Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsiblyby James E. McWilliams
We suffer today from food anxiety, bombarded as we are with confusing messages about how to eat an ethical diet. Should we eat locally? Is organic really better for the environment? Can genetically modified foods be good for you?
JUST FOOD does for fresh food what Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) did for fast food, challenging conventional views,
We suffer today from food anxiety, bombarded as we are with confusing messages about how to eat an ethical diet. Should we eat locally? Is organic really better for the environment? Can genetically modified foods be good for you?
JUST FOOD does for fresh food what Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) did for fast food, challenging conventional views, and cutting through layers of myth and misinformation. For instance, an imported tomato is more energy-efficient than a local greenhouse-grown tomato. And farm-raised freshwater fish may soon be the most sustainable source of protein.
Informative and surprising, JUST FOOD tells us how to decide what to eat, and how our choices can help save the planet and feed the world.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Washington Post Book World
"Fascinating....Anyone curious about the cultural history of that meatloaf on the dinner plate will gobble it up."
"Fascinating....Anyone curious about the cultural history of that meatloaf on the dinner plate will gobble it up."
McWilliams presents some appealing alternatives to the views of both the agrarian romantics on the left and the agribusiness capitalists on the right. The author advocates a judicious use of genetically engineered seeds and food products, believes we must reduce our passion for land-animal protein...and urges more attention to the nascent science of aquaponics...He concludes that the best food-production model may be "a broad pattern of regionally integrated, technologically advanced, middle-sized farms." Rich in research, provocative in conception and nettlesome to both the right and the left."Kirkus Reviews"
Enlightening....James E. McWilliams is stirring up trouble, the kind that gets noticed-and the kind that makes us all scratch our heads and think harder....Just Food ultimately offers a brave, solid argument that anyone who cares about their food-and everyone should care about their food-should consider."Meridith Ford Goldman, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
PRAISE FOR A REVOLUTION IN EATING:"
Fascinating....Anyone curious about the cultural history of that meatloaf on the dinner plate will gobble it up."Tina Jordan, Entertainment Weekly"
The lucid style and jaunty tone....make this accessible to all."Publishers Weekly"
McWilliams has penned an illuminating account of the evolution of foodways in the colonial Americas."Josh Friedland, Washington Post Book World"
McWilliams's examination of the culinary history of Colonial America is more than a....gastronomic tour....A lively and informative read."The New Yorker
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Just FoodWhere Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly
By McWilliams, James
Back Bay BooksCopyright © 2010 McWilliams, James
All right reserved.
Food Miles or Friendly Miles?: Beyond the “Farm to Fork” Paradigm of Production
Who gets to define “the local”?
No single concept unites the locavore movement more powerfully than food miles—the distance our food travels before we eat it. It’s an elegantly simple measure of environmental consciousness, has the benefit of being easy to understand, and requires one and only one basic change in behavior: reduce food miles. Doing so is considered critical to the related tasks of relocalizing the food supply, shrinking the supply chain, minimizing the fossil fuels used to deliver our food, and supporting local farms. At first glance, the argument that minimizing the distance food travels is better for the environment appears to be unassailable. How could anyone possibly object to the intuitively sensible argument that it’s always a good idea to buy local food?
As it turns out, there are ample grounds for objection. The concept of food miles, appealing as it may be, is flawed on many levels. To begin to see why, consider an analogy. Suppose you have a friend with a weight problem. This person consumes fries, burgers, lots of processed food, chili dogs, pizza, bacon, sausage, loads of ice cream, and enough beer to float a battleship on. Exercise basically consists of walking from the sofa to the fridge and back. The only redeeming aspect of this person’s dismal diet is that he drinks only a single cup of coffee a day, with no sugar and only a splash of half-and-half. Then suppose that one afternoon, after a dreadful visit to the doctor, this person declares that it’s high time to get in shape! In a fit of enthusiasm, he announces that he will start his new regime by… leaving the half-and-half out of his coffee.
The locavore emphasis on food miles is a lot like this person’s emphasis on half-and-half. We’re currently captives of an industrialized food system burdened with a catalogue of debilitating problems. Nevertheless, we’ve collectively chosen to isolate and develop an entire localist ideology around a bit player in the larger drama—the distance our food travels from “farm to fork.” Locavores—who, it must be noted, have never really defined “local”—envision their work not only as supporting local culinary and agricultural initiatives, but also as an overt challenge to corporate consolidation, globalization, and in some cases capitalism in general. For whatever reason, the gurus of high cuisine have started to think less about feeding the world a sustainable diet and (to talk the talk here) more about restoring the local “foodshed,” rediscovering the “taste of place,” “relocalizing” the food system, “reembedding food into local ecologies,” and, once and for all, “coming home to eat.”
Heady stuff. However, the groundswell of support for what seems to be a perfectly logical approach to reforming our broken food system actually counteracts the sustainable goals responsible consumers want to achieve. Food miles are the half-and-half in our coffee; in reducing them, we make little progress toward the ultimate goal of sustainable production.
Fleshing out this argument requires doing four things. First I’ll chart the rise and triumph of the food-mile trend and then explain why it is, paradoxically, only a minor link in the complex chain of food production. Next I’ll speculate on the underlying reasons for the concept’s popularity, highlighting the political motivations empowering our cultish attraction to the fetish of localism. Third I’ll elaborate on how the unintended consequences of perpetuating an “eat local” brand—consequences that can be cynically populist, isolationist, and protectionist—have hollowed out the movement’s core and exposed the brand to the most dangerous kind of corporate exploitation. Finally, I’ll sketch out another model for thinking about food and transportation, one that allows for extensive trade while stressing the importance of both transportation efficiencies and streamlined processes of production and consumption in order to reduce the energy we expend on food.
I suppose what follows could be interpreted as an attack on the food world’s sacred cow. I should thus stress that I’m not attacking locavores for the sake of attacking locavores, but rather because there’s a more complex story to tell about food and the distance it travels. Considerable research that never quite hits the media bull’s-eye tells us that we must be prepared to think more holistically when it comes to evaluating the carbon footprint left by our food choices. In addition, questioning the food-miles premise introduces what will be a recurring theme of this book: we must be prepared to dissolve entrenched but simplistic dichotomies—in this case the idea that distance is bad, proximity is good—in order to help pave the way to the golden mean. In focusing on food miles at the expense of so many other detrimental factors of production and consumption, we’re wasting time, energy, and a heap of good intentions that could very well save future generations from the mess that previous generations have dumped upon us.
Fifteen hundred miles. If you’ve heard of food miles, you’ve heard the figure. Cited more often than any other number as the distance that our food travels from farm gate to dinner plate, “1500 miles” now defines the issue. Do a quick Google search for “1500” and “food miles.” You’ll be inundated with trite variations on the same theme: “most produce grown in the United States travels 1500 miles before it gets sold”… “the average grocery store’s produce travels 1500 miles”… “produce traveled an average of 1500 miles from producer to consumer”… “fresh produce travels over 1500 miles before being consumed.” And so on.
