A New York Times article disparaging local eating generated a fair amount of buzz when it was published last week, mostly writing it off. I’m not surprised, since it contains a number of flaws in logic.
I encountered the article when an acquaintance rather triumphantly brought it to a local-foods themed Shabbat dinner potluck. No worries; as a Jew I see real value in debate as a means for sorting out nuance and complexity in order to find the best answers possible.
In this case, I’m not sure the debate is useful, because the arguments presented seem both weak and strangely angry. The author refers to local eating as “gospel” and “arbitrary” and “do-gooder dogma,” words meant to be both extreme and divisive.
This isn’t useful because it feeds a false premise, the idea that local eating is a trend, a fashion statement, something to believe in only to an extreme, a position which usually leads to rejection. Those with such a viewpoint will seek not so much a sound argument as, what this article felt like, a platform for someone looking for a reason to dislike local eating and not really caring if it is soundly argued or not.
Granted, there are people looking for a reason to like local eating and who don’t care if the reasons for doing so are soundly argued. Maybe they’ll keep doing it, maybe they won’t, but I imagine in the meantime they’ll have some good meals.
It’s important to be wary of anything being treated as a trend, whether you agree with it or not. That’s simply not, well, sustainable. We have a cultural addiction to the cycle of treating ideas as dogma to adhere to and then dogma to discredit. It’s how we approach everything from our habits to our relationships to our politics. It’s very consumerist and it doesn’t encourage nuanced thought.
In reality, people eat local food (partly, primarily, entirely, etc) for a variety of very sensible reasons. And if we sound fervent sometimes,well, so might anyone who has just eaten a proper ripe tomato or raspberry.
But this article’s author assumes we all think the same way, and that we don’t care how something is produced as long as it’s produced nearby. Here’s an example of one such meaningless generalization:
The result has been all kinds of absurdities. For instance, it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in a California field because of the energy spent to truck it across the country; it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.
Really? Sinful? For someone using a headline about math lessons (although in his defense New York Times writers don’t generally create their own headlines), this is an awfully illogical statement, drawing a generalization without any scientific basis (something he also accuses local eaters of doing). “Sinful” and “virtuous” are divise words, sure, but they’re also puzzlingly over-applied. Also, the local-foods fans I know in New York City are happy to wait until summer to buy (or grow, like my friend Karyn in Astoria) their tomatoes, no greenhouse necessary.
The author’s other main premise is that the current food system is very efficient and that eating locally-grown produce will do little to nothing to reduce energy use. But he uses a lot of bait-and-switch arguments to defend this premise, starting when it suits him with one idea some people hold about local eating, pursuing it part way, and then switching to a different one when convenient.
The statistics brandished by local-food advocates to support such doctrinaire assertions are always selective, usually misleading and often bogus.
A letter [first one on the page] published in response suggests the author’s numbers are actually misleading and bogus. The letter’s author points out: A recent Department of Agriculture study reported that 28 percent of food energy use comes from households while much of the rest — 57.6 percent — comes from the processing, packaging, transportation, wholesale and retail, and food service energy use that locavores are seeking to avoid.
The original statistics the article’s author discusses (brandishes?) are about calories of energy used in transporting food, energy cost of fertilizer, and so forth. But what he’s avoiding mentioning is that shipping is only one way in which absurdly-transported food (e.g. lettuce from 3,000 miles away when it’s grown 30 miles away and picked fresher) uses more energy. It’s true, one head of lettuce doesn’t use much more energy when it’s from California, but what about thousands of heads of lettuce? And fertilizer, while it may be an energy issue, is not primarily that — non-organic fertilizers can be detrimental to soil and water, and limit long-term sustainability of farm land.
Picking one angle (exact amounts of fuel used to transport food) and massaging numbers is misleading.
Local eating is and should be nuanced. Certainly, we can’t say for sure that the entire food system as it’s currently structured should be dismantled. But the movement toward supporting small, local farms using sustainable (organic, low energy, crop-varied) means of production is simply a very good idea. This is true whether you buy more produce from the place you live when it’s in season, or eat entirely locally-produced food, or anything in between.
Why? The reasons are as varied as summer produce. Here are just a few:
~ Produce shipped across the country is often (but not always) grown on very large-scale farms, sometimes owned by larger corporations. It’s like anything in our economy; while some families own and responsibly operate large farms that sell to distributors, there are many more instances of mom-and-pop operations bought up by larger companies. Growers lose economic and decision-making control over their farms, or lose their farms entirely.
~ Centralization isn’t a great idea when it comes to what we eat. This becomes apparent every time an outbreak of food-borne illness spreads rampantly throughout the country, from one distributor or large-scale grower. It’s also not a good idea to yield control of our food supply to a small number of companies.
~ Produce shipped across the country was probably not picked this morning, like the food I buy at my farmers’ market.
~ The produce at the farmers’ market usually tastes better, is riper.
~ Small-scale farmers are generally very good at what they do, and passionate about growing the best food they can, interesting varieties, and food that tastes good.
~ Local food at a farmers’ market is not subject to certain industrial regulations that don’t make sense, like requiring apples to be perfectly round. Such standards result in a great deal of food waste in this country (although some large producers encourage gleaning at their farms, or use other methods to attempt not to waste this food). Small producers can choose breeds for delicious flavor rather than shelf-life, transportability, color and so forth.
~ Some locally-produced, small-scale food is more nutritious. Produce grown in rich, healthy soil. Meat, dairy and eggs from animals on pasture on a small farm, not cooped up in cages or feedlots. It would be funny if it weren’t maddening to hear this argument disparaged by those who assume the argument is that any food produced locally is more nutritious.
~ We can save cross-country shipping of produce for areas where it’s really necessary or beneficial. I’m actually all for shipping citrus fruits in winter; they give us vitamin C and they’re a lovely break from winter foods. They’re also not going to supplant local fruit, although honestly I’m pretty content eating dried and frozen summer fruit through most of the winter. Peach pie in February does use freezer energy, but it also makes me really happy.
~ I like to think long-term. If we want farmland to be preserved, and varieties of produce to be preserved, we should support the people running those farms and growing that produce now. This may be especially urgent as climate changes; we may need to rely on crops that do well in a particular area or are tolerant of heat/cold/drought/etc. While I’m sure Monsanto would be happy to develop and patent some for us, I’d rather we not lose any more varieties that already exist.
Deceptively, the author suggests the amount of farmland in America is virtually unchanged. But the number of farms has been reduced drastically, and much existing farmland is now used to grow grains for unhealthy products like high fructose corn syrup, corn oil, white flour, etc.
I guess I’m not sure why the author wrote an article that seems bitter to the point of something personal going on. But if it gives local food appreciators a chance to reiterate that our reasons for eating what we do are based on science, math, economics, community benefit, and taste buds, we’ll take it.
Feel free to try calling it a trend, but barring any weather disasters, I don’t foresee a summer where I’ll say, “Oh, ripe summer tomatoes? Those are so last year.”