Sunday, July 22, 2007

Why Eat Locally? (Part one of an ongoing discussion)

cucumber-on-vineWhat's the big deal? Why should we make a point of eating more locally grown and produced foods? Over the next few weeks I'll discuss some of the reasoning I've found persuasive, starting with one of the real biggies:

  • Reduce fuel dependency: According to research summarized in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle ("AVM"), Americans consume about 400 gallons of oil a year per citizen for agriculture. About 20% is due to fuel use in production, including large-scale farming's heavy reliance on petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. 80% is attributable to getting food from the farm to the table, including transport, warehousing, packaging and refrigeration.
"Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles... If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country's oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week." (AVM, p.5)

We've come to a point, here in the year 2007, where talk of man-made global warming is no longer dismissed as fiction and the environmental and political costs of being so reliant on fossil fuels have finally penetrated the American psyche. The need for a change in our fuel-consumption behaviors is almost universally acknowledged. Eating locally is something we can do about it, starting today.

To be continued...

4 comments:

Rob Hardy said...

Hi, Penny. Welcome to blogging! Here in England (and the same is undoubtedly true in Minnesota), your argument about locally-grown produce is often countered by those who say that it, given the climate and length of the growing season, there is more of an environmental impact from growing locally in all-season greenhouses than there is from shipping food from Spain and South Africa (whence much of England's produce is imported). How can we eat with minimal impact in a climate where it's not easy to produce a balanced diet locally, year-round, without heating a greenhouse?

Penny said...

Hi Rob. Great question, and I don't know how those energy costs balance out. It seems clear that people in less favorable climates must expend some energy to eat well year-round, whether it's from freezing and canning some of their summer produce, or continuing to import food from other areas or, as you say, fueling artificial climates. The books I've read (certainly not an exhaustive review on the subject) have not dealt with the latter, though they do discuss extending the growing season through use of cold frames, raised beds, etc.

I don't advocate for each community's becoming entirely self-sufficient (that would certainly have other implications for the national and global economy), but for making thoughtful policy choices and individual choices. For example, a person might adapt to not necessarily eating apples from across the country or across the world when their own region is able to grow very nice apples, and getting used to the idea that one doesn't have to eat apples (or lettuce or strawberries etc., etc.) all year round.

The greenhouse scenario seems more geared toward the "keeping all foods in the supermarket in all seasons" way of thinking. Root vegetables, legumes and winter squashes keep well and can provide good nutrition through the winter months, especially when supplemented with, say, canned tomatoes -- not that I claim to be prepared to live on them all winter, nor am I saying that others should!

Penny said...

Additional thoughts: I think the key question is not, "How do we grow all our own food," but perhaps things like, "What is available from local producers that I am not taking advantage of? Are my choices making it harder for local farmers to survive? What could be produced locally if we were not so dependent on a national or international corporate stream of production?"

In the context of Europe, buying from another European country or North Africa almost counts as "local," at least from an American perspective on distance. My English mother remembers the years where she thought being able to have an orange a day would be the ultimate joy; I am not saying anyone should go back to those days and survive on Bubble & Squeak (a potato and cabbage dish, for anyone who doesn't recognize the name) all winter long! And I read somewhere that transport by ship is one of the more energy-efficient methods...

Rob Hardy said...

BBC Radio 4 just had a story last week about the problem of carbon emissions from ships. I do think you are right that we shouldn't require certain things year-round. But for me, one of the most immediately noticeable advantages of locally produced food is the packaging, or lack thereof. I can buy a locally produced pork roast at the local butcher and take it home in a paper bag. At Sainsbury's supermarket, it would come in a plastic container the size of a small boat. The English are insane packagers. Why should heads of broccoli be individually shrink-wrapped in plastic? At home in Nfld., I can pick up broccoli at the Farmers' Market or JustFood and drop it directly into a canvas bag.