Jul 24, 2007

Loco Localvores [LINK]

My recent letter to the Globe:

I was amazed to learn about the extensive discourse among "localvores" into the carbon footprint of the food delivered to our markets. (The localvore's dilemma, Ideas, 7/22) Faced with hundreds of Vermont's "most ethical eaters" who consume only locally grown food, my response is: you'll have to pry that banana from my cold, dead hands.
The text elicited some other thoughts as well:
At various points in the coming months, a few hundred of Vermont's most ethical eaters will take the "Localvore Challenge." The actual dates of the challenge vary from town to town, but the idea is that, for a single meal, or a day, or an entire week, participants will eat only food that was grown or raised within 100 miles of where they live.

Vermont's localvores (also known as "locavores" or "locatarians") and their counterparts around the country are part of a burgeoning movement....

Boy, I sure hope I don't see any of these horrendous words in my dictionary any time soon.
In recent years, as large companies with globe-straddling supply networks have come to dominate organic agriculture, "local" has emerged as the new watchword of conscientious consumption....
Here's the dilemna: "organic" food has become dominated by large conglomerates, so "local" food is offered as a more refined "watchword of conscientious consumption." Good grief. It should be clear that this more refined complaint is largely a byproduct of organic food's popularity.
The case for local food is several-fold: It tastes better, its proponents argue, and preserves species biodiversity. It shores up small-scale economies and communities in the face of globalization and cultural homogenization. It even, some of its advocates claim, protects against terrorism: a decentralized food system could limit the impact of a virus or other bio-agent introduced into the food supply.
Eating local food protects against terrorism? Truly this has become a big-tent rhetorical device.

The basic gist of the article is that it often takes less energy to ship food over long distances than to grow it locally, so the idea of "food miles" is misleading:

But if "food miles" are such a crude measure, what's an environmentally concerned grocery shopper to look to? Some food activists are targeting the ends of the food production process -- farmers both in the US and Europe are looking at ways to heat greenhouses with renewable energy, or to avoid heating them at all even during winter, and both the British government and Ben & Jerry's recently announced efforts to modify cow feed to reduce methane production. Others are working to wring inefficiencies out of the local food-distribution system by getting farmers to consolidate their produce into larger trucks making fewer trips.
Activists are working to "wring inefficiencies" out of local food distribution networks. Another way to do that is to be a large conglomerate and put these small, inefficient firms out of business.
Ultimately, [Rich Pirog] envisions a series of labels: In addition to nutrition information, a box of cereal or a bunch of green beans would bear stickers relaying their carbon emissions along with their fair-trade credentials. The risk in such a scheme, however, is that consumers, given too much information, absorb none of it.
Rather than come up with an elaborate system of Swedish-style labels listing food products' environmental impact, I have a less expensive alternative. Create a single label, and affix it to "Vermont's most ethical eater." It takes a lot more energy to identify various food items' carbon footprint than it does to detect conspicuous displays of virtue.
For their part, some localvores are suspicious of such labeling proposals. "To me the whole idea of calculating out the carbon impact way overcomplicates something that should be pretty simple," says Robin McDermott, co-founder of the Mad River Valley Locavores. Even if it turned out that an imported bunch of tomatoes were somehow more environmentally friendly than a local one, she says, she'd still go with local. "There's the taste," she says, "and you're supporting local farmers."
But why? Why is local inherently better? After all, we just learned that on balance, local food networks involve a lot more truck driving and heated greenhouses. In any other context, such overarching localism in the face of all reason would be considered hopelessly parochial.
Michael Pollan hastens to point out that eating locally is only part of a larger food ethic. The problem isn't merely, he argues, that we ship our lettuce across the country; the problem is that people living in New England, a place naturally unfriendly to large-scale lettuce production, feel entitled to eat lettuce in February. Before World War II, he points out, Americans ate locally and in season because they had no choice.
And we LIKED it! Pollan actually sees it as a problem that New Englanders feel entitled to eat lettuce in February. Otherwise, think about the consequences to human health: more reliance on food with saturated fat during winter months, for one.

Is it also a problem that local-food activists "feel entitled" to good-tasting food? After all, it's the foundation for a good deal of their argument. Why is it appropriate to use that argument, but inappropriate for me to enjoy fresh bananas?

"It's a new idea," he says, "this expectation that we can have a salad all year round."
Isn't the ability to adapt to new ideas the sign of a healthy intellect? This one is not exactly hot off the presses, either.

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