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Thursday, November 09, 2006

On the road this Thanksgiving, in ways you may not expect

The traditional Thanksgiving meal takes much longer to prepare than the three to five hours spent in the kitchen that day. The journey to the Thanksgiving table starts months, sometimes even years before, say food science and agriculture experts at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa.

According to Dr. Jacqueline Ricotta, assistant professor of horticulture at Delaware Valley College, the passage for most agriculture products seed to plate is complex.

Thanksgiving green beans, for example, are typically grown in warmer climates - California or Florida - so their trip is a long one to the East coast. Green beans that are of the frozen variety are en route sometimes for days before getting to the packaging plant.

It can take years to get your cranberry sauce. The cranberry, a low growing shrub harvested mostly in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, often takes three to four years to get their full production levels. Whether a berry is to be dry-bagged or canned determines how it is harvested, says Dr. Ricotta.

If a cranberry is destined to be the convenient canned sauce variety, a farmer would flood the bog and, by machine, shake the berries off the bush. Cranberries float to the top and are “vacuumed” into the back of large trucks and off to the processing plant they go to be boiled, flavored and canned. The bagged variety is harvested dry in a much more labor-intensive process. Using a giant “comb,” laborers essentially pick the cranberries by “combing” the shrub.

Your potatoes were likely grown in Maine, Pennsylvania or New York, and Idaho, and when treated with an anti-sprouting inhibitor, potatoes can remain in cool, dry storage for months in the food supply chain, according to Ricotta.

Whether a loaf or cubes for stuffing, bread starts in the fields, too. Wheat flour is made from the berry (fruit) of wheat grass. The berries are dried out, hulls removed, ground to flour, (flour is often bleached). At the bakery, water, yeast and salt are added – and baked to tasty goodness.

The star of the Thanksgiving table is, of course, the turkey. Unlike European nations, Americans, by and large, prefer the white meat of a turkey. Thus, over the decades, turkeys have been genetically bred to provide the biggest white meat value to the consumer. “Big breasted turkeys continue to be bred with big breasted turkeys to form even bigger breasts,” says Robert Pierson, assistant professor and chair, Food Science and Technology Department at Delaware Valley College.

Ready for dessert? Some pie, perhaps?

The pumpkins of Jack-o-Lantern fame are not the pumpkins used to make canned pie filling. They could be, according to DVC’s Pierson, but it would take tons of them since they are genetically bred to have thinner skin and less flesh for easy cutting. The pumpkins used to make filling are another type of squash that look more like giant gourds. These are the ones that are grown in the Northeast, harvested, skinned, roasted (not steamed or boiled), pureed and put into those cans of pre-made pie filling, which, can help the modern pie maker achieve that “from scratch” taste and texture.

If you’re enjoying an apple pie after dinner, know that it might have taken months to get to your plate. Most individuals don’t know that apples “sleep.” In fact, according to Ricotta, after harvest, many apples go into controlled atmosphere storage within the food supply chain. Unlike tomatoes, apples are fully ripe when harvested, so they can sleep for up to eight months and still taste great.

Food and agricultural products are transported all over the world, involving thousands of miles of travel. Environmental impacts of transport such as noise and air pollution emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, land use and habitat loss and direct health impacts from emissions are a growing problem.

Apples are flown between France and the UK, day old chicks are flown to Southern countries, and horses are transported across the EU to be processed as dog meat. In Holland alone, 40% of the trucks on the road carry agricultural goods and food. Danish pig meat is exported to Japan. The Netherlands is among the biggest producers of tomatoes and cucumbers in Europe, which in fact means that mainly water is being transported all over the place.

There are endless commodities being flown, trucked or shipped around the world in what Caroline Lucas calls "the great food swap". Long distance transport leads to extra chemical inputs, processes such as irradiation to prolong the life of food products and extra packaging to keep food fresh.

Long distance transport of live animals also results in bad animal welfare practices. Animals can travel for hundreds of kilometers and many hours without food, water or rest breaks, often in stressful conditions. Transporting animals also increases the risk of transporting disease, as Britain's foot and mouth epidemic showed.

What can I do?

Always try to buy locally produced food. Ask your supermarket or greengrocer where the food you buy is produced. Try to buy food seasonally. Eat less animal products.

Buying organic products is in general better from an environmental point of view, but sometimes, organic products can involve a big amount of food miles, so always check the label to see from where your food has travelled.

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