The Journey of Kale: Why What We Eat Matters
ORIGIN STORY: MY FRIDGE
This afternoon I opened my fridge, pulled out the crisper drawer, and grabbed a bundle of kale to add to my lunch. With this seemingly routine activity, I noticed for the first time that my kale bore a label for “Joe Heger Farms”. Who is Joe Heger? A quick google search revealed that Joe Heger, his farm, and my kale’s birthplace were over 2,500 km south of the border in El Centro, California. Somehow, they had found their way to my table in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The marvel of being an eater in twenty-first century North America is that our food system is incredibly opaque. We often have no idea where our food originated from, who grew it, how it got to our grocery store, or in the case of processed food – what it’s even made of. For the majority of history, food was grown locally and consumed by a community that developed cultural norms and cuisines to guide eating behaviours. This is not necessarily the case in Canada, where many of us learn what to eat from marketing campaigns, diet trends, and food scientists. We are disconnected from our food chains.
Investigative food journalist and author Michael Pollan considered these factors when he described America as having a ‘national eating disorder’. Canada can be considered in much in the same way. We are a culture obsessed with counting calories, reading nutrient labels, and distilling food down to the perfect number of macromolecules and vitamins that ought to be consumed per day. And yet paradoxically, North Americans are not healthier for their efforts. According to a 2018 Statistics Canada report, 63% of the adult population classified as overweight or obese . This leaves two thirds of Canadians at high risk for many chronic diseases, including hypertension, type-two diabetes, and cardiovascular disease . Alarmingly, despite rising levels of obesity, Westerners are showing signs of micronutrient malnutrition due to our high-caloric, low-nutrient based diet [3,4]. Our meal replacements, pre-packaged dinners, and fad diets have not benefited us.
In a small attempt to de-mystify my personal food chain and better understand the impact of my diet, I endeavoured to trace the journey of my kale from where it grew up in southern California, all the way north to my plate. Along the way, I realized that even the simple act of eating kale was actually very complicated.
BACK TO THE ORGANIC FARM
We are what we eat, and what we eat is inextricably tied to the land. As American author and farmer Wendell Berry famously said, “eating is an agricultural act” . In modern day North America, the most urbanized continent in the world, this can be easy to forget. In 2018, over 80% of the Canadian population was urbanized, meaning the vast majority of Canadians now live in cities . Agriculture, which was once the focal point of local economies, now makes up only a small portion of the country’s gross domestic product and employment. In 2016, there were approximately 272,000 registered farm operators in Canada compared to a total population of 35.15 million. This means that apart from imported food, the entire country is fed by less than 0.01% of the population .
As someone who does not belong to the 0.01%, I rely on farm operations such as Joe Heger’s to cultivate my food for me. The kale I purchased is labelled as organic, certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). To be certified ‘organic’ under USDA guidelines, an organic farm cannot use agrochemicals (artificial pesticides and synthetic soluble fertilizers) or genetically modified organisms . These regulations are designed to sustain and improve the health of the soil and ecosystems involved in food production, benefiting everything from the smallest microorganisms in the soil to the health of the consumer at the end of the food chain. Organic farming is an active attempt to combat the more than 5.6 billion pounds of pesticides that enter the soil around the world each year . In addition to promoting the health of the soil, produce grown organically contains higher levels of nutrients compared to plants grown in synthetically fertilized soils [10,11]. This is excellent news for organic kale purchasers everywhere.
Unfortunately, my kale may not be as environmentally friendly as the organic marketing campaigns have led me to believe. California, where my kale was grown, is the workhorse of American agriculture . The vast majority of salad greens like arugula, lettuce, and kale, are grown on the west coast and then shipped throughout America and Canada via truck. David Pimentel, an ecologist at Cornell University, estimated that the process of growing, washing, packaging, transporting, and keeping one pound of greens chilled throughout their journey requires anastounding 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy. My entire bundle of kale weighs 230g, amounting to approximately 80 calories of food energy . This means that for every calorie of food energy I’m consuming from my kale, at least 57 calories of fossil fuel energy were used behind the scenes. Despite being organic, my kale only used 4% less fossil fuel energy than if it had been conventionally farmed .
