Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Local pig on a local spit. He wouldn't fit so I had to saw off his local head.

I find that even in circles where many so-called progressive ideas are embraced there is widespread skepticism for what is perceived as the local food movement.

The thrust of such opposition seems to be that if everyone tried to eat exclusively that way, we would all starve. Now, that may well be true. But it does not follow that no one should prefer certain kinds of local food ever. Maybe some people really are advocating the former idea, but I have not met them, and I certainly do not advocate it myself. Nevertheless I do think there are good reasons to prefer local food.

First, freshness. Fresher food tastes better and is better for you. It's easier for fresh food to travel 60 miles and stay fresh than if it travels 6,000 miles. It can be picked later and thus ripen on the vine rather than in a barge.

Second, roots. Eating local gives you some idea of the region you live in, its history and climate and fauna. I now know that great strawberries come from Pennsylvania, while great mangoes do not. That makes me want to eat our strawberries more; when I do so it makes me feel like a Pennsylvanian fed by tradition and my homeland rather than an abstract citizen of the world fed by reductionism and nowhere. Moreover by doing so I continue the collective memory that has existed for generations rather than losing it to a sea of utilitarian pragmatism.

Third, variety. Food produced for global consumption must prioritize hardiness and usually cosmetic factors like color and volume. But smaller-scale production allows for finer-grained choices with different constraints. Tasty heirloom varieties that would never succeed on that stage can be delightfully embraced on the local scale.

Fourth, resilience. The extreme of comparative advantage may be the route to the highest theoretical yield, but there is a tradeoff between optimization and brittleness. A region that produces some of its own food is less subject to the vagaries of the global market. A drought in central Asia or an inexplicable decision by another country to turn its food calories into fuel calories does not change the local tomato yield.

Fifth, accountability. The feedback loop between me and a farmer I buy from, or even that farmer's middleman, is a lot tighter than with the global system. In the latter case I have no chance of affecting any change; in the former I actually have a decent shot.

What makes me sad about knee-jerk anti-local arguments is the grim resignation toward a life of bland drudgery at the dinner table they imply. Whatever the downsides of the global system, it is said, it is the only chance we have of feeding everybody. A world with seven billion and counting people does not have the luxury of participating in the pleasures of traditional food production and consumption. We have already exceeded the global carrying capacity by so much that we must optimize the system as much as possible, or everyone. will. starve.

If that were the case it would be tragic, as tragic as never hearing birdsong again because we took all of their habitats or needing to wear heavy clothes in the summer because we destroyed the ozone layer. It is positively dystopian, and such eventualities should not be blithely accepted. At the least, those who can afford to choose otherwise should be free to.

All of that said, I have yet to participate in the most-local, least-efficient method of food production of all: gardening. Boy would I like to.


Ben said...

"I'm sorry. There is no food. You are all going to die. Have a good evening." --Famine.

I think you make an excellent point about the requirement of having a resilient food supply. Extraordinarily high yields are good; resilient high yields are better. However, I think you're missing something in this instance. Resilience in the food supply is all about variety on three fronts: 1. substitution of food types; 2. varietals of each crop type; 3. regional diversification. I think the best resilience argument for a locavore is crop varietals: if regions develop hundreds of their own crop types rather than planting the same seeds from Monsanto on a national basis, the national food supply is less likely to fall victim to any particular evil. There is more likely to be a surviving crop somewhere. This could come at the expense of a fungible national market in some product lines, but that's probably worth it. On the other hand, locavores have reduced opportunities to substitute kinds of food (e.g., if corn fails in southern Indiana, there's no wheat backup). This leads to the bigger issue of regional diversification: the global grain markets are fantastic innovations. If the wheat crop in western China comes up short, we can get it there from Brazil. There's no shame in eating Brazilian wheat. And you can't escape the "vagaries of the global market" by eating local: if the farmer can get a better price by selling to South Africa than by selling to Philly, he sure will. The market adjusts to fit global supply to global demand, subject to some shipping costs. That's a good thing (except when we burn our food to move our steel pods around).

I'll address your other points in order.

First, freshness. Fresh used to only mean not frozen and not canned. It's a marketing ploy. That said, I don't like old vegetables either. I just don't know why I should go out to buy food with an explicitly local preference on this basis. If the strawberries from California look awesome and the strawberries from the berry farm down the road look like trash, and the cost isn't unduly different, I will rejoice in the technology that made it possible and buy the better fruit. If I can't tell the difference by looking and the price is the same and I don't know what to get, I'll probably go local because on average, you're probably right.

(continued in next comment due to Blogger space constraints)

Ben said...

Second, roots. I eat northern pike and walleye like it's my job. I take my job seriously. But I also like to try new things. Traveling is expensive and invasive. Eating other people's foods is an easier way to share in their culture and try new things.

Third, variety. I think you're right on the micro-variety point: big marketing tends toward standardization within product lines. On macro-variety, I get to eat a lot of things that can't grow here, or don't for 3/4 of the year. You lose a lot of variety by eating local, even if you do pick up a couple extra kinds of squash.

Fifth, accountability. I plan to leave farming to the experts, so I don't really have any desire to effect any change. The intermediaries seem to do a decent job of taking care of that. And if it looks bad on the shelf, or tastes bad at home, I don't buy it. There's accountability. For things that I can't see and taste as bad, the product labels and sanitary regulations are a pretty solid substitute. Having done some regulatory work, I can tell you that I trust big companies a lot more than little ones in that regard.

Let's set aside the "luxury of participating in the pleasures of traditional food production" for another day. I'm just going to have to disagree with you there.

I hope this wasn't too knee-jerk. You make some good points here, and get at interesting issues. I guess I just have a hard time justifying location as a decisive factor in food buying decisions. When I eat what I want to eat without paying attention to location, the result is generally a pleasing one, and I think food markets generally work well in bringing it close to an optimal result as well. At least, I don't think you can make up the difference by eating local. That takes substantive action.