Interestingly, although the figure has saturated the locavore literature, it was derived from a small database and a set of flimsy assumptions. As Jane Black recently explained in Slate, researchers at the University of Wisconsin’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture examined only thirty-three kinds of vegetables, and they measured the distance they traveled to one city, Chicago, in order to calculate the figure. They relied on “terminal market data” collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to estimate the flow of food in the United States, even though, as Black writes, “the country’s 22 terminal markets handled only 30 percent of the nation’s produce.” They ignored the fact that the other 70 percent is managed by retailers through their own (likely more efficient) distribution networks. And finally, because terminal market data only list states, researchers assumed that the product was sent from the center of the state, an assumption that works for California but not for states where agricultural production is more condensed geographically.
The fact that this inflammatory number seems to be minimally accurate hardly matters. Perception, after all, is reality. The 1500-mile mark, by virtue of being endlessly repeated, infuses the enlightened discourse of the culinary tastemakers, so much so that it’s become the exclusive basis for a relatively new way of conceptualizing how we should eat an environmentally responsible diet. You can’t open the food section of a newspaper without being covered in the sap of feel-good stories that repeatedly sermonize over the same lesson: eat local. When you encounter vendors at farmers’ markets displaying cardboard signs defending their local produce with the statistic that conventional food comes from “1500!! miles away,” there’s no point in demanding a footnote. Discussion is preempted. The underlying message is essentially set in stone: food miles are deeply powerful as a proxy for the pervasive belief that it is bad for the environment for food to travel such long distances.
If the 1500 figure fell from the heavens, the underlying concern for its implications developed in the earthly here and now. This is a genuinely important matter—one involving fossil fuel, greenhouse gases, and considerable energy expenditure—and it must be faced head-on. Between 1968 and 1998, the world’s population almost doubled. Food production rose 84 percent. Trade in food rose 184 percent. The volume of food crisscrossing national borders has risen fourfold over the past forty years. Commodities now travel greater distances and with more frequency than ever before. If for no other reason than its conspicuousness, this dramatic increase has become the surest symbol of an inefficient, far flung, gas-hogging food system, one that’s hooked on fossil fuels, wedded to maximized production, and begging for reform. The argument for reducing food miles seems beyond criticism, rooted in documented reality, easily achievable, and unquestionably just. There’s good reason that people treat this freshly minted trend like a timeless creed.
Challenging the localism assumption becomes all the more difficult given that the locavore movement is crowned by the sanctified status of the farmers’ market. “Farmers’ markets,” write a team of agricultural economists, “tend to be one of the first manifestations of a relocalizing food system.” The farmers’ market owes its meteoric rise to the increasing popularity of food-mile critiques leveled since the 1990s. One important reason that these alternatives to retail consumption have flourished so brilliantly is that they’re comfortable venues where consumers can become intimate with the food and the people who grow it.
I’m always impressed with the personal nature of my farmers’ market. The supply chain is significantly demystified when Local Farmer hands over local peaches from a dusty box with his dirt-encrusted hands. We know where the farms are, we know what the farmers look like, we know when they picked their produce, we think we know how they grew it, and we know that big corporate interests have been left out in the cold, all of which lends our decision to pay extra or make extra trips for locally grown food an air of virtue and a sense of environmental altruism. It just feels right to buy local produce at the farmers’ market, and one reason it feels so good is that we think it is, ipso facto, a small act in the larger drama of saving the planet. It’s at the farmers’ market that we thumb our nose at 1500.
The lowered food miles that help distinguish the crunchy farmers’ market from the tube-lit A&P have—or at least claim to have—the added benefits of ensuring a safer food supply and better-tasting goods. Frankly, I’m skeptical of both assertions, and while I won’t go too deeply into the matter, I often wonder if consumers could consistently discern the difference in a blind taste test between farmers’ market produce and Wal-Mart produce. I’m equally doubtful, unlike 85 percent of Americans, that a small operation is any better than a large one at keeping food free of dangerous bacteria. In any case, the fourfold increase in farmers’ markets between 1990 and the present is, along with the rise of community-supported agriculture, the greenest manifestation we have of the unexamined axiom that local food is better food for the environment.
If ever there were a consensus on an environmental ideal, the supreme virtue of going local with the food supply by shopping at a farmers’ market would seem to be it. And this is what makes me suspicious. Shouldn’t this very consensus raise red flags? Is it possible that such a seemingly untouchable concept—locally produced food is food produced with less energy—might be too easy an answer to the vast environmental problems infecting our food supply? Could it be that we flock to this idea because of its accessibility and simplicity rather than its inherent ability to actually solve an incredibly complex problem? Answers to these questions are worth pursuing.
To say that there’s a veritable consensus on the benefits of lowering food miles is not to say that the concept has completely sidestepped criticism. Below the media frenzy lurks a sophisticated strategy of energy evaluation known as a life-cycle assessment (LCA). Because the concept is neither simple nor amenable to a quick sketch in a thirty-second news spot, it has received scant attention in the mainstream press. Nevertheless, LCAs are essential to understanding why a food-miles litmus test is an inadequate measure of our food’s environmental impact. They’re also essential to achieving a more environmentally streamlined system of food production. What LCAs ultimately uncover are the hidden links in the food-supply chain that are the most environmentally damaging and in turn most in need of repair.
A life-cycle assessment is like a full physical. It’s a thorough energy evaluation that takes into consideration as many factors of production and consumption as can reasonably be measured. Transportation is only one factor, and as it turns out, a relatively minor one. This more comprehensive approach to evaluating the carbon footprint of food production began in Denmark in 1993 at the first European Invitational Expert Seminar on Life Cycle Assessment of Food Products. Not a real zinger for the nightly news, but it was there that scientists began to conceptualize food production in the broadest possible terms. They looked not just into transportation distances but also into water usage, harvesting techniques, pesticide application, fertilizer outlays, the amount of carbon absorbed through photosynthesis, disposal of product, packaging, crop drying techniques, storage procedures, nitrogen cycles, climatic conditions, and dozens of less obvious cultivation inputs.
Since then, other analysts of our ever-expanding food system have undertaken similar measurements on the consumption end of the equation. Researchers are now considering, for example, the emissions put out by consumers who buy food several times a week from many different outlets (can’t get toilet paper at the farmers’ market) and the efficiency of home cooking methods (including what kind of oven is used). The point to these investigations is not to play “gotcha” with the locavores. Instead, it’s to identify the most energy-draining stages of consumption. With such hot spots isolated, we can better direct our efforts to reducing their impact—something locavores have ostensibly aimed to do from the outset.
The application of LCAs to food production can yield surprising results for those singularly wedded to the logic of food-mile measurements. A couple of examples reveal how the process typically works to identify the stages of production most in need of repair. A 2003 LCA on the Danish fishing industry concluded that when it comes to flatfish production, the environmental hot spot was not transportation but rather the logistics of the fishing process itself. The upshot, one that an emphasis on food miles would have missed, was the discovery that overall fuel consumption could be reduced by an enormous fifteen times if fishers used a seine instead of a beam trawl to catch fish. A seine is a net that hangs vertically in the water, whereas a beam trawl is a net that’s weighted to the ocean floor and dragged across it, which requires substantially more energy than a seine. In light of this discovery, anyone opposing the consumption of flatfish shipped around the world on the basis of food miles would be grossly misdirecting his or her efforts. Technically, it would make more sense to ask whether the fish at the counter was caught with a seine or a trawl than to ask how far it traveled.