The label on my kale also advertised itself as a “desert vegetable”. I wondered if growing my kale in the desert made the most sense from an environmental perspective. I subsequently learned that the agriculture industry in America makes up 70% of the nation’s freshwater usage. Growing just one acre of organic spinach in southern California requires approximately 1.7 million litres of water each year . My organic kale likely required a similar amount. In California, where there is the largest concentration of fruit and vegetable farms, the excessive demand on the water supply is negatively impacting the health of the ecosystem. When freshwater is withdrawn more rapidly than it can be replenished from local aquifers, the ground compacts. In California, more than 13,468 km2 have been affected by the overuse of local freshwater, compacting the soil up to 8 metres in some areas. This affects the health of the soil, its ability to be used as farmland, and leaves no water reserve in case of drought. From 2012-2016, California experienced its worst drought in 1200 years, emphasizing the importance of maintaining local water supplies in the area . In the future as the climate continues to change and more droughts are predicted to occur, it is likely that the abundance of kale I now enjoy from the state will no longer be possible .
Although I bought my organic kale with the best of intentions, I was quickly learning that ‘organic’ was not necessarily as helpful for the environment as I once thought. Though organic agriculture does not use synthetic pesticides, many ‘natural’ pesticides are still employed. A 2010 study by the University of Guelph found that because natural pesticides have to be used in larger quantities than their synthetic counterparts, the environmental impact may actually be worse . As well, the lower usage of fertilizers in organic farming means that more land is required to generate the same volume of food. This demands more acreage for agricultural production, which often translates into mass deforestation. Deforesting in turn decreases biodiversity in the local ecosystem and reduces the amount of carbon that can be stored in the soil. Paradoxically, this creates a situation where organic farms may produce more greenhouse gasses than conventional farms. A recent study in Nature found that organic peas and wheat have a 50% and 70% higher climate impact than their conventionally grown counterparts, respectively .
Tracing my kale back to its organic soil in California turned out to be more of an environmental conundrum than expected. But the story of my kale was not over yet. I still needed to meet my kale’s farmer.
WHO ARE MY FARMERS? (AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, HOW ARE THEY DOING?)
Eating is an agricultural act, but modern eating is increasingly an act of ethics act as well. Although it was not possible to trace my personal stash of kale back to its original farmers, it is possible to make an educated guess on who they were. California is the world’s largest agricultural exporter and producer. The labour-intensive work and low wages involved to maintain this status do not attract California-born workers from urban centres. Thus, the state relies on a massive migrant labour force . This labour force consists of up to 95% documented and undocumented seasonal workers, primarily from Mexico .
The median personal income migrant farmers earn from working in the fields is between $10,000 to $15,000 USD. This leaves well over thirty-percent of Mexican-origin farmworkers living below the poverty line . These financial barriers prevent migrant works from seeking medical aid or obtaining health insurance, despite the demanding nature and risk factors of their jobs. Beyond financial barriers, migrant workers also face language barriers and discrimination that prevent them from accessing healthcare. Among documented workers, only 30% of males and 36% of females reported having health insurance. These numbers plummeted in undocumented labourers to 15% and 11% in male and female workers, respectively .
This is unfortunate given that migrant farmworkers are at a higher risk of chronic disease than U.S. born farmers, including high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, poor dental health, and chronic pain. These health risks are amplified by poor living conditions, heat-related stress, and physical exhaustion from the demanding work. In addition to these risks, migrant farmworkers are also exposed to high levels of pesticides, with an estimated 25 million agricultural workers experiencing pesticide poisoning globally each year .
In addition to the questionable environmental impact of purchasing kale grown in a desert and then shipped thousands of kilometres, I was beginning to wonder if my kale was ethically problematic as well. The line connecting a field in southern California to my plate is so long that my food chain had become obscured. It is impossible to know if I’m eating kale that was grown by workers who received fair wages and good living conditions.
ALTERNATIVE OPTIONS: IS ETHICAL KALE OUT THERE?
