Thursday, September 2, 2010
Is Local Really Better?
Every day it seems like I'm finding another article analyzing the latest obsession with local food.
First there was the urban gardening is only for hipsters backlash after I came across the "My Intentional Life" comic on Grist. If you missed it, feel free to click on the link to see a pretty intense and interesting discussion of community activism and race-class relations.
Then came the City Jam Scam article on CHOW, which commented on New York City canning classes made with fruit from Hudson Valley: Once you've paid for the ingredients at the store and taken the time to make the jam, it's seeming less like a thrifty, homey back-to-the-land project and more like a dilettantish exercise in fake rusticity.
In Praise of Fast Food appeared in the September-October 2010 issue of the Utne Reader; in it Rachel Laudan explains all of the reasons why human beings switched to industrialized food in the first place. Turns out that long hours in the kitchen, quickly rotting food, and limited diet didn't quite have the romantic sheen that artisinal foodmaking now does.
And now Stephan Budiansky adds to the fray with Math Lessons for Locavores in the New York Times. Here are a few clips:
Arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis, are repeated as gospel by “locavores,” celebrity chefs and mainstream environmental organizations. Words like “sustainability” and “food-miles” are thrown around without any clear understanding of the larger picture of energy and land use.
The result has been all kinds of absurdities. For instance, it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in a California field because of the energy spent to truck it across the country; it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.
The real energy hog, it turns out, is not industrial agriculture at all, but you and me. Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far.
A single 10-mile round trip by car to the grocery store or the farmers’ market will easily eat up about 14,000 calories of fossil fuel energy. Just running your refrigerator for a week consumes 9,000 calories of energy. [...] Indeed, households make up for 22 percent of all the energy expenditures in the United States.
Agriculture, on the other hand, accounts for just 2 percent of our nation’s energy usage; that energy is mainly devoted to running farm machinery and manufacturing fertilizer. In return for that quite modest energy investment, we have fed hundreds of millions of people, liberated tens of millions from backbreaking manual labor and spared hundreds of millions of acres for nature preserves, forests and parks that otherwise would have come under the plow.
One of the Baltimore Foodmakers (Dave) posted a link to the article on our discussion board. I have yet to read the many responses posted on Grist, but I hope to read them soon. I liked the response he included in his post by John Hendel from the Atlantic:
If there is any single takeaway, it is that the dimensions of our food system transcend any one lens of analysis. Stephen Budiansky [NYT op-ed author] has blown open a truly thoughtful debate on what "local" means, and that dialogue is never a bad thing.
It seems that those leading the backlash against Locavore-ism are not so much arguing that our old food system was good, but that eating locally is not the end to our planet's sustainability solutions.
I believe it's actually a good thing that all of these articles are coming out. Rather than getting wrapped up in illusions that canning hundreds of jars of jam is going to save the planet, we are being reminded to ask ourselves why we are so obsessed with local food in the first place.
There are lots of reasons why I love local food: enjoying the natural change of seasons, learning about cultures, science experiments, survival skills, budgeting, natural foodmaking, and more. Grist has also published a list of responses to Budiansky's article, and I'm sure there are many other thoughts there about why eating SOLE (sustainable, organic, local, and ethical) food is important to us.
Can't wait to read some of those responses soon. In my opinion, it's always helpful to pause and have some dialogue about what is really effective within the sustainability movement.
Posted by AlizaEss