Other examples of unexpected LCA results abound. With canned mackerel and pickled herring, the hot spots were the processing and disposal (of cans and waste) stages, segments of the supply chain that consumed far more fossil fuel than the transportation of these products across vast global distances.
An LCA study done in 2000 on agricultural energy consumption in Denmark similarly found transportation to be a minor link in the chain. The real energy sink again was with production. Evaluating everything from soil structure and weather conditions to tractor model and driving techniques, scientists found that what mattered most in terms of energy efficiency was the chopping methods used to harvest crops. The report found that on most farms, “if the knife cylinder is replaced by a cutter wheel,” a fuel reduction of 29 percent would result. “New cultivation methods,” the authors wrote, “may change the whole picture.” It is for this reason that Randi Dalgaard, a scientist at Aarhus University in Denmark, notes that “producing food and getting it to consumers involves far more than just transportation. How the food is produced and the sustainability of the processes used is the real issue and it’s these areas that need to be addressed.”
Life-cycle assessments have been around since the 1970s. Companies traditionally used them to assess durable goods in order to cut costs. Today, however, these studies are focusing more than ever on food, and the intended result is to cut not only costs but energy usage as well. Research projects like the Danish ones described here are quietly mounting a well-documented counterattack to the culturally entrenched belief that eating local is necessarily better for the environment. One study of hamburger production observed that “baking and storage are the most energy consuming stages and transportation the least energy consuming one.” An evaluation of shrimp farms in Thailand discovered that energy costs were almost exclusively bound up with the “intrinsic properties of geographical location” rather than the distance the shrimp travel to reach consumers.
Taking a bird’s-eye view of these food LCAs, Rich Pirog—who is, ironically, the person who veritably founded food-miles analyses—has shown that production and processing account for 45.6 percent of the fossil fuel usage, restaurant preparation takes up another 15.8 percent, and home preparation sucks up a whopping 25 percent of the overall energy used to produce and consume food made in the United States. Transportation is the lowest of all the factors evaluated (at 11 percent), a fact that has led scholars writing in the journal Environmental Science and Technology to conclude that “although food is transported long distances in general… the GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase.”
Other results have broadened the perspective on food miles. Because of LCAs, we’ve learned that it is four times more energy-efficient for London consumers to buy grass-fed lamb imported by ship from New Zealand than to buy grain-fed lamb raised locally. This may seem completely ridiculous, but in terms of energy use, the comparative advantage of growing lamb on the other side of the world far outweighs the transportation energy costs. After these findings were published in 2006, the environmental advocates at the Landcare Research organization, a New Zealand institute dedicated to sustainable farming, conceded that “localism is not always the most environmentally sound solution if more emissions are generated at other stages of the product life cycle.”
Winter tomatoes that originate in Spain and travel to England obviously cover more miles than British tomatoes to go from farm to fork, but mainly because of the fact that so many British tomatoes are hothouse-grown (which can take up to ten times more energy), Spanish tomatoes are more energy-efficient in the aggregate. German apple juice imported from Brazil, which racks up over 10,000 miles on the odometer, is also less energy-consumptive than apples grown and processed locally. Study after study has shown that local is not necessarily greener.
LCAs also flesh out the food system in ways that highlight the subtleties of transportation, distance, and production. One of the most common points overlooked in the “eat local” trend is the industrial food system’s ability to achieve economies of scale. When former North Carolina senator John Edwards was running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007, his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, announced to the media, “I live in North Carolina. I’ll probably never eat a tangerine again.” It was her gesture to the locavore voting block. However, as several economists were quick to confirm, Edwards’s remark ignored the benefits of scale economies. They showed that if it had theoretically been possible to buy a local tangerine from a farmer who trucked in that tangerine from sixty miles away, that still would have been more energy-consumptive than buying a tangerine from a larger load trucked in from Florida, sent by rail from California, or even shipped from Spain.
How? What mattered in the Edwards claim was not the source of the tangerines but the “tangerines per gallon.” In an academic article titled “Over the Long Haul,” the rural sociologist Matt Mariola succinctly clarifies the most common misunderstanding about food-mile measurements. “Imagine,” he writes, “a trailer carrying 2000 tomatoes, traveling 2000 miles from California to Iowa, and using 2000 gallons of fuel… each tomato would be said to have traveled 2000 miles, which is technically true… however, one can more accurately parse the energy use by item and state that a single tomato only accounted for the equivalent of 1 gallon of fuel.”
When produce comes with a food-mile measure, as it increasingly does, the figure is essentially meaningless if the number of items with which it traveled goes unmentioned. Similar studies undertaken by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service revealed that “when the transportation method was taken into account, the local food system required more energy and emitted more CO2 than the regional system.” Again, if we’re going to focus on transportation—as the locavores insist we do—it is critical that we use the right formulas.
Furthermore, insofar as we do focus on transportation, we must realize that it’s about more than just the distance food travels from producer to consumer. It also involves the distance the consumer travels to the producer—a figure that rarely, if ever, factors into locavore assessments. Again, Matt Mariola’s quantitative work has been especially insightful on this issue. Through an analysis of food-buying habits in Ohio, Mariola notes that local consumption required three shopping trips (farmers’ market, orchard, and grocery store), whereas nonlocal shopping demanded just one visit to the grocery store. The differences proved to be significant: 10 versus 38 miles driven, 1.08 versus 2.42 hours consumed, and .56 instead of 2.11 gallons of gas guzzled.
According to Lee Barter, a transportation analyst at Deloitte, an international consulting firm, “any environmental benefits obtained by purchasing local produce from the farmers’ market across town were quite likely nullified the moment you drove past the supermarket.” He concludes, “It might be better to shop local than buy local.” While this conclusion is based on a relatively small number of studies, it still reveals how important it is to consider the full cycle of energy expenditure.
Not to be ignored as we evaluate the hidden links in the life-cycle chain is the energy sucked up by our own behavior in the kitchen. This is a significant factor of consumption that’s also generally avoided by the food-milers. As Pirog found, one quarter of the total energy used in the production and consumption of a food product transpires in the kitchen. The typical household wastes more than 1.28 pounds of food a day, 27 percent of which is vegetables. This amounts to about 14 percent of overall food purchases being tossed in the trash. “This issue of waste in the food chain,” writes Ronald Bonney, “leaves consumers looking pretty irresponsible.”
In addition, in the only comprehensive study done on the relative efficiencies of ovens and stoves, the authors conclude that “environmental impacts depend considerably on the efficiency of the stove used and on the energy consumed due to the consumer’s behavior.”
