In my previous post on Local Food, I raised several questions that I believe should be answered in order to fully understand the local food movement, where it’s going, and the principles that unite it. I’ll take a closer look at two of those questions. First, what do we mean when we say “local.” Does “local” food necessarily mean sustainably grown, pesticide-free, and organic?
Once we have a working definition, we can go further and ask: Why is local good? Is it good by virtue of its localness? Or are their other factors that make it valuable? Is it okay to say that all local food is good all the time?
I spoke with Andrew Smiley of the Sustainable Food Center last week about his work in the local food movement. According to the requirements his organization places upon farmers who sell through the SFC’s farmer’s markets, “local” means food that has been grown or raised within 150 miles of Austin. The produce does not have to be organic, as there are some vendors at the farmer’s market who grow their food conventionally, using pesticides and chemical fertilizers. While “local” does not mean organic and sustainable (there is some debate as to whether organic is “sustainable” – a topic for another post), the farmer’s market is primarily made up of “sustainable” farmers because consumers exert a decent amount market pressure on the conventional growers. They question where their food is coming from and how it was grown, and they voice their desire to buy certified organic. Basic supply and demand processes are at work. Conventional growers are forced to either change their techniques or be pushed out of the market.
The “local” label, many believe, is an assurance that their food will not come from the heavily subsidized machine that is modern industrial agriculture. This is generally true. Consumers can drive just out of town on a Saturday morning to pick up their weekly CSA box at the farm, or talk to the farmer in person at the weekly markets about how his specific growing techniques. This allows for a great amount of transparency and helps to keep farmers honest and committed to their natural growing methods. This transparency is important in a society in which households do not have to produce their own food in order to feed their families. Many consumers who buy locally do so because they do not want to rely on government’s labeling requirements as a way of knowing what’s in their food (many even distrust the USDA’s “certified organic” requirements). Another perk of local food is simply that it often tastes better and is more nutritious than industrial-grown meat and produce.
But with all the good things that local food can bring, it’s important to recognize that it’s not inherently good, nor is it always better than food that is non-local. Some parts of the country do not grow some foods well because of variances in climate, soil, and access to water. Some parts of the country do not grow certain foods at all – coffee and bananas from South America, and star anise and Kobe beef from Japan, for example. Should we deprive ourselves of these foods because they are not local? Some would argue yes; others cannot imagine their life without the morning cup of joe (and nor, I might argue, should they have to).
So before you tell someone to “Go Local,” think about what you are advocating. Think about the practicality of local food – can everyone afford to eat locally, and if not, is it right to subsidize this food so that lower income families can afford to eat organically? Is local (and sustainable and organic) really a possible way to feed the world? Let’s talk about these issues in my next blog post. If you have thoughts, please send me an email!