This would be a sad story if my only option for eating kale involved a series of environmental and ethical dilemmas. But the good news is that there are alternatives. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a movement that started simultaneously in Japan and Europe in the 1960s and arrived in North America in the late 1980s . The CSA model asks consumers to pay upfront for a season’s share of produce, thus shouldering the risk of farming alongside the farmer. In turn, shareholders receive a regular box of fresh, organic produce during the growing season. Economically, this is beneficial for farmers. One hundred years ago, farmers received forty cents for every dollar that a consumer spent on their farm’s products. In the current decade, farmers receive less than seven cents per food dollar. By purchasing produce directly from farms, ‘middlemen’, such as giant agribusinesses that turn produce into processed food, no longer absorb the majority of the profit .
From an educational standpoint, CSA helps communities learn what grows locally and which foods are available in each season. By lessening our purchases of out of season food – that has to be shipped long journeys across borders and oceans – the CSA model also cuts out a large portion of fossil fuel energy in our food chain . For example, asparagus grows in a narrow window of time during spring in Canada. Purchased at any other point in the year, asparagus is likely to be flown in from Latin America. Due to the high demands for asparagus year-round, and the resulting greenhouse gases produced by planes trying to meet this demand, asparagus ranks 6th on the list of most climate-damaging foods.22 Purchasing locally grown food can be a powerful way to connect with our food chains and contribute in a positive way to the local economy and ecosystem (note: if you are a kale purchaser in Vancouver there are a few CSA options available, including A Rocha farms in Surrey and UBC Farms).
BRAIN FOOD: THE NEURO-TRITIONAL VALUE OF KALE
We’ve made it. My kale has travelled the length of America to reach me and now it’s on my plate and ready to be consumed. This leaves me with one final, important, kale-related question, “what is it doing to my body?”
Actually, it’s doing a lot!
You may have noticed that kale has become quite trendy. This is likely due to its designation as a ‘superfood’, a title that kale rightly earns. Kale is one of the most nutrient dense foods out there, containing a high ratio of nutrients per calorie. One cup of loosely packed raw kale contains vitamin C, manganese, copper, magnesium, potassium, vitamin B6, antioxidants, and fibre. One cup of kale also contains over 100% of your daily suggested vitamin A and K intake, both of which are extremely beneficial for brain health [13,23,24]. All of these nutrients are packaged into a mere 8 calories! Kale truly is a superfood.
Vitamin A and K warrant a closer look. Kale contains high levels of beta-carotene, an antioxidant that our body transforms into vitamin A. In the elderly, higher levels of vitamin A in the blood are associated with improved cognition and memory, while lower levels are linked to an increased number of the brain-damaging plaques that build up in Alzheimer’s disease [25,26]. As if that’s not enough, vitamin A is also neuro-protective, meaning that it helps prevent neurons from damage. A recent study found that a compound in vitamin A helped to protect nerve cells from damage in a model of the neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) [25,27].
Vitamin K is equally as impressive. Traditionally, vitamin K has been known for its blood-clotting and bone health properties, but more recently has also been shown to prevent against certain types of stroke. Similar to vitamin A, vitamin K is important in the aging brain. Vitamin K levels are generally low in individuals with Alzheimer’s and higher levels are tied to better cognition. Lucky for me, the kale on my plate is one of the best sources of vitamin K out there [4,28].
FINAL KALE-RELATED THOUGHTS
While the nutritional benefits might have convinced you that yes, kale is in fact worth the hype, there’s one more thing worth mentioning before you go out and start inhaling all the kale you can find. Industrially farmed kale is, unfortunately, ranked third highest on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen List . Updated annually, this list refers to the twelve most pesticide-heavy fruits and vegetables on the market (It is worth mentioning that the Environmental Working Group also has a Clean 15 list of foods that likely contain fewer pesticides. There is hope yet.). Though buying organic kale, such as the kale currently on my plate, likely reduces the amount of pesticides being consumed, organic is not a perfect system. Even the quick google search for my organic kale’s origins revealed that Joe Heger Farms was temporarily decertified in 2011 for failing to comply with the organic standards of the California Department of Food and Agriculture .
This underscores how important buying locally – as much as your budget permits – can be to ensure that the food you’re purchasing is good for both your health and the health of the environment. Looking at global agricultural issues can be overwhelming. Even tracing a single vegetable like kale confronts us with a series of tough ethical and environmental realities. Perhaps the best way to combat these global challenges is to act locally. Knowing who our farmers are and where our food comes from allows us to be informed and active participants in our local food system, helping to take care of the land beneath our feet.
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