Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Local Eating

Support local agriculture. Eat fresher, better food. Reduce your carbon footprint. You can do virtuous things if you accept the promise of local food consumption and become a locavore. If we were all locavores, eating only what grows near our homes, what a wonderful world it would be -- except that there isn't enough local food for the entire population of most heavily populated areas. I've been thinking about the limitations and benefits of eating locally without going to extremes. I'm trying to understand the broader implications and tradeoffs.

The most obvious sacrifice for people who commit to all or mainly local eating in harsh climates like Michigan is that only a limited selection of foods is available. Dairies operate year-around. Most vegetables and fruits are seasonal and perishable, but you can store potatoes and onions for winter pretty easily. If you have a big freezer, you can store local spring lamb and summer chicken. If you have plenty of time, you can smoke your own bacon, make jam, and freeze or can vegetables or fruit (though I've always wondered, what is the advantage of home-canning or freezing over good-quality commercial products?) I don't know if you can get enough grain products in all local markets -- if you are strictly local, that's another compromise. In any case, by March you'll be in the traditional hard place that used to be the lot of everyone who lived in the north.


And, as everyone knows, up here in the north we don't grow chocolate, tropical fruit, coffee, olives, and so on. As totally committed locavores, we'll be back to hoping Santa will put an orange or a little package of dates in the toe of our stockings, as he did in the 19th century before railroads brought abundant citrus fruit to northern climates. Are people sure they want to return to the past so totally?

The limitations are easy to see, but the benefits you get from sticking to local food (and rejecting what seemed like such miracles to our ancestors: orange juice every day!) are also in need of analysis.

If you seek good-tasting local food, you will find it: no question, if you need to rediscover seasonal produce, you have a treat in store. An in-season Michigan apple of a variety you like always beats a Washington Delicious apple, which may have spent months in a warehouse. The trade-off comes in winter when lots of non-local food will tempt you. Olives, coffee, imported wine, pecans, and chocolate taste just as good in Michigan as they do closer to their origin. Bananas, pineapples, and papayas might be better if you are close to the trees, but they travel pretty well too. You might eventually find the limited diet monotonous and the winters overwhelming if you commit to a completely local diet.

If you want to eat healthfully, you can find good options among locally grown foods. If you buy from a local small-scale farmer, you may find very fresh fruit and vegetables grown without excesses of pesticides and other chemicals. The role of such food in ensuring good health is unproven, but other health benefits might be available. For example, fresher eggs from small-scale local chicken farmers seem to be less salmonella-prone, for reasons that are not entirely understood -- maybe the less-stressed chickens have better immune systems (speculative from various articles I've read). This is another very complex food issue, especially as "organic" is now a government-controlled term dictated by some of the big agriculture interests that the original organic food movement was fighting.

Does local food cost less? You might save money if you buy large baskets of local fruit or vegetables at the peak of the season and freeze or can them yourself, but it's challenging, takes time, and has high start-up costs. (I'm not prepared to tackle the economics of raising your own food in your backyard or a grow plot elsewhere.) Also, mass agriculture is often so efficient that its products are cheaper than anything else, even including shipping costs -- if you care about nothing but price, local food will be of little interest to you.

When people talk about local food they almost always mean small-scale production, even if they live close to giant industrial farming operations. Certainly, the farmers who sell their own produce at farmers' markets often raise food as a small family endeavor. As a result, you avoid both the ecological issues of mass agriculture and the issues of poorly-treated farm workers. If you buy directly from farmers, you often meet most of the people who were involved in raising your food. If you buy meat from them, they are most likely raising animals on a relatively small scale, avoiding all the issues of feedlots, crowded conditions, waste runoff, pollution of waterways, etc. Encouraging small-scale agriculture seems to be a good goal in itself, even if the products were shipped out of the neighborhood.

A big claim for local food is its smaller "carbon footprint" -- that is, the amount of carbon emissions produced to grow it and bring it to your table. A local tomato (for instance) might have a lower carbon footprint than a Mexican tomato that made a long diesel-fueled and refrigerated trek across the continent. But if the local weather isn't good and the local tomato grew in an artificially heated greenhouse, maybe not so much. Compare local apples with distantly-grown oranges (or with bananas or papayas) and you are in tricky territory. Compare emissions from organic farming to those from conventional agriculture and there are many problems. Food writers have expended reams of paper (or whatever the electronic equivalent is) debating whether local food is generally better for the global environment and even whether more efficient production in just the right climate can make up for the fuel used to transport the produce.

So much for the claimed benefits. They aren't all hype, clearly, though hype may play a role in some of the most flamboyant locavore antics. When a trendy restaurant claims to serve exclusively local food, it might be just a gimmick, ignoring the bigger issues or even ignoring any serious issues.

One final critique of locavorism is that it's a luxury for people with lots of choices and plenty of money. Inner city residents in many locales have no conveniently-located food markets of any kind, no access to fresh produce, and at times few options other than fast food. For the poorest people, processed and packaged foods provide more calories than any fresh fruit or vegetables, local or not. Americans using food stamps are often shut out of farmers' markets, because the farmers can't jump through all the hoops required to accept food stamps. (That might become a less important issue as the Republicans are promising to cut food stamps if elected next month.) Like many food decisions, the choice of eating local food is only relevant if you have money and options.

Some cities such as L.A. are attempting to bring local produce to inner city residents in an affordable way. A task force is advocating "the creation of a regional food system that would increase low-income residents' access to healthy food and outlets for farmers' products while keeping more food dollars in the local economy." I think this might be one of the most positive ideas to come out of the locavore movement.

The decision to favor local food -- or to eat it exclusively -- has been widely publicized and debated. In Animal Vegetable Miracle Barbara Kingsolver promoted such commitment describing how she spent a year eating only local food while living on a farm in Virginia. She and her family spent a lot of time putting food away for winter, they were willing to give up many favorite non-local products, and they owned their farm. When Alice Waters lined up local farmers to supply her restaurant with special produce and when she founded "The Edible Schoolyard," she inspired some real changes in the way at least a few people eat at least sometimes. In newspaper food sections and in blogs, the idea is debated or promoted constantly.

The message of the locavores has many promises beyond seeking good-tasting food with some sort of fundamental naturalness. Do you hope for less destruction of fragile environments? more responsible use of energy and natural resources? encouragement of smaller farms, fairer labor practices, better animal treatment, or more social responsibility? Opting for local food might seem a panacea for many social ills. Maybe a single idea can't solve all these problems, but I think the focus on local food might be a good start.


Jeanie said...

I try to eat local when I can -- and when I can afford it. I think you beautifully nailed all the pros and cons here. And no, I'm not giving up chocolate or a few other tropical favorites, but when one can, one should. Nicely written.

Mae Travels said...

Thanks, Jeanie. I'm glad you eat chocolate and tropical fruit, and I don't think one should give them up. Things like chocolate, citrus fruit, pepper, and many more can be tasty, healthy, and socially responsible if one pays attention.

I think the urge to eat a wider variety of food has driven civilization for a long time -- the Roman Empire had spice routes, for example. And eating food that grows far away as well as close by has a lot of positive cultural effects. But that's maybe another blog post.

Maria Verivaki said...

i guess i am very lucky to be able to enjoy a lot of local food where i live - locavorism is a very important aspect of daily life for us in crete