Sunday, January 13, 2008

Extreme Eating, Glocavores, Luddites and More

This week's Time features an in-your-face column by Joel Stein, called "Extreme Eating." He declares the local food movement out of control and goes shopping at Whole Foods for an anti-local meal:
To prove how wrong the farm-to-table movement is, I cooked a dinner purely of farm-to-airplane food. Nothing I made was grown within 3,000 miles of where I live in Los Angeles. And to completely give the finger to the locavores, I bought the entire meal in the local-food movement's most treasured supermarket, the one that has huge locally grown signs next to the fruits and vegetables: Whole Foods.
After describing a shopping list of Spanish almonds, Chilean sea bass, Greek olives, French brie, Scottish smoked salmon and more, he concludes:
My distavore meal was more a smorgasbord than a smart fusion of cultures, but I still ate the way only a very rich person could have dined just 15 years ago. The local-food movement is deeply Luddite, part of the green lobby that measures improvement by self-denial more than by actual impact—considering shipping food in containers is often more energy-efficient than a local farmer trucking small amounts that are then purchased on a separate weekend farmers'-market trip you take in your SUV. So I'm going to keep buying food from my foreign neighbors. Because it's the only way we Americans learn about other countries, other than by bombing them.
Somewhere else not too long ago, and it's not coming up in a web search so I can't link to it, I read a piece advocating for a "glocavore" stance as opposed to a "locavore" one. In addition to supporting our local farmers and contributing to their sustainable care of local land, the writer made the case, which I strongly join, that we also have an obligation to our global community. We're a wealthy nation. We do good by supporting sustainable ventures around the world that maintain valuable ways of life or crafts or foods, not just ensuring the health of our own economies.

I don't think everyone should eat only foods produced within 100 miles of home; I think we should support important regional products that we value, whether they're from our own region or elsewhere. I do think we should be thoughtful about our consumption when a food is well suited to our region but we are buying it from California or Chile or South Africa instead. For example, we grow beautiful winter squash here in Minnesota, which are by their very nature "good keepers," but the winter squash I've seen available in stores recently come from another part of the country. By asking for local produce of this type, we let farmers know there is a market for their goods and encourage them to produce more, rather than giving over more farmland to commodity monocultures like soybeans and corn.

A point Joel Stein made in his Time commentary is one that I've pondered. We have easy access to a variety of food that throughout most of human history only a very rich person, perhaps a monarch, could have eaten. We're extraordinarily fortunate to live in such a time -- to have out-of-season produce and a wealth of food choices available all year round and affordable, at least in modest quantities, to most people in developed nations.

Perhaps we shouldn't expect that to be the norm forever; quite arguably it is an aberration made possible only for a relatively modest window of time as a result of cheap oil. Some who feel most strongly about the importance of eating locally appear to be those who believe we are rapidly approaching a post-oil society. They believe the oil will be gone, or will be too expensive to use on transporting from coast to coast so many goods that can be produced much more locally, and that we're going to be in deep trouble quite quickly if we don't have strong local food networks in place.

I'm skeptical -- not of the view that oil will become scarcer and more costly (that's inevitable), but of the view that this will mean the end of much of that our consumer society takes for granted. I think the economic powers-that-be have far too much at stake to let that happen. I think the threat of such a change will be (is, in fact) incentive enough, finally, finally, finally, for alternative fuel sources and technologies to be developed to replace oil on a huge scale. Maybe in 20 years all those coast-to-coast trucks will be hydrogen-powered. Or solar powered. Or hybrid hydrogen-solar-electric powered.

If that happens, do the reasons to support local foods go away? No, I don't think so at all; there will always be important reasons to encourage people to care for their local soil and enable those who want to to make a living raising food in a sustainable way to do so. But reducing the carbon footprint of long-distance food transportation might make us a bit less guilty about enjoying the fact that we really do eat like kings. Let's just work to share that good fortune with all.


MojoMan said...

I followed the link from Deb's Sand Creek Almanac to read your interesting post on local eating. It's important to think about these things and do sensible things without getting extreme about it. The piece in Time makes some good points: Whole Foods is just another big corporation promoting an image to make as much profit as possible. Big, commercial agriculture can save money through efficiency of scale. Maybe when energy prices are really high and the price of all food items reflects those costs, much of this will sort itself out. But there is more to local eating than just energy: Supporting local economies, maintaining the rural character of our landscapes, building community. You might like Bill McKibben's "Deep Economy."

Penny said...

Thanks for your very thoughtful comment, and for letting me know about the post on Sand Hill Almanac. I enjoyed taking a look at both your sites this morning.

I am indeed an strong advocate for supporting local farmers and other food producers -- and a whole range of other local small businesses. Northfield, where I live, has a historic downtown that is quite well supported by the community and visitors, though the Target and Cub Food two miles down the road also do a thriving business which has changed the mix of stores available downtown.

I just don't think, upon several months' consideration, a goal of buying almost exclusively locally is the one and only answer to our environmental and social concerns. I find accounts like Barbara Kingsolver's and the authors of Plenty and The 100 Mile Diet inspirational -- they have certainly changed my behavior and have been one of the major inspirations for this blog -- but I see other values worth honoring as well.


Penny said...

Sorry, Sand Creek Almanac! I guess I was thinking about cranes...