Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

Food Miles and Efficiency: Mortal Enemies or Misunderstood Friends?

Okay, folks.  After a reprieve, it’s time to revisit Mercatus Policy Primer No 8:  “Yes, We have No Bananas: A Critique of the ‘Food Miles’ Perspective.”  I had promised a look at how local food movements take into account questions of efficiency, economic or otherwise.

Today, the focus is on the extent to which local food activists work with economic efficiency and plain old efficiency in general.  First, the study authors heartily support the idea that food should be produced where it is efficient to do so.  I absolutely agree.  They also argue that food should be eaten seasonally.  Authors Desrochers and Shimizu claim that “the importance of seasonality [...] is also easily forgotten by activists and consumers.”  If such is the case (and it may well be, though I’d certainly like some stats on that), it’s not a flaw in the local food movement, but rather a problem with its interpretation at the individual level.  The Eat Local Challenge website, a blog which describes itself as a group blog written by authors who are interested in the benefits of eating food grown and produced in their local foodshed, has several articles about the importance of eating seasonally.  Both Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, key figures in the local food movement, liberally pepper their interviews and writings with references to the importance of seasonal eating, as do other leaders such as Barbara Kingsolver and Gary Paul Nabhan. In short, the planning is sound, even if the execution could use some tweaking.

In addition, I, like many proponents of local foods (including many of the key figures mentioned above), believe there is great value in looking beyond seasonality to the basic content of our diets.  Many healthy food staples have been abandoned with globalization and deserve a second look.  Perhaps you live in an area where rice doesn’t grow, but amaranth thrives.  This re-evaluation of diet, too, is something local food leaders encourage (Nabhan and Waters, specifically).  After all, if local (though potentially unfamiliar or neglected) food sources readily provide all the necessary nutrients you would get from a long-distance import, perhaps it’s time to try something “new” and go back to the old.  Living in the desert for the past several years, I’ve been fortunate to discover amaranth, tepary beans, mesquite flour, and cactus pads and fruit.  Besides being tasty, those plants dig desert life, as it were.  Many people have mesquite trees and prickly pear cactus in their yards, but not many of them know it could be dinner in a pinch.

I am not a 100-mile locavore, intent on getting all my food from a 100-mile radius.  For better or worse, I am realistic about the fact that I live in a desert.  Although I recognize and encourage traditional desert food sources like tepary beans, nopalitos, and amaranth, I do recognize that there’s not a whole lot that does well out here without significant collateral costs, and certainly not enough to support the massive population Phoenix currently boasts.  In addition, I am the kind of local food advocate that believes people should get what they can reasonably grow in their own area from their own area to help ensure the health and longevity of a local food supply, but I am not opposed to importing staple foodstuffs (dry goods, for example) important for meeting the nutritional needs of the population, easily transportable items (dried herbs and spices), or even certain luxury foods to be eaten occasionally (chocolate, coffee, and bananas), provided they are produced ethically, helping not just the GDP of a country, but the actual quality of life for the people where they are produced.  The problem is that we currently do these things (as we currently do many, many things) in excess.

What are the benefits of encouraging local food economies?  To answer that, let’s look at the potential consequences of letting them die out.  If local food sources and local food culture are neglected and abandoned to where many countries become net food importers, exporting specialized commodity crops to the world and neglecting a variety of staples that would be needed to sustain the health of a local population, imagine the potential impact that oil shortages or another world war could have on the average family’s food security.  Even the rising oil prices of this last year have had a significant squeeze on families.  Interestingly, although the Unicyclist and I have seen prices rising at the store, the price of our CSA farm share has remained the same at $18 a week.  While I’m sure it would go up if things got tight enough (after all, Farmer Fred does use either gasoline or diesel to drive the truck to the drop-off point, and I know he has some other mechanized equipment), our farmer has been better able to weather this crisis; minimal transport, a lot of hand harvesting, staff including volunteers who work for trade, and natural inputs (as opposed to fossil-fuel-based pesticides and fertilizers) have made him better able to survive such fluctuations.

Let’s look at the “Food Miles” perspective again.  I don’t advocate the total elimination of food imports and exports.  Frankly, I don’t know any local foodies who do, but maybe there are some lurking in corncob houses in the Central Valley of California, where the fields are green year-round.  I don’t get to California often, so I can’t really say.  Here’s the key: The Eat Local movement isn’t just about fossil fuel expenditure.  It’s about reducing packaging waste and minimizing its environmental impact.  It’s about being able to trace food-borne pathogens more easily and contain them.  It’s about having sustainable food sources nearby in the event of some catastrophe.  It’s about valuing the work of our independent farmers trying to make a living.  It’s about understanding that it may feel like some independent farmers and ranchers charge “more” for their crops than what we pay in the supermarkets, but that we’ve become mostly blind to the fact that we actually pay twice for subsidized crops (and meat raised on subsidized crops)—once with our taxes, and once at the register.  Sometimes, we may even have to pay three or four times for the costs involved in industrial agriculture as we fund chemical clean-ups and have to deal with the health problems arising from chemical pesticides and herbicides, as well as the processed diets which tend to go hand-in-hand with industrial agriculture. Local food diets are also intended to be about moving away from monocultures that deplete the soil and toward polycultures which can enrich it.  There’s a lot to this story, and some of these motivating factors behind local food movements weren’t even touched by the Mercatus policy primer.

Expect more about “Yes, We Have No Bananas” in the future.  There’s a lot more to say about it.

Until then, folks.


4 Comments so far

  1. Michelle @ What Does Your Body Good? December 17th, 2008 9:21 am

    I think my IQ just went up!

  2. Kathleen December 17th, 2008 1:00 pm

    Eating local has taught me a lot about new vegetables and fruits. I like them all, well with enough butter and garlic you can make any vegetable taste good, even turnips.

  3. Laurel December 17th, 2008 2:19 pm

    Ha. Kathleen, you and my mom would get along just fine.

    I enjoy the exploration aspect of eating locally as well. You never know what exactly new, just-harvested treat you’ll find at the farmers’ market, and that’s the best part!

  4. Caitlin December 19th, 2008 9:55 am

    It’s as if the writers of this article never even actually spoke to an advocate of local food. There were so many assumptions and miscategorizations, it was almost surreal. Thanks for the well-worded public arguments against it – maybe the authors will write a more nuanced article next time. :)

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