Tom PhilpottThe contrarian’s dilemma

By Tom Philpott, Grist food editor and Maverick Farms cofounder

Posted Friday, August 20, 1:30 pm PDT

I’m not sure exactly why — whether it’s happenstance, the fashion for contrarianism in media circles, or something else — but occasionally, the New York Times op-ed page sees fit to deliver the following message to its readers: Hey, industrial-food-system critic: I hate to break this to you, but you’re wrong. Sure, there are nice things about local, seasonal produce — I like it myself! — but if you take a hard-headed look at food production, you’ll find that pretty much the best food system we could possibly have stands right in front of us. Nothing to reform here; everything’s fine. Eat up … and don’t worry about where it comes from or how it’s grown!

Priest with kaleHave you heard the good news about locally grown kale?

The person delivering the message, mind you, is actually quite sympathetic to local food; often even grows his own. It’s the dogma and the arbitrary rules around it that the writer finds galling, that and the presumption that local food can somehow save the world. Because the world does not need saving, the writer thinks — at least not from the food system.

In a 2007 New York Times op-ed called “Food That Travels Well,” Texas State University historian James McWilliams laid down the pattern. First, he established his I-heart-local bona fides: “There are many good reasons for eating local,” he declares; “freshness, purity, taste, community cohesion, and preserving open space.” Then he points out the flaw:

… but none of these benefits compares to the much-touted claim that eating local reduces fossil fuel consumption. In this respect eating local joins recycling, biking to work and driving a hybrid as a realistic way that we can, as individuals, shrink our carbon footprint and be good stewards of the environment.

Soon enough, we get the hammer blow:

We must also be prepared to accept that buying local is not necessarily beneficial for the environment. As much as this claim violates one of our most sacred assumptions, life cycle assessments offer far more valuable measurements to gauge the environmental impact of eating.

Today’s “Math Lessons for LocavoresTimes op-ed by Stephen Budiansky amounts to an echo of the McWilliams piece. Budiansky opens with a bucolic paean to his own locavore tendencies:

It’s 42 steps from my back door to the garden that keeps my family supplied nine months of the year with a modest cornucopia of lettuce, beets, spinach, beans, tomatoes … You’ll get no argument from me about the pleasures and advantages to the palate and the spirit of eating what’s local, fresh, and in season.

Followed by the big “but”:

But the local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas. Arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis, are repeated as gospel by “locavores,” celebrity chefs, and mainstream environmental organizations.

And then the calm, patient explanation of hard-headed reality:

The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates, and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies — and then pay the relatively tiny energy cost to get them to market, as we do with every other commodity in the economy. Sometimes that means growing vegetables in your backyard. Sometimes that means buying vegetables grown in California or Costa Rica.

In other words, on the whole, things are great just the way they are.

The first thing to note here — editors and would-be media moguls, listen up — is that contrarians, too, can lapse into formulaic and repetitive arguments. McWilliams in 2007 and Budiansky in 2010 both went hunting for the exact same game: the shrill locavore who demands that everyone eat only food grown within a hundred miles, in order to save transportation energy. And both flatten that hapless specimen with a shotgun blast of impeccable logic.

The second thing to note is that the unfortunate locavore now splayed out before us is a phantom, a specter, what logicians call a straw man.

“Arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis, are repeated as gospel by locavores,’ celebrity chefs, and mainstream environmental organizations,” complains Budiansky. But he fails to spell out even one of those onerous rules, or name a single locavore, celebrity chef, or organization preaching it.

You know why? Because they don’t really exist; or if they do, they exert no discernible influence on the sustainable food movement. All of the leading lights in the movement who I know think in terms of regional, not strictly local, food economies. Fred Kirschenmann, surely one of the movement’s most influential thinkers, has been advocating for regional food economies, and the importance of mid-sized farms, for at least 15 years.

And if you talk to leaders in the urban-agriculture movement, you’ll get the same thing. Will Allen of Milwaukee’s Growing Power is
famous for turning his city’s food waste into rich compost, and using that compost to grow top-quality food in Milwaukee. But if you talk to him, you’ll find that his main commitment is to bring a robust variety of accessibly priced food into Milwaukee’s low-income neighborhoods in a way that adds, and doesn’t drain, economic vibrancy. That means growing food in Milwaukee; but it also means working with farms in the greater upper Midwest region, and even beyond. McWilliams and Budiansky might be surprised to see bananas on sale at Growing Power’s grocery store, alongside Milwaukee-grown tomatoes and tilapia.

I recently talked to Malik Yakini, leader of the Detroit Black Food Security Network and a leading light in that city’s urban-ag revival. He, too, stressed the importance of thinking regionally, of working with farmers from Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois to recreate a functioning food system in Detroit.

So McWilliams and Budiansky can stop wringing their hands. No one is going to cajole them — much less force them — to subsist on a 100-mile diet.

Now, there are some specific things I want to take on in Budiansky’s essay, such as his defense of a food system based on comparative advantage, which favors vast monocrops concentrated in certain regions. But I’ll get to that next week, after some of our invited guests have had their say.