Squeamish about locavores

If you are a devotee of the local food movement, you are probably already gearing up to leave a scathing comment on this entry.  Relax.  I myself am a frequent patron of farmers’ markets, and a gardener, and I wrote part of this from a local coffeeshop in Milwaukee. But as it’s currently (still) winter here in the upper Midwest, it’s rather difficult to eat anything that’s locally grown unless it’s either a) very spoiled or b) rutabaga.

And all of this leads me to wonder: is the local food movement sustainable? I am well aware of “food-miles” and all the reasons that buying local is good, but I also have a variety of concerns, which can basically be grouped into three categories: Dietary, Ecological, and Socio-Political.

First, some things just can’t be grown locally.  Living in Minnesota, there is no way, no matter how much I was willing to pay, that I could find locally-grown tea or local mangoes.  Some might say that these are luxuries,  but my point is that it’s rather hard to eat a healthy, balanced diet if you’re consuming only locally-produced  food.   As Jesus said, and I’m paraphrasing here: “One cannot live on rutabaga alone.”  Indeed, humans, especially in temperate climates have had to look beyond their own back yard to meet their dietary needs since the beginning.  Mobility and seasonal relocation were crucial elements of hunter-gatherer society in the Paleolithic Era.  After the Agricultural Revolution, it didn’t take long for humans in the Neolithic Era to start trading with other settlements.   So even the first humans weren’t strictly locavores.

My second, and perhaps broader concern is ecological.  As I’ve said, there are some crops, depending on where you live, that just can’t be grown locally.  But a trickier category is plant species that can be grown locally, but probably shouldn’t be.   There are plenty of stories about invasive species, but let’s talk about dandelions.  Dandelions have now become naturalized in many parts of the world, but they are not native in most places, including North America.  It was European colonists who brought the dandelion to the Americas, because back in Europe, the dandelion was a garden vegetable that had many culinary and medicinal uses.  Now obviously importing dandelions from Europe was not a viable option,  so the Colonists wanted to grow their own dandelions.  But the dandelion behaved rather differently in this new climate than it did in the gardens of England.  It’s aggressiveness and hardiness has made it the omnipresent weed that now blankets North America every spring.  This might

Always fresh, never imported

seem like an extreme example, but it highlights the uncertainty and danger of introducing invasive species into an environment to which they are not native.  If the local food movement wants to encourage consumers to buy locally whenever possible, the boundary of what’s “possible” needs to clearly defined.

Finally, there are some rather troubling socio-political dimensions to the local food movement.  I think it is no coincidence that the local food movement in the US has risen to prominence during a time of economic hardship, when nationalism usually runs high.  While the far right has anti-immigrant xenophobia, the hipster left seems to now have its own brand of food nationalism.  My wariness of food isolationism is informed by my brief experience in the developing world.  When I was in Uganda, I saw lush land teeming with food: fruit trees, tubers so big they were pushing up the ground, and all manner of grains and legumes.  A man from a village we were visiting told us that the people are rich in food but poor in income because they don’t have markets to sell their goods.  A crucial aspect, therefore, to lifting poor farmers out of poverty is insuring market access, and in many places, local markets can’t absorb everything that farmers produce, so the farmers’ best hope lies in exporting surplus. Erecting philosophical trade barriers (which is how the local food movement essentially functions) is contrary to this effort.

But was it locally grown?

Additionally, I find it ironic that many proponents of the local food movement are also proponents of Fair Trade.  The very logic of fair trade is that rather than just responding to prices and incentivizing a race to the bottom among producers, consumers can actually use their buying power to incentivize more ethical practices by producers in countries without legal systems that protect workers from exploitation.  Locavores essentially forfeit any leverage or influence over unfair practices outside of their immediate geographic area.

I’ll say it again: I think there is a lot that is right and refreshing about the local food movement.  But it is still a very nascent movement, and the extent to which it deals with these questions will be the true test of its viability and sustainability.

2 responses to “Squeamish about locavores

  1. Dandelions are quite high in vitamins. Fun fact.

  2. Sir Maus – glad to see you’ve joined the blogosphere! In it there was a Maus-shaped hole that only you could fill.

    I think your second point is especially well-taken when one considers that the local food movement typically doesn’t stop at merely fruits and vegetables when wanting to dine locally. The omnivores within the movement love to frequent the local fish monger or even hunt their own meet (actually the last episode of Bizarre Foods with Minneapolis native Andrew Zimmern was in San Francisco where they did just this – a group of local foragers found all kinds of local, wild veggies to prepare with their locally hunted/killed wild boar). When we start thinking about introducing new species of animals into an area this problem becomes even more obvious (see: rabbits/Australia).

    I guess on the last point I’ll thank you for making it. I was actually hoping you would bring it up when I saw the subject of the post. These days the culinary world seems to talk about the local food movement as if it’s a self-evident truth of morality that one should always buy locally if possible. But, at least from my experience of watching an unhealthy amount of cooking shows, when it comes right down to it, it seems the primary concern is “how good does it taste?” Fresh scallops taste better than previously frozen scallops – buy local. Fresh basil tastes far brighter than week-old, boxed basil – buy local. Of course it’s convenient if one can turn this into a moral imperative….especially for the local producers. But I just have a hard time buying the moral imperative. Perhaps it would be easier if I lived somewhere with less than 4 feet of snow on the ground in mid-March…

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