibly hard GMs and pesticides are to avoid for the average farmer. Is that grass-fed beef given non-organic hay produced with an herbicide? Is the pasture sludged every few years? (Sludging is a common practice in many areas that results in fields and grasses laced with trace heavy metals.)

The average consumer at the farmers' market does not know to ask these questions.

Farmers' markets are indeed wonderful sources for local food. Unfortunately, too frequently consumers who are concerned about toxins and GMOs, who want certified organic and certified Non-GMO, are not given adequate choices at local markets.

A recent survey of farmers' markets in the Washington DC metropolitan region showed that only one market requires certification for all its vendors. That’s Eastern Market, the oldest market in DC. Interestingly, it is considered the toughest market for any vendor to get into in the Mid-Atlantic region. At Eastern Market, all participating vendors are required to have certification to even be considered.

But for the majority of area local farmers' markets in the Mid-Atlantic area, and indeed throughout the US, especially those markets managed by municipalities, certification is not a criterion for participation.

An interview with a recently retired government official addressed how markets are managed by local governments. Her answer? They’re usually managed by Parks and Rec, and are considered to be a public service, not a profit- making entity. When asked about goal-setting, the retired city manager said that the primary goal was “to keep everyone happy.”

In recent years, as markets have become popular, space in high-volume markets are coveted, and often market managers who work for municipalities tend to focus on local farmers who “show” well , or who are well established in the locality at the market. If one vendor provides honey or jams, another vendor with the same—even if organically certified—may not be able to “get into” the market—because competition would be bad for the local vendor. This is in one aspect not bad—it shows support for local agriculture and provides continuity. But it limits options for local consumers.

Today’s consumers are increasingly health-conscious. Food products that are produced according to organic production standards, or without gmo’s, are valued—so much so that Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, is getting into “affordable organics,” according to their announcement last week.

Organics and non-GM foods have seen double digit growth in the last decade. Certified organic food is the major growth trend in the food industry. If this were not the case, Walmart would not be putting enormous focus into providing affordable foods that have organic certification.

Market season is here, and farmers' markets are tremendous fun. But consumers need to be aware that their fresh eggs, milk, and butter may be full of GMOs and trace pesticides—even though the foods are from the local market.

What’s a consumer to do? Do a lot of research, ask good questions, and don’t be satisfied with generic answers. Know that 98% of all farm operations in the US use GM feed. Value those farmers who do get certifications, because they are providing evidence for consumers. And send the market managers a message that certified organic and non-gm foods are a valued and desired option.

Consumer demand can make the difference. After all, the main goal of the farmer’s market is to “make everyone happy.”

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