Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Local Locos

One of the most impractical new food ideas (since the all-raw-food fad which at least didn't claim to be for anyone but poseurs) is the local food movement, today documented in the New York Times food section: Preserving Fossil Fuels and Nearby Farmland by Eating Locally by Marian Burros.

A number of earlier articles and books also document this fad, whose advocates vary from moderate to totally wacky. Some of the proponents, admittedly are talking about real-world choices, like buying vegetables at farmers' markets when good local food is in season. Or they have very subtle points about local genetic specialization -- see my earlier post: "Book Review: Why Some Like it Hot."

Some of the extremists, though, are equally understandable: they want to write a best-seller and don't have any sensible ideas. So they do a personal experiment by going on a bizarre diet and writing about their self-imposed hardships. In many cases cited in a number of articles, I find the experimenters' attitude repugnant, in view of real people's problems with hunger (mainly in remote areas of the world) and balanced diet (near the very places where they live). I'm much more sympathetic toward the moderates who try local food for one meal or one week, than those who try it for a year -- exemplified by the person who said "It’s not a life philosophy but it’s not a game."

The farthest-out advocates refuse even flour and oils trucked in from beyond their 100-mile limit. One example from today's article -- authors Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, who "spent a year in British Columbia eating only food grown within a 100-mile radius." At one point they really craved bread: "when they eventually found locally grown wheat they took it even though it was filled with mouse droppings. Mr. MacKinnon painstakingly separated the droppings from the wheat with the edge of a credit card."

Here are my main questions about the claim that eating only local food would improve the planet, reducing the use of fossil fuel and other wonderful results:
  1. If you use a freezer to preserve your produce from summer, is that better in energy use than having some of your food brought to you by truck?
  2. If everyone in New York City did this, would there be enough food for all of them? (I think the answer proves that there isn't much real green thinking going on among the "advocates" of this save-the-planet idea.)
  3. If it reflects a better, more ancient way of life how do you account for the historic spice trade being so important? And salt trade? And trade in other foodstuffs?
  4. Would we resume having deficiency diseases if this new idea were to spread? Goiters from thyroid deficiencies? (Iodine isn't found within 100 miles of every city). Pellegra? Rickets? More subtle problems recently reduced by adding folic acid to mass-produced flour? Are we really nostalgic for plain old starvation?
My conclusion: local dining on bizarre and limited food is a brilliant idea for selling books!

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