Indeed, these findings leave one wondering how much energy could be saved if we threw out less food, cooked smaller amounts, ate less in general, used energy-efficient ovens and refrigerators, composted all organic matter not eaten, and developed more energy-efficient menus (say, by eating more meals that did not require extensive and prolonged applications of heat). In short, if we were really paying attention to the numbers yielded by life-cycle assessments, we’d be better off focusing on what happens to our food after we buy it than on its place of origin. But of course it’s hard to turn a variety of small, energy-saving domestic tactics into a token symbol of an eco-correct food philosophy. “Cook efficiently” just doesn’t have the same rousing ring as “eat local.” Plus it’s more work and involves that word too many environmentalists are afraid to mention: sacrifice.
LCAs effectively direct attention to these kinds of activities, but as mentioned, LCAs are currently off the public radar screen. This is about to change. A small coterie of scholars and writers are now starting to integrate these findings into more pragmatic perspectives and, based on the collective evidence, make more reasonable statements about the place of food miles in the general debate over achieving a just food supply. A prominent group of academics from Iowa and Wisconsin—men and women who have spent careers dedicated to sustainable food production—issued a surprising working statement declaring the need to move “beyond ‘global’ and ‘local.’ ”
One opens the report anticipating yet another sermon on the untarnished virtue of eating local food. Instead the analytical skies open onto a range of insightful criticism. “Too often,” the authors observe, “these paeans to the local are founded on axioms and assumptions rather than on good evidence.” They continue: “We suspect that those of us with an interest in farming and food are particularly susceptible to the strain of Jeffersonian idealism that has long been an integral feature of agricultural thought in the United States and that gives ‘localization’ a special appeal.” By seizing as we have on the local, they conclude, we make “commitments to pasts that never were or futures that never can be.”
Given that these scholars primarily work from a staunch agroecological perspective, one hopes that their skepticism of an exclusive emphasis on localism will convince others to start thinking about food and energy in terms of LCAs rather than dangerously simplistic “farm to fork” paradigms. Such a broadened perspective would create a world of opportunity to do a world of good.
Local Agriculture as a Means of Political Opposition
If LCAs seem like a more complete approach to thinking about food and energy than food miles, resistance to such a transition remains deeply, even ideologically entrenched. Digging up the roots of the buy-local backlash demands that we appreciate the depth of those roots. When we survey the expansive literature supporting the food-miles approach, one thing becomes evident: the prevailing argument for stressing food miles is driven less by concrete evidence of improved sustainability than by a vague quest to condemn globalization. In this respect, buying local is a political act with ideological implications. The ulterior motive of political empowerment makes the LCA perspective, which lacks this power, a difficult one for many consumers to adopt. “Most food is sold with a story,” the geographer Susanne Friedberg has observed, and this time around the story comes with an oddly populist twist: food from afar feeds the fat cats. The food anthropologist Heather Paxson captured this sentiment well when she interviewed two Vermont cheesemakers who saw cheesemaking, in Paxson’s words, “as [their] personal response to globalization.”
Locally sourced food has surely brought considerable benefits to many individuals and communities, and for the consumer, at least, it allows for an easy gesture. In this sense, buying local has evolved into a “lite green” act of conspicuous consumption that offers environmentalists otherwise deeply involved in a commercialized life an easy way to register their discontent with the excesses of modernity. It’s going to be hard for environmentally conscious consumers to begin thinking in terms of LCAs when food miles are being used primarily as a cudgel to attack global market expansion, corporate growth and development, the disappearance of the countryside, the supposed decline in community cohesion, and innumerable other pitfalls of modernization. LCAs face an uphill battle because today the local emphasis is as much on identity politics and anticorporate angst as on the realistic achievement of a more sensible system of food production.
The ulterior motives driving the cultural process of localization have academic roots, and are most evident in the way leading scholars of food systems frame agricultural debates. Larry Lev, an agricultural economist at Oregon State University, deems buying local “an alternative to a mainstream food distribution system dominated by large-scale firms… within the global marketplace.” Marcia Ostrum, a rural sociologist at Washington State, situates the localist movement in an “increased recognition of the negative impacts of global-level economic restructuring.” A group of established academics presents “civic agriculture” as an antidote to “commodifying, concentrating, and globalizing forces” that drive “the corporate trajectory of the current agrifood system.” Over and over again it’s the same setup: local is a way to counter the global.
All of this may seem sensible enough. But such rhetoric doesn’t get us any closer to improving our flawed system as it currently operates. It also assumes the impossibility of sustainable agriculture on a global level. Furthermore, the message is overly simplistic in its political connotation: buy local, attack global, feel the inner satisfaction of resistance, change the world.
To be fair, many of these writers are well-intentioned activists hoping that their critique of global capitalism will inspire a just, equitable, and environmentally sound food system. Their intentions are noble: they want to improve our lives. But their prescriptions, which typically involve taking a steamroller to capitalism, tend to alienate the wavering while preaching to the convinced. The person who works hard, tries to be a good citizen, and is concerned with food production is hardly going to be swayed by an argument insisting that he abandon faith in the free market economy. This sort of over-the-top critique of global capitalism might have resonance in academic circles, but it ultimately does little for the cause of sustainable agriculture.
What are we to make, for instance, of the comments of Stan Cox, a senior scientist at the Land Institute, in Salina, Kansas, who writes that “as America mobilizes to protect industrial agriculture against terrorists[,] agriculture itself is doing the very kind of damage that terrorists are said to be planning”? Cox continues with a pie-in-the sky approach to agricultural change when he writes, “If we find no alternative to capitalism, the Earth cannot be saved.” Or what about James Gustave Speth, the very thoughtful dean of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, when he argues that the only way to achieve genuine environmental change is to find “a nonsocialist alternative to today’s capitalism”?
I’m not saying that these radical ideas do not have theoretical merit. (I think Speth’s ideas in particular are fascinating.) It’s just that when I descend from the ivory tower and say hello to the greeter at Wal-Mart, I cannot imagine such a transition actually happening in the commercial universe I inhabit. Most people I know who work outside of elite professions such as academia and journalism would roll their eyes at such antiestablishment prescriptions. More to the point, they’d also be inclined to respond by doing nothing at all.
More disturbing to me than the anticapitalism argument itself is that it has generally gone unquestioned within the movement. Its advocates, who are not being asked to explore the gray area between the extremes, tend to assume that “local” is environmentally superior and enhances community relations, as if the local setting were somehow immune from the disruptive aspects of normal market forces. This ubiquitously repeated benefit of buying local has led otherwise sober-minded social scientists to don rose-tinted glasses when they assess the nature of basic human interaction.
Indeed, one senses that healthy skepticism has been thrown to the wind when a research associate from the Department of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell can write that small-scale sustainable agriculture will “begin the movement to a more sustainable society in general, where materialism and heedlessness are replaced by community-based values and responsibility.” Speaking for the international slow-food movement, Carlo Petrini whips himself into a similar froth of righteousness, remarking that the local economy “is in perfect harmony with nature… The people of a certain place and their local economy are extraordinarily compatible with a philosophy of sustainable development.”
When it comes to local food and a sense of community, writes Marcia Ruth Ostrum (in a piece that ultimately challenges the virtues of local food), consumers are bound to be as one because they “can run their hands through the soil that produces their food… even as they make their stand for social and environmental improvements.” Vandana Shiva, an outspoken activist for the virtues of local production and slow food, takes the communitarian rhetoric to a new level when, describing the scene at the 2004 Terra Madre gathering in Italy, she recalls, “Despite the diversity and differences, everyone was connected: connected through the earth, our Mother, Terra Madre; connected through food, the very web of life; connected through our common humanity, which makes the peasant the equal of a prince.”
