Monday, July 30, 2007

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

cucumber-on-vineLast week I wrote about the fuel dependency argument for increasing the amount of locally-produced food we eat. This week I’m thinking about the words by Wendell Berry that provide my quote of the week: “Eaters must understand… that eating is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat, to a considerable extent, determines how the world is used.”

The essay from which these words are drawn goes on to talk about the industrial food economy, in which “the overriding concerns are not quality and health, but volume and price.” The scale of production has increased, at the cost of plant and animal species variety, the health of the environment, and the ability of the smaller farmer to compete.

Articles about the benefits of eating locally often discuss the hidden costs of “cheap” food -- the mass produced, commodified, packaged food that fills our supermarkets. Those costs come in the form of tax money going to subsidize commodity crops through price supports and tax breaks, road transport subsidies, the below-market price of the water used in western agriculture, long-term environmental costs, and more. The price of our groceries often doesn’t reflect these costs, but we pay them, regardless.

I suspect that our country, and the world, needs some large-scale agriculture, but I’d be very sad to live in a world where that’s all there was. I want us to think about “how the world is used” and make choices as if the future of small-scale farming were at stake -- because it is. I’d like to know that in every suitable climate, family farms can use sustainable practices to produce varied and healthy crops and make a decent living doing so because consumers (literally, "eaters," in Berry's wording) value high-quality farm products for their freshness and flavor and beauty and variety and nutrition ... and also value the local farmer's essential contributions to our culture, our landscape, our local economy, and the future of our food supply.

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