Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

To Chew On

Marion Nestle at What to Eat posted an interesting blurb on Sunday about a report from the Mercatus Center of George Mason University entitled, “Yes, We Have No Bananas: A Critique of the ‘Food Miles’ Perspective.”  Basically, the thrust of the Mercatus publication is that concern about food miles is a distraction from real issues about food policy–trivial at best, dangerous at worst.  I read the complete paper yesterday, and I have several things to say about it.  However, I want to write a full analysis, which is going to require a significant amount of background digging on the institute and the sources they cite.  So, in the meantime, I thought I’d see what your gut reactions were to it.  Give it a read; you can find the whole “policy primer” here.  What do you think?

5 comments

5 Comments so far

  1. Michelle @ What Does Your Body Good? November 18th, 2008 9:04 am

    My gut is that ‘food miles’ is only a small part of why eating locally makes sense. There are economic reasons, like supporting your town or state. And there are health reasons, because food grown in your climate and experience your weather is well suited to nourishing your body. Lastly, it just makes my brain knot up to think about shipping food to China for processing, Norway to be boxed, and back to the US to sell. So maybe the difference between food from NH or NJ is negligible. That’s all I’ll give this study, from my gut instinct anyway!

  2. Caitlin D. November 18th, 2008 10:22 am

    I have several arguments with the logic used in this paper. It assumes that the cornerstone of local eating is this “food miles” argument – I would argue differently.

    1. The first section to argue their case discusses how much CO2 “food miles” actuall contributes to the environment – a paltry 10 – 11%. The rest is used in production, packaging, storage, etc. It seems to me that locally grown and eaten food uses less of ALL of these factors – eggs I buy at the farmer’s market are in reused egg cartons; vegetables are available in little baskets, and I simply dump them into my bag and hand the basket back to the farmer; when I ask my farmer to his face if he overuses pesticides or fertilizers, and he says no, I feel safer knowing there is less runoff due to my produce. I feel even better if the produce is from an organic, polyculture farm like my CSA, where little to no chemicals are needed. I strongly believe that eating locally reduces ALL of these impacts – not just the impact of transportation.

    2. It seems that they assume that locavores still demand the ease and efficiency in food production to which modern people have become accustomed. That we want a tomato in January, or to grow pineapples regardless of climate. I have come to accept the restricted nature of the locavore diet – if it means I do not get to buy pineapples because I live in the Midwest, then so be it. I’ll take a peach or raspberries instead any day of the week. Furthermore, eating locally also means eating in-season – so their argument on page 9 about the apples is pure rubbish.

    3. Food waste is also not applicable if you account for compost piles – every locavore should have one (or attempt to contribute to one), and it ensures that the nutrients aren’t lost, but instead are kept for safekeeping so that they can be used to grow the next season’s crops. I am perfectly aware of all the other factors associated with obtaining and using food, thankyouverymuch.

    4. This paper assumes that all fruits and vegetables have equal value nutritionally. According to In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan (who pulls his information from the averages gathered by the USDA each year), a modern apple has roughly a third of the nutritional content of a 1940s apple. Whether it’s because fertilizers/pesticides rob the soil of nutrients, or the fruit is picked before it’s ripe, or it’s grown in a monoculture, it ultimately doesn’t matter – local, organic food solves all of those problems.

    5. I must admit that the Africa argument is compelling. Is local eating merely a nationalistic attempt to hoard the wealth within our First World borders? I would have to say ‘no,’ since I’m for it and I don’t consider myself a nationalist at all! ;) I’d like to think of myself as more of a humanist. But regardless, do I *have* to support Third World nations by buying my food there, even if it costs my own community and robs my food of nutrients? Even if it supports large-scale monoculture-based agriculture, which is slowly destroying the planet’s soil with its pesticides and fertilizers and non-rotated crops? I hope not – I hope there’s a better solution than that.

    6. Finally, I am willing to pay more for better food. If I can buy cheap dried apples in February, with HFCS and preservatives added, or I can wait until they’re in season and get as many fresh ones as I want, but the price is a little more – I will choose the more expensive option. It’s unfair and unfortunate that I have that option and others do not, but that’s why Community Gardens and Guerilla Gardening is so important. Here in Kansas City, there is an organization that gives local poverty-stricken families access to seeds, to networked gardens throughout the city, to all the necessary tools and literature. Local eating is not just about the miles – it’s about everything else, too. We’re not ignorant. We’re just working out ways to solve these problems, one season at a time.

    Whew, that was long. Sorry. I tend to rant a little.

  3. Caitlin D. November 18th, 2008 10:32 am

    Oh! Oh! Also!! The authors posit that we are romanticizing subsistent agriculture, as if we all want to time travel to the 1800s and live in log cabins. They ignore the scientists that are working on roof-top greenhouses, and high-tech towers with gardens on each level, and all the other innovations that are being developed. While it’s true that I have no trust or love for companies like Monsanto, I do not wholly distrust modernity. That would be folly! This article just plain made way too many assumptions.

  4. Richard November 19th, 2008 8:49 am

    I’m eager to read your full analysis!

    You may want to check out this book for an easy-to-understand argument against the locavores:

    http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8733.html

  5. Laurel November 19th, 2008 10:28 am

    Thanks, Richard! I’ll see if the library has it.

    And the reading pile grows ever-larger… ;)

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