Even if it does call for a deep breath, the ring of political empowerment here is appealing. However, given the sanguine extremes to which these opinions stretch, we have an obligation to ask if these earnest communitarian assumptions are in fact grounded in the reality of everyday social relations. Does a local food system enhance the integrity of a community? Some critics are starting to wonder if this is necessarily the case. Writing in the Journal of Rural Studies, the sociologist Clare Hinrichs warns that “making ‘local’ a proxy for the good and ‘global’ a proxy for the bad may overstate the value in proximity.” Building on this suspicion, she acknowledges that many small farms are indeed more sustainable than larger ones, but then adds the critical caveat that “small scale, ‘local’ farmers are not inherently better environmental stewards.”
Often, of course, we have strong evidence that a small agricultural operation is very deserving of a sustainable gold star. Many small farmers maintain an impressive level of transparence, which helps alleviate any lurking concerns about their practices. In turn, their communities ostensibly become more cohesive because of shared pride in their genuine environmental progress. But this process is not democratic or broadly shared. It is generally only the elite few who have the time and money to buy produce from a transparently sustainable farm. Therefore, instead of fostering a community free of competition and greed, local food could just as easily highlight and perpetuate a community’s stark, sometimes bitter differences.
Indeed, it very often does. As Patricia Allen, of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California at Santa Cruz, argues, when efforts to attain community food security for the poor are joined with efforts to have local systems supply the food, the results are not the strengthening of community bonds but their destruction. Allen questions the premise that communities “will make better decisions about food systems,” noting how it depends on “fluid cooperation among groups with quite different interests.” Such an expectation is unlikely in any social context, but when the social context we’re talking about is framed by food, the knives drawn are inevitably sharpened.
One example of the tension that may arise when food becomes a local concern was recently played out in a noted Santa Monica farmers’ market. As in any market with limited supplies of a product, consumers compete to acquire the limited goods available. In larger markets the competition is not face-to-face, and thus buying and selling normally proceed with minimal tension. But when consumers carry out transactions in the small but very public arena of the farmers’ market, the disputes are face-to-face and as a result can quickly become personal. So when chefs of local high-end restaurants began to send in buyers at the crack of dawn to gobble up local ingredients at the famous Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, the household consumers who thought the market was theirs alone erupted in protest. As one longtime market denizen explained, “It’s not just this little mom-and-pop thing anymore, the way it was back twenty years ago.”
The anger between individuals and local restaurants subsided only when it was replaced by another conflict. Corporate buyers from outside the community began to arrive with trucks and cart away half the market within a half-hour of its opening. “This is my last day here,” fumed one chagrined chef who thought the market was there to serve his restaurant, adding snidely that with so much going to large produce companies, the market has “become some kind of boutique wholesale operation.” The farmers, for their part, were the ones in control. They were the decision-makers, and they sold to the first bidder, seemingly unconcerned with assuaging the so-called communal harmony of the venue.
I don’t mean to suggest that such disputes characterize the farmers’ market. We must, though, remain aware that localizing the food supply automatically means that a small group of people will have enormous influence over what the rest of the community eats (or doesn’t). This power imbalance can alienate and anger just as easily as it can assuage and pacify. “The presumption that everyone can participate,” writes Allen, “is a magician’s illusion.” The result is a local food system in which a self-elected cohort of decision-makers deliver to the masses their own subjective vision of what a healthy, virtuous, and environmentally sound diet should look like. The rest just get what they’re given, leave, or resist in ways that undermine the process of community development. In this sense, culinary localism can backfire on the community it’s supposed to improve.
There’s a related element to this argument. When the infra-structure of food production and distribution shrinks to accommodate the local population alone, when middlemen are axed from the supply chain, certain kinds of jobs disappear. Perhaps it goes without saying that these jobs are not employment opportunities that the privileged clientele of the farmers’ markets are going to miss. Instead, the burden exclusively hits the “traditionally marginalized,” people whose primary concerns in life do not involve securing heirloom tomatoes and baby squash cultivated within a 100-mile radius of their domains. “I participated in a conference session,” recalls Patricia Allen, “in which the leaders of a food security project were proud of its success in reducing imports of food from outside the locality. They were uninterested, however, in the negative effect this localization might have on those who had depended on the previous arrangements.”
The essence of this section can be reduced to a single, if controversial, observation: culinary localism inevitably boils down to some form of arbitrary cultural (or agricultural) power. Theoretically, this exclusivity could change, and it would be great if it did, but for now it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that the locavore movement leaves many American consumers alienated rather than inspired to think about, much less work toward, agrarian sustainability.
And thus the locavore’s dilemma comes full circle. Whereas the push to develop alternative local food systems began as a way of democratizing fresh food, the quest to keep matters local has thus far ended up empowering the self-styled tastemakers while excluding the masses. Melanie DuPuis, an often strong booster of localizing the food supply, asks, “Who gets to define ‘the local’? What exactly is ‘quality’ and who do you trust to provide you with this quality? What kind of society is the local embedded in?” Pondering these questions, she ends up confronting a scenario in which “a small, unrepresentative group decides what is ‘best’ for everyone and then attempts to change the world by converting everyone to accept their utopian ideal.”
Regrettably, this sounds very close to the critique that locavores have been making about agribusiness for decades. When one of the movement’s most thoughtful and well-informed advocates admits that localism can be “a way for local elites to create protective territories for themselves,” we can be hopeful that meaningful change is on the horizon.
Not only does the “eat local” argument have its inherent problems, but it sets up locavores for the very turn of events that agrarian resistance movements have fallen prey to for over forty years: a corporate takeover of their ideas once they become popular enough to be marketable. In fashioning itself as an alternative to the conventional food system, the locavore proposition has reduced itself to a brand. Like any good brand, it presents an image of purity while concealing a range of flaws.
As the French reliance on terroir proves, a nation, a region, and a locality can play the brand game just as well as any corporation. France’s emotional investment in its agricultural traditions certainly has deep roots in a genuine and collective national sentiment. Nevertheless, one cannot overlook the fact that local producers benefit substantially when state-sponsored designations keep legitimate competition at bay. When France booted Mondavi out of the country in 2001 for not fully grasping the essence of terroir, local producers celebrated the decision for reasons beyond the fact that French culture had somehow been preserved. Profits, too, had been protected. Under the guise of a cultural quest to honor tradition, vintners successfully guarded precious market share.
Thus, when Britain’s Farmers Weekly magazine promotes the slogan that “local food is miles better,” as it currently does, one suspects that a similarly economically inspired strategy is couching itself in the more benign guise of environmental sustainability. This trend is going mainstream, and in so doing it exposes the brand to being used in ways that true locavores would abhor.
