Do locavores really need math lessons?
By Dave Love, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future
Posted Monday, August 23, 1:10 pm PDT
I agree with Mr. Budiansky that freight is by some measures cheap, and that the interstate system and trains are convenient conduits from farms to distributors to markets, although this idea is not so new.
A more interesting question to tackle is: what does the desire to be a locavore say about our disjointed food system, and is there room for improvement by developing regional food systems?
Mr. Budiansky’s argument runs thin when we take a hard look at what consolidated industrial farming and food animal production “return to our land,” as he puts it. It is difficult to be in favor of a farming approach that relies upon mono-cropping using genetically modified seeds and synthetic fertilizers. Likewise, food animal production facilities make for poor neighbors when their (virtually unregulated) wastes and associated land application and spray-field sites spread allergens and antibiotic-resistant bacteria throughout farming communities.
So why pick on locavores? Because when they seek local food, they may also be seeking to buy organically grown or raised foods, from small to mid-sized farms, which can impact entrenched agribusiness interests. Changing food preferences and buying habits may be changing the way food is grown, distributed, and consumed.
For example, the American Meat Institute was defensive when the Meatless Monday campaign, for which Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future serves as a scientific advisor, suggested on NPR that reducing meat consumption one day a week could be good for your health, by potentially reducing saturated fat intake. It isn’t surprising: the average American spends about $550 annually on meat. If the conventional food-animal industry improved production methods by removing growth-promoting antibiotics and recognizing animal welfare, both the quality of their products and the perceptions of their customers may increase.
Food decisions carry weight, and so the lesson here is to speak with your fork and the farms will follow!
Dave Love, Ph.D, is a project director at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and regularly contributes to the livablefuture.com blog. He is a microbiologist with a background in public health and environmental science.
By Blake Hurst, Missouri farmer
Posted Monday, August 23, 10:42 am PDT
Jason and Colleen have started a winery. They’ve planted seven acres of grapes and last year, they made their first batch of wine in their basement.
We bought a bottle, which they had sealed with some sort of hot wax. Took a Swiss Army knife and a bit of farmer ingenuity to get it open. We went back to their winery last week for the grand opening of their new facility. Tasting bench in the front, made out of a beautiful piece of hand-finished native walnut. Their two kids playing in the back. They were so proud of their new business, and so glad to see every customer who came in the door, that it quite literally brought tears to my eyes. The wax seal is gone, the second year of wine is better than the first, and we’ll be customers for life.
I haven’t a clue whether their winery is less of a burden on the environment than a large corporate winery several states away. I’m glad to support a local business, happy to bring some agricultural diversity to our corn and soybean area, proud that my dollars will remain in my extended community.
Local food advocates ought to admit that size often does mean efficiency, that some areas are better suited to the production of some crops than others, that some food will efficiently travel a long ways before it is consumed.
Local food is a worthwhile endeavor without an environmental story, and doesn’t need one to thrive.
In fact, the case for local food is damaged by the stubborn refusal of locavores to admit that buying from local producers don’t necessarily save energy, and local production can often demand more application of pesticides and more intensive management than food grown far away. The humid Midwest and South can raise fruits and vegetables, but there are challenges from pests in the middle part of the country that growers in the arid West don’t face.
I’d rather eat a Missouri apple, but it has had a more perilous life than one from Washington State. Making claims that are so easy to dispute harms what is in most other respects an admirable effort to improve our diets and the farm economy of places like the one where I live.
A final thought, one won with some hard experience. Along with corn and soybeans, we raise flowers. We first started selling them at the farm, and then at a local grocery store, and finally to a regional garden center chain. We have consistently had to go farther in search of sales in order to have a viable business.
We love our local customers, and appreciate them, but our county only has 6,000 people. Without trucks and deliveries over a 250-mile radius, our flower business would not support our family.
In every sense, we’re the kind of family farm that is focus of the local food movement, but we can’t survive without shipping our product. Some crops and some areas just don’t lend themselves to local production, or local markets.
Blake Hurst is a farmer in Missouri and vice-president of the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation. Last July, he wrote a much-discussed essay, “The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-intellectuals,” countering opponents of industrial farming, for The American magazine, and is the author of the essay collection Real Life.
By Jennifer Maiser, founder of Eat Local Challenge
Posted Monday, August 23, 10:15 am PDT
There are many people more qualified to speak to Mr. Budiansky’s numbers and global economics than I, but I thought I’d remind everyone that food miles are a very small part of the reasons to eating locally.
I came to locavoreanism from a food-lover perspective. When I arrived in San Francisco over 10 years ago, I started going to farmers markets and finding a strong community built around eating food that had been out of the ground for hours instead of weeks, around supporting farmers whose names I knew, and around the seasons. As I watched summer tomatoes give way to autumn figs, then winter greens and — joyfully — spring peas and strawberries, my tastebuds awakened to a whole new way of eating.
It was only later that I started to think about the larger impacts of the way that I was eating. I support a local economy where the dollars stay close and are reinvested into counties near me. I look my farmers in the eye, ask them about their farm inputs and growing practices, and make decisions about who I support with my dollar based on those answers. I buy from farmers markets where foods don’t need to be packaged and few are refrigerated. The farmers who put food on my table generally are trying to have a light impact on the earth, and that shows through the way that they produce food.
As Ken mentions, there are so many factors to eating locally, and we locavores don’t total food miles or energy expended as we are eating our meals. When I am tasting my breakfast of scrambled local eggs with the first good tomatoes of the season, I’m not really doing any math whatsoever — I’m thinking of the farmers and the well-treated workers, and of the amazing flavor of my meal.
Not insignificantly, when we ask folks to eat locally, we are asking them to eat whole foods that are rarely processed. If the only thing that encouraging eating locally accomplished was getting people to eat more whole, real food, and less processed non-food, we would be taking large strides toward getting our nation healthier. Attacking obesity by getting folks out of the supermarkets and into the farmers markets is an important byproduct of encouraging the consumption of locally grown food.
Does eating locally give us a carbon footprint “out” because it saves so much energy that we don’t have to pay attention to the rest of the lifecycle? Not at all. We need to pay attention to how we get to the farmers market, how we treat our food when we get it home, and how much food we waste. But eating locally is a joyful step in the right direction — for our economy, our community, and our local sustainable farmers.
Jennifer Maiser is the founder of Eat Local Challenge, a website which encourages people from around the country to try eating locally. She will be hosting the sixth annual Eat Local Challenge in October 2010.
More stories in this series:
We’ve invited an array of food-policy experts along with a few Grist readers to debate whether there is indeed a food-safety crisis and if so, whether the current legislation before the Senate will protect eaters and punish the right producers.
In this first installment in our debate over the Food Safety Modernization Act, our experts lock horns over food-borne-illness data and whether the problems we have with the food system are about dirty, bumpy vegetables — or dirty, buggy cattle.
Our invited panel of experts — and two scrappy Grist readers — debate whether the bill now before the Senate will decrease large-scale food-borne illness outbreaks of the type we’ve recently seen in eggs and peanut butter.
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