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.


butterfly jen said...

I appreciate your comments. What challenges me regarding the NYT article is the lack of understanding of what is local. If a person is driving 10 miles to a supermarket or a farmers market they live in a food desert. The idea behind buying local is to promote local food producers to ultimately reduce food deserts.

Perhaps the misconception is that food deserts may only exist in low income neighborhoods. If Stephen Budiansky or anyone actually has to drive 10 miles for food then maybe the problem is local access to healthy food. Maybe the problem is with the behavior of buyer vs. buying local.

s_baghaii said...

Yesterday, NPR loved canning.

I don't think the 10-mile trips are because people live in food deserts. They are because people feel guilty for not giving their family the best or because they need a specialty item to make a particular dish. For example, there was a recent article on Trader Joe's and how they stay profitable by carrying less variety and selling a larger number of each particular thing. Usually, you can't buy all your groceries there, but there may be something you really like that is just priced better there.

For example, a friend of mine in Boston had been pressed for time and eating crap, and suddenly he had time and wanted to eat well. I told him that he needed to get up and go to Russo's and not go after work or on a weekend because it would be a mad house. He didn't need to go there because there are other closer stores, but they have a lot of amazing produce that you probably can't find at your various chain grocery stores.

bukra! said...

The "Is local really better" discussion should not be just centered on food. And to broaden the discussion it should include every business possible. "Is supporting your locally owned businesses really better?" Of course! Supporting your local businesses (in the case of food, your local farmers) serves to strengthen your region's economy and ultimately make your region self-sufficient. At least that's my goal in all this buy local stuff.

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