The surest indication that “eat local” is being coopted and reduced to the equivalent of an advertising slogan is the phrase’s current popularity with agribusiness marketers and conventional food retailers. Just as “organic” was quickly exploited and transformed by corporate interests once its market share became worthy of corporate notice, so it goes with “eat local.” Writing in Business News, Dominique Patton calls food miles “one of the most effective marketing tools for UK-produced food.” The major supermarkets Tesco and Marks & Spencer, without paying a whit of attention to the LCAs of the products they sell, are planning to place little airplane labels on food flown into the country. The justification is supposedly environmental—“it would be disingenuous of us to not put aeroplane stickers on these products,” says an earnest Tesco representative—but it’s hard to overlook the fact that, as another executive notes, local food “is the fastest-growing part of our business.” Tesco, in short, wants to corner an emerging market.
These efforts are eagerly encouraged by domestic agribusinesses in the UK, who also see prospects of gold in the promotion of green. As Patton explains, “Food miles have gained more traction than other miles because they fit particularly well with concerns about the waning domestic farming sector.” Surveying agribusiness’s sudden sympathy with the “eat local” philosophy, Bill Vorley of the International Institute of Environment and Development observes that “it’s quite ironic that mainstream agriculture, which has been on a free trade wagon for years, is now using the food-miles debate to promote their goods.” But what matters when it comes to exploiting the “eat local” brand is not consistency but marketability. As Ryan Smith, a researcher at SRI International, notes, “Businesses are taking the opportunity to differentiate themselves from their competition, especially in the supermarket sector, where branding is very important.” Adds Emma Howard Boyd, another SRI researcher, “It is no longer about principles but also profit.” Such a comment has an eerie ring to anyone who watched the organic movement go into crisis mode over a similar transmutation of its founding values.
The branding of “eat local,” as well as the subsequent corporate exploitation of that brand, has taken place in the United States with equally paradoxical outcomes. In 2008 the Chipotle Mexican Grill, a Denver-based fast-food chain, vowed to purchase 25 percent of one item at each store from local farmers as part of its “Food with Integrity” initiative. This decision, which included buying local pork in Virginia from Polyface Farms, was widely heralded by locavores as a harbinger of change for fast food in general. It came, moreover, on the heels of a Wal-Mart promise to spend $400 million a year on local produce as part of its “Commitment to You” program. In a similar vein, Bon Appétit Management, which operates more than 400 dining halls throughout the country and serves more than 80 million meals a year, has determined, as one newspaper report put it, to make “local sourcing a centerpiece of its brand.” It’s all part of their “Farm to Fork” program.
The corporate commentaries that accompany these well-packaged transitions provide a hit list of environmentally inspired quotables. A high-profile green gesture, however small, evidently allows otherwise conventional food producers to take high moral ground—a point the media, smitten with tales of corporate responsibility, rarely mention. The Bon Appétit press release, for example, praises the company’s “radical approach to the business of food service by bringing sustainably grown foods to the American public.” A regional operations manager from Chipotle explained his company’s dedication to the “eat local” philosophy by pointing out that “for so many people, it’s about price… For us, it’s about building relationships and knowing we’ll have a better product over the long run.” One could be forgiven for thinking there’s a rat in the rhetoric. After all, most of the laudatory coverage failed to note that Chipotle purchases millions of pounds of animal flesh every year, making the Polyface pork purchase a well-publicized drop in the bucket of the company’s overall meat expenditures.
Corporations are not the only ones that have capitalized on the “eat local” mantra in order to greenwash their images and boost profits at the expense of a brand originally designed to criticize commercialism. As Clare Hinrichs has argued, there’s a “politics of food system localization” that’s evident in state-sponsored efforts to promote goods produced in the state. Putting aside the question of how “local” has been allowed to substitute for “the state” (works best in Rhode Island, not so well in Texas), media productions such as Iowa’s “banquet meals,” vast smorgasbords of Iowa food initiated by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, highlight how a “defensive localism” can easily morph into “food patriotism.” As Hinrichs observes, the definition of “’local foods’ has subtly shifted from food raised ‘in this county or one nearby’ to food raised ‘in Iowa.’ ”
It all seems fairly innocuous, until you consider the implications of this shift. A movement once dedicated to the proposition that local food was environmentally sound food is now serving the purpose of state boosterism. Praising the success of the first banquet, which took place in 1997, the food policy expert Neil Hamilton tellingly remarked, “These efforts will do more to create opportunities for Iowa farmers and add more ‘value’ to our food system than any TV commercial.” It was with such marketing-driven logic that “eat local” became a brand signifying virtue, something that Iowa, setting the model for other states to follow, used chauvinistically to promote products made by Iowa businesses, regardless of what they were making, how they were making it, or the resources being exploited in the process. And thus another original intention of the locavore movement went up in the smoke of factory-farmed pork and monoculturally grown corn.
Branding “eat local” leads to another problem, one that goes beyond the threat of being coopted to serve the ulterior purposes of an opportunistic corporation or an innovative chamber of commerce. By their very nature, small agricultural operations fit poorly into the established infrastructure of food production and distribution. If forced—that is, if small operations integrate into larger food systems—this mismatch could prove fatal for the locavore project as a whole. Joel Salatin, the evangelical-libertarian-radical ecologist who heads Polyface Farms in Swope, Virginia (and who was introduced to fame by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma), certainly appreciates the opportunity to provide sustainable pork to Chipotle. At the same time, he admits with characteristic candor that “the average local foodie has no idea why farmers like us can’t access a larger portion of the market… We’ve been a square peg in a round hole for Chipotle.”
As Salatin’s comments suggest, the economics of scaling up local operations and successfully weaving them into preexisting global food systems face serious obstacles. This isn’t to condemn the small guy for being small. It’s only to say that these obstacles demand that the small guy fundamentally change his ways in order to compete in the big guy’s system. If the Chipotle idea of sourcing pork locally catches on, a place such as Polyface Farms will confront two choices: either allow market share to go to another small producer or scale up to capture that market. One doesn’t need to be an economist to grasp these options, but one would have to be an idealist to think that small producers as a rule are happily going to forgo more business. This looming paradox underscores the importance of finding ways for systems such as Polyface and Chipotle to coexist independently rather than undertaking a form of “cooperation” that’s bound to ultimately undermine the small farming ethic at the expense of the larger endeavor.
As I’ve repeatedly argued, we have an obligation to foster more sustainable larger systems to feed the world. At the same time, we must encourage small sustainable efforts to serve niche markets. As it now stands, however, “eat local” is a brand that’s scaling up to match the patterns of larger systems, a move that will automatically dilute the values that inspired the effort to keep food local in the first place. Because those founding values are quite sound—because the locavore ethic has a viable place in a larger portfolio of solutions—we should honor the role they play by supporting them where they currently work rather than expecting them to scale up into bloated versions of their former selves.
As Salatin notes, the logistical consequences of pushing the square peg into the round hole are rarely appreciated by consumers. It’s good to seek local produce, but to insist that such behavior should be universal has unexplored negative outcomes. For one, producers of sustainable food on a small scale cannot supply their products on a year-round basis. Not only is a constant supply a modern luxury that most consumers will always demand from retailers, but how could any storage and distribution service stay in business if it depended on seasonal produce from small growers spread over a vast region? Adding to the distribution conundrum is the problem of scale. Mundane as it seems, the small guy cannot provide food in quantities that even midsized wholesalers and retailers demand in order to justify a contract economically. In essence, to relocalize the food supply nationally would be like replacing cars with skateboards and telling everyone to use the highway.
