Do locavores really need math lessons?
Posted Sunday, August 22, 10:45 am PDT
Ditto, ditto, ditto to Ken, Kerry, and Tom’s well-articulated reactions to Budiansky. I thought I would pipe in with a few more points.
Budiansky argues that we should be advocating for raising crops in “places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies.” I remember hearing all about this economic argument in graduate school; it’s called “comparative advantage.”
In principle, all reasonable people — and I put most locavores in this category even if Budiansky doesn’t — would agree that choices farmers make about what foods to grow, and what time of year to grow them, should be informed by place. I haven’t heard of any locavores advocating for Hudson Valley pineapples.
But a food system based on a simplistic notion of “comparative advantage” is far from the reality of industrial agriculture that Budiansky seems to be defending, and much closer to the one we locavores are fighting for.
In the real world, here’s what happens — and what the sustainable food movement, locavores among them, is working to change: North Carolina becomes the second-largest home of pork in the country, not because pigs have some particular penchant for the Outer Banks, but because the state’s lax labor laws appealed to pork producers and so did the government’s incentives to lure companies like Smithfield.
Another example: The United States comes to dominate the global market for corn (we control 71 percent of the market) not because corn is the best crop we could be growing, either for the ecological health of the Midwest or the physical health of consumers, since most of it is used for high-fat feedlot meat, high-fructose corn syrup, exports, or ethanol. No, corn’s “success” in those uses was made possible in large measure by U.S. government policies propping up the biggest industrial corn growers with $73.8 billion in subsidies from 1995 to 2009.
The reality of our food system has never been, and will probably never be, the result of this mythological “comparative advantage” in a free market. And agribusiness insiders know this. Referring to grain, an Archer Daniels Midland executive once said, “The only place you see a free market is in the speeches of politicians.”
What we grow and where we grow it is the predictable result of massive public subsidies to the largest industrial producers. In this context, the question that we locavores are asking is what kind of support and subsidies should we have, directed at which outcomes, and in whose interest? Do we want a food system that subsidizes chemical farming and feedlot meat production — the kind that has given rise to foodborne illnesses sickening hundreds of thousands every year and spreading salmonella causing a 380 million egg recall? Or one that fosters sustainable practices, fairly paid farmers and food workers, clean water and healthy soils, all while bringing us affordable good-tasting food?
If only Budiansky would really listen, these are the questions we locavores are asking.
Anna Lappé is a national bestselling author, sustainable food advocate, and mom. The founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and Small Planet Fund, her latest book is Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It. Anna is also the co-author of Hope’s Edge, with her mother, Frances Moore Lappé, and Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, with Bryant Terry.
By Jill Richardson, author of Recipe for America
Posted Sunday, August 22, 10:45 am PDT
Stephen Budiansky, author of the appropriately named blog The Liberal Curmudgeon, totally misses the point. He reduces the idea of eating local to a simple question of distance, with no regard for seasonality or growing methods. And he buys into a favorite (false) argument of advocates for industrial ag, that the current food system, in which a tiny percent of the population produces food for us all, frees the rest of us from backbreaking labor, as well as reduces the amount of land required to grow food for the nation. He says that this food system requires a mere 2 percent of our nation’s energy usage, a statistic that appears to come directly from his own butt.
[Editor’s note: Budiansky has a post on his blog today giving sources for all his numbers.]
To begin rebutting this pack of B.S., I must correct his notion of locavory. Despite attempts by national retailers to reduce “local food” to a mere question of miles (i.e. Lay’s potato chips claiming they come from locally grown potatoes), true locavores are after more than just miles. At its heart, the movement is about relationships. When you buy food at the store, your purchasing decision rests mainly on marketing claims. But when I pick up my weekly box of produce from Farmer Phil, I know exactly how and where he grew my food, and that his values are consistent with mine. Organic certification alone does not certify anything other than a minimum bar of standards; by buying from farmers who are part of my community, whose farms I’ve visited, I am contributing to my local economy, supporting my friends’ businesses, and getting great, fresh food. And the farmers from whom I buy are taking care of the land right near where I live.
And Budiansky’s idea that the current food system, in which a tiny percentage grows food for the many, saving the rest of us from this dirty job? Farming is hard, physical work, true, but it’s work that many people — although not all — enjoy. Being your own boss and working outdoors with nature are rewards one can’t get from an office cubicle. Also, small, sustainable farms are often much more productive on a per-acre basis than large industrialized farms. Just look at the Dervaes family farm in urban Pasadena, CA. Or, better yet, look at Cuba, which grows a majority of the nation’s produce on highly productive, organic farms located near population centers.
As Budiansky proves, it’s always easy to build a straw man and knock it down. But a look at the facts does not support his claims.
Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.