Monday, October 18, 2010


Not a full thought here, but a reflection on a deep problem with the locavore/localvore (I've seen it spelled both ways) "movement". The gist of their argument is that by eating "locally" (ostensibly food grown within a certain distance of their home and often including other conditions such as being organic, purchased "from the grower", and bought at a "farmers" market), you are using fewer resources, avoiding the horror of industrial farming, getting better quality/more nutritious foodstuffs and generally are are more virtuous person than your neighbor who buys vegetables from the big supermarket chain.

These claims have a ring of truth, especially the feelings of moral superiority. Intuitively, we think food grown nearby should have a smaller carbon footprint than food grown three states over or in another country. Isn't it better to have food that isn't grown with chemical pesticides? Aren't organic farming methods less destructive to farmland and riverine systems?

None of these claims are inherently true, however. Setting aside misrepresentation of whether food is in fact grown locally and organically by the person taking your money, what "feels" true is more complicated then we know.

For example, an organic farm that takes many more tons of organic fertilizer and related soil amendments and conditioners, because the local farmland is poor quality soil, than a conventionally grown crop may incur more fuel costs by dint of requiring more truckloads of materials. Properly grown food in a correct growing area with nearby packing facilities may be able to transport larger quantities more efficiently because located along train routes. Organic produce uses pesticides that have been labeled "natural", but they may have to be used in greater quantities resulting in comparable toxicity. Organic farming can be done badly, too, and industrial farming is learning that more efficient use of various materials can yield comparable harvests at less cost.  I have yet to see a scientific study that demonstrates organic is inherently better than inorganic, though it certainly pumps up the price tag in great part by reducing yeild per acre.

And this is where the locavore argument runs up against reality. It is fundamentally a Romantic argument, idealizing and romanticizing Man in Harmony with Nature, taking gently from her bosom what she chastely agrees to surrender. It has its roots in the idealization of the noble, honest farmer (my family on both sides, plus that of the Spousal Unit, are farmers, btw. On my family's side, South Dakota wheat farmers, on the SU's side, Central Valley dairy and miscellaneous row crops), and has more to do with a rejection of the dirt, turmoil and poverty of industrial urban life than with real understanding of commercial farming. It is a bourgeois argument made by those who, as a class, are in no danger of famine. It is celebration of Currier & Ives idealized gentlefolk farmers.

Reading terminally smug food writers, like Regina Schrambling of Epicurious, wax rhapsodic about the glories of paying $4.00/dozen for eggs because you can know the farmer and how much better they taste than icky A&P grocery store eggs, and how they won't have salmonella because the farmer cares about the birds, and how she's willing to spend that extra for the taste and nutrition and so should you. First off, since the chicken coop isn't in Manhattan, they and the vegetables in the Union Square market (When I lived in New York, I shopped at the A&P on Union Square where the Trader Joe's now lives and I wandered that green market, unable to buy the "fresh" produce (c'mon, half that shit was wilting in the New York heat) because I was a grad student on an incredibly limited income. I also wandered the aisles of Dean & DeLuca, gazing in awe and envy at the $1.00 each - circa 1993 - hothouse grown red bell peppers that I *so* wanted, but could not afford. It's why I eat a red pepper every day now.) got trucked in from 'Joisey and upstate New York - just like the commuters and the greens at the A&P.

But the bigger picture is that if every person living in Manhattan showed up at the Union Square green market, there wouldn't be enough of these wonderful eggs laid by contented chickens and lovingly packaged by organic Elves as they perform interpretive dance (or however they get in their containers) to go around.

Local, organic food stuffs are a constrained resource, and cannot meet the food needs of urban centers, let alone of the larger world. The horrors of industrial farming are also the triumphs of the Green Revolution, and the modern world needs food production on that scale.

Let me be clear. I'm not talking about urban (and suburban and rural) gardens used by residents to grow food for their own and their neighbor's tables, though they, too, are inadequate to meet year-round food needs. Personal gardens are good. I'm also not saying commercial farmers who produce organic produce should stop. Hardly - they are keeping unusual food varieties going and put experimental methods into practice that will return to improve more conventional farming. I'm talking about a mind-set that cannot grasp the scale of food production needed for a complex urban society to serve the food needs of its population, and who prefers to moralize about "bad food choices" of the working poor and increasingly impoverished blue-collar working class while they quietly augment their own locavore purchases from Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.

Having the wealth to opt out of the mainstream food chain and increasingly privatize access to safely produced food is the true mark of the locavore "movement". As pointed out in earlier posts, even small increases in food expenses put boutique food beyond reach of a family budget. While locavore food selection in urban areas may be broad (because the sellers - who are not always the growers - know that their small amount will sell out by the end of the day), locally produced food in other areas of the country may get pretty monotonous, and eating seasonally means buying the potatoes and carrots again while walking past the imported fruits and tomatoes because the imported beauties cost so damn much.

This is not an endorsement of the current state of industrial food in America. It needs some major housecleaning, and that can be done only when upscale consumers do not so quickly opt out of the mainstream food chain.

People today jeer at the food "wasteland" of the 50s and 60s, when processed foods ruled the roost. Jello salad, anyone? What tends to get brushed away is the poverty and hunger that preceded the advent of the modern supermarket, when most food was locally and organically grown and was not sufficient to feed the nation.



Falstaff said...

Yep. Just as the Romantics demonized -- literally -- the dark Satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution and idealized the state of nature that preceded it... despite the fact that the human condition was immeasurably improved by industrialization.

We need a little more Jane Jacobs, a little less Garden Cities. Neither engineering nor romanticism is adequate to the complex systems of reality.

And speaking of complexity... given Blake's preference for Satan, one wonders how much of "Jerusalem" should be read with an ear for more complex irony...

Aeryl said...

Yay Anglachel is posting again!!

OK, now that I've got that out the way...

This topic was touched on over at Corrente, when Ms. Expat posted on Bloomberg's request to ban soda purchases with food stamps.

Leaving aside the fact that focusing on soda is ridiculous, when faced with the enormity that is the poison in our food supply, not one person who supported Bloomberg could address the fact that a)food stamp money has to provide maximum calories for minimum spent, and you can't do that eating healthy, and b)most people on food stamps in NYC don't have access to fresh produce.

Looking at the support that had, along with the support Michelle Obama's "No Fat Kids, More Hungry Kids" plan got, proves to me that the virtous foodies are more concerned with virtue part of that tag, not the food.

Cataloochee said...

Great post. I have often wondered if anyone has done the carbon footprint analysis at my local farmer's market. Some of them bring just 100-200 pounds of food 30-60 miles just to bring them to market!

Jim said...

Here are links to articles describing research studies that indicate there are some real benefits from organic farming practices:

Despite the enviromental and health benefits of organic practices, I agree that modern urban living does not seem supportable without large scale oil-based agricultural practices, and perhaps even more importantly, oil-based transportation. It makes sense to be looking for, planning for alternative means of feeding our civilization if we expect it be sustainable. I don't have that expectation (that it is sustainable). I see locavorism, organic farming ,etc. as worthy pursuits, but not as being capable of allowing this civilization to continue on with "business as usual".

-- James