In regions of the country that enjoy high levels of local production, distribution systems are indeed becoming flexible to accommodate the needs of small and midsized growers. In those exceptional areas where geography supports small-scale farming, this is as it should be. But there are built-in limits to how far such a transition can go in most places. At the very least, in order to justify and support a locally crafted distribution system, a region requires not only comparative geographical advantage but also a reliable cadre of relatively well-off and highly educated consumers willing to pay a lot more for microgreens and baby squash. These regional systems are truly wonderful when they emerge organically, but as natural manifestations of a grassroots movement, they’re the exceptions that prove the rule.
The larger infrastructure of food distribution is intricate. Realistically, it’s not going crumble because a bunch of locavores come along, get great press, and insist that everything scale down. While there’s much room for making our current distribution networks more efficient, the prospect of undertaking a wholesale restructuring of global, national, and even regional transportation in order to accommodate the niche interests of small farmers and their locavore loyalists is little more than a pipe dream for the vast majority of regions in the developed world. More realistically, if the small guy wants to reach a big market, he’ll have no choice but to scale up—something that “big organic” did, while in the process selling its sustainable soul to the diabolical designs of big agriculture.
The argument that we must relocalize the nation’s distribution networks to accommodate small growers ultimately runs into an inconvenient question: should every region even have a local food system? Regions with climate and soil conditions poorly suited for diversified agricultural production must dedicate substantial inputs to fossil fuel and water. This is true whether the operations are big or small, mom-and-pop or franchised.
Should regions that are seeking self-sufficiency in environmentally stressed locations be accommodated with a custom-designed distribution and processing system—not to mention a community willing to engage in the contradiction of sacrificing precious local resources to support a supposedly environmentally friendly ideology? If, for example, the only way a region that’s highly populated but perpetually dry can grow local is through costly and environmentally damaging irrigation projects, should residents eat local? Should cities like Tuscon, Las Vegas, and Phoenix—three of the cities in the country that have the most limited water supplies—import water to nurture a local foodshed? As Jennifer Wilkins, a scholar at Cornell’s Division of Nutritional Sciences, writes, “In the long run, of course, and increasingly in the short run as well, significant food production may not be possible in these regions.” At the least, we need to start systematically mapping where localism is viable and where it is not.
Locavores will often respond to this line of attack by arguing that people should not be moving to these areas in the first place. But again, that kind of logic sends us back to never-never land. Unless one can envision the government in a country like the United States seriously telling citizens and corporations that they cannot settle in a particular region because the resources do not conform to a locavore vision, we’re back to the thorny reality that some places simply cannot, on environmental grounds, justify a localized food system.
Even in locales that have great potential to provide a region with considerable food, there are reasons to be skeptical that it’s an achievable idea. Consider fruit and vegetable production in New York. The Empire State is naturally equipped to grow a wide variety of fruits, including pears, cherries, strawberries, and some peaches. But none of these compare to its ability to grow apples and grapes, which dominate production, accounting for 94 percent of all fruit grown. At current levels of fruit production, apples are the only crop that could currently feed New Yorkers at a level meeting the U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowances. Every other fruit that the state produces is not being harvested at a level that would provide all New Yorkers with an adequate supply. Other fruits, such as bananas and oranges, are not produced at all because conditions are unfavorable for growing them. What does this situation mean in terms of feeding the state with the state’s own produce? In a nutshell, it means citizens would have to give up tropical fruits altogether; rarely indulge in a pear, a peach, or a bowl of strawberries; and gorge on grapes and apples—most of them in processed form, as juice, canned, or as concentrate.
Eating state vegetables poses its own problems. Of all vegetables produced in New York, only nine of the eighty most consumed cannot be produced within the state. This statistic is encouraging for the prospect of local consumption. Not only is the region naturally conducive to growing a diversity of vegetables, but it’s already doing so to such an extent that it could provide enough beets, cabbage, onions, pumpkins, snap peas, and sweet corn to feed the state populace an adequate diet of vegetables. So what’s the trouble?
The devil, as usual, is in the details. As with fruit production, to move vegetables from New York fields to New York forks would demand, in Wilkins’s terms, “a rebuilding of the processing industry.” Whereas the global economy’s infrastructure allows the importation of fresh produce all year round, consumers of New York–only produce would have to accept processed fruit and vegetables in the off-season. Since the stuff would not be exported, it would be frozen, canned, juiced, or pickled. Whereas the conventional system of production and distribution has in place a series of large-scale processing centers capable of handling these tasks in a handful of isolated locations, localities do not.
Do you really want a local cannery? Herein lies the rub. As three scholars writing in the British Food Journal explain, “In recent decades large-scale food processing and production has been undertaken in factories on industrial estates, but a return to small units within communities may well bring environmental problems such as smell, pollution, waste disposal, visual intrusion, and nuisance for those communities.” Localities might be thrilled with the prospect of a sprawling farmers’ market in their neighborhood, but what about a small fish processing plant designed especially to meet local needs? One imagines it wouldn’t be long before a “defensive politics of localism” became “not in my backyard,” perhaps punctuated with “Eat local, process elsewhere” bumper stickers. Moreover, given that the New York case study is one that covers a relatively large area of production (it’s 400 miles from New York City to Buffalo), these problems would be exponentially compounded for locavores who wanted to keep diets within a 100-mile radius.
So how do we start rethinking matters of scale, scope, and distribution? First we must back off the food-miles gauge. As we’ve seen, more and more studies are making this case. For example, in May 2007 a group of scientists gathered in London for the Carbon Footprint Supply Chain Summit. Judging from the esoteric nature of the topics slated for discussion, conversations veered from the nerdish to the wonkish. Fortunately, the organizers saw fit to distill the conference’s main findings down to a few easily digestible abstracts and graphs. One chart highlighting the scientists’ conclusion on food miles, called “Assessment,” captures in as succinct form as I’ve seen the arguments I’ve been developing throughout this chapter. It reads: “1) Comprehension by public of food miles: HIGH; 2) Measurement and calculation of food miles: EASY; 3) Planet saving ability: POOR.”
And that, in a nutshell, is it. Food miles are readily popular primarily because they’re easy to grasp and calculate. None of this is to suggest that we should ignore the distance our food travels. However, it does urge the open-minded consumer to reassess the relative importance of eating local, given the broader dynamics of energy expenditure during food production. The facile assumption that local is better must go.
It makes much more sense, once this clarification has taken place, for concerned consumers to focus attention on factors of production and consumption that really matter—that is, those that most actively undermine the goal of providing food in a sustainable fashion. Buying local is smart when natural conditions justify the production of local goods. Given the stubborn realities of geography, however, chances are slim that one local environment can sustainably accommodate the diverse range of goods that make up a healthy modern diet.
Globally, freshwater resources are by no means equally distributed. In fact, 2.3 billion people in twenty-one countries live in geographies that are designated “water-stressed basins,” which means that there are only 1000 to 1700 cubic meters of water per person per year. Another 1.7 billion, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, “live in basins under scarcity conditions (with less than a 1000 m3 per person per year).” What these figures mean is that “much of the world’s human population growth and agricultural expansion is taking place in water-stressed regions.” It’s fine and good for naturally lush regions of the developed world to pursue the noble goals of local production and consumption, but the last thing we want to do as stewards of the environment is universalize such an ethic. After all, the imperative of sustainability demands that more than half the world should get its food from elsewhere.
The locavore approach might do a very good job of explaining how regions naturally predisposed to produce a diverse local food supply can do so. It says very little, however, about how we might export from these areas to water-stressed regions that cannot provide their own food without extensive importations of water. It says very little, in other words, about trade.
Throughout modern history, humans, always desirous of something new, crisscrossed oceans and mountains to pursue a basic human endeavor: exchanging food. There’s little chance that we’re going to cease this historically inbred itinerant behavior because a small cohort of locavores erroneously argues that everyone must go local to save the planet. The new locavore challenge should thus be incorporating models of environmentally sound trade into their broader efforts to improve our food supply.
The refusal to do so will leave the locavore movement stuck on several questions. Where will the land come from for a localist transition to happen en masse? What about labor? The farmers? The knowledge? The discipline? The sacrifice? How many college graduates are realistically going to go into farming, not as a temporary hobby but for life? Right now less than 2 percent of the U.S. population provides our food. Even if that number expanded by a factor of five—an occupational shift without precedent—we’d have nowhere near enough growers for a relocalized food supply.
When 60,000 people gathered in San Francisco in the summer of 2008 to celebrate the essence of local food, slow food, and small farming, the press went gaga. But nobody at this culinary Woodstock asked the basic logistical questions. Nobody pondered the reality of how this change would take place. Again, universalize the “eat local” movement and think through the consequences. I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit doing just that, and all I can come up with, over and over again, is I don’t see how it could work.
Fortunately, there are more achievable goals for us to reach, and many of them are elaborated in the pages ahead. But for now we can work to develop renewable energy sources to power the energy-hogging phases of large-scale food production (for instance, using solar energy rather than natural gas to make fertilizer), food storage systems that are energy-efficient, and sustainable home kitchens and cooking habits. We should also support agricultural practices that reduce land dedicated to food production (while increasing yield and fostering wilderness preservation), recycle safe agricultural waste back into the land, and reduce the number of farm animals clogging agricultural systems.
I know, I know: dull stuff. It’s so much sexier to reiterate the mantra of eating local, growing rooftop gardens, foraging for wild dandelion balls, and keeping backyard hens. And all this is wonderful. We can keep things local—we should keep things local—but we must also stop insisting that our behavior is, if universalized, a viable answer to the world’s present and future food problems. One of the most critical steps we can take toward a genuinely feasible, sustainable system of global food production is not necessarily to eat local but to think global. We should also probably come to terms with the fact that there’s nothing sexy or fashionable about feeding the world an environmentally sustainable diet. It requires work, thought, compromise, and sacrifice.
Ultimately, we need to go beyond “local” and “global” and all the moral judgments these terms convey in order to establish a complex food system that’s intelligently integrated into worldwide environmental conditions. Imagine a number of regional food systems bound together with a series of hub-and-spoke arrangements designed to accommodate the basic environmental reality that certain foods grow especially well in certain places and at certain times of the year. In this scenario, the hubs would be the tender sweet spots of food production, areas where the climatic and geological conditions justify the midscale production of goods for local and distant markets. The spokes would be the clean, energy-efficient lines of travel and transport. Trade—often long-distance trade—would be assumed, but everything at the hubs would be open to regimes of improved efficiency.
To a large extent the global economy has naturally developed such a model of production and distribution, albeit with glaring imperfections. We don’t buy coffee beans grown in New Jersey, bananas from South Dakota, or wine from northern Canada for good reason: the laws of comparative advantage (when untarnished by subsidies; see Chapter 6) wouldn’t allow for such absurdities. A more consciously designed and internationally sanctioned program of trade would systematically underscore the power of the hub-and-spoke logic, rewarding producers who locate their operations in areas where the environmental conditions are most appropriate and economically punishing those who try to coax abundance from a desert in order to take advantage of cheap labor, affordable land, subsidies, or preexisting irrigation systems.
As consumers, moreover, we can foster the hub-and-spoke system just as readily as we can foster the “eat local” philosophy. When an English consumer purchases fresh, in-season green beans locally and then, when the beans are out of season, buys them from Kenya rather than from a local hothouse, he supports the hub-and-spoke logic. When a Bostonian chooses sustainably raised farmed fish sent from Alabama instead of endangered cod caught with a beam trawl and processed a few miles away, she adheres to the hub-and-spoke logic. When a flour mill buys foreign wheat from minimally irrigated land and harvested with fuel-efficient harvesters rather than from a local producer who uses dull blades and grows in water-stressed land, it adheres to the hub-and-spoke logic. Granted, much more information must become available for us to make proper decisions within an LCA framework. But if we can measure the distance food can travel, we can certainly measure the carbon footprint created by the major inputs of production.
But all those miles! you protest. Yes, indeed, all those miles. Even granting the importance of LCAs—that is, even in light of the fact that transportation is a relatively small factor when it comes to the energy expended before food gets to our fork—those miles still matter. It is thus fitting that in 2007, transportation wonks from the UK met in order to deliver a challenge and offer extensive advice on how to achieve transportation efficiency. Promising to follow the lead of “fact, not emotion,” the group called on the food industry to “reduce the social and environmental costs of domestic food transport by 20 percent by 2012.”
Eating local, interestingly enough, never came up. Their argument, in the awkwardly titled “Report of the Food Industry Sustainability Strategy Champions’ Group on Food Transport,” aimed for “friendlier miles” rather than fewer miles. And rather than calling for a lifestyle change among millions of consumers in order to possibly reduce one small factor of production, the scientists, who declared the importance of “working with the grain,” explored the feasibility of dozens of energy-reducing tactics in the transport sector. In the end, though, they settled on “six big initiatives” to achieve the 20 percent reduction. They are greater-capacity vehicles, out-of-hours deliveries, engine specifications, vehicle telematics (better route planning), transport collaboration (industrial carpooling), and logistics systems redesign.
And you’re thinking to yourself, Yawn. Sure, things like vehicle telematics and transport collaboration are not the stuff to inspire movements or drive media reports. But they are, as it turns out, the stuff of real environmental change. And so, as conscientious consumers, we might have to forgo the trendy green slogans and take on a more challenging task, one that asks us to think more critically, creatively, and comprehensively about how food is produced and consumed. Naturally, it’d be easier just to “eat local” and call it a day. But that short bike ride to the farmers’ market would only obscure the fact that we have many miles to go.
Excerpted from Just Food by McWilliams, James Copyright © 2010 by McWilliams, James. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University.He was a fellow at Yale University's Agrarian Studies Program, and is the author of three previous books. He has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.He lives in Austin, Texas.
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Chock full of information that makes one think. McWilliams seems to have done his homework!