This essay is part of a larger work.
I’m not writing this to criticize the Eating Local movement, rather to point out that labeling food and food harvesting is the most dangerous part of this movement. Cool terms are misleading–just ask and advertising agency. Farms of all sizes are necessary everywhere in the world just for survival and because certain varieties of food grow better or cannot be grown anywhere else. That obvious statement alone should end the discussion. Eating Local is not the panacea of cure for a high carbon footprint or any other ill locavores will decry. Don’t get me wrong, more local farming is a good thing, especially in industrialized countries where the majority of people have to buy their food. Farms are the economic basis of any society.

When I talk about sustainable farming I mean worldwide sustainable farming, this includes your local farmer’s market where you can get fresh, vine ripened produce, but it also includes the other extreme: for example buying lamb that is raised half way around the world. Why would you do that when lamb can be raised any place on the globe? Consider the shipping costs like oil and everything else it takes bring a lamb shank from the other side of the world, how can that have less of a carbon foot print than buying the same piece of meat raised in North America? Quite frankly it is how it the lamb is raised. New Zealand, for example, has ample pastures which require less of a carbon footprint than raising lamb in the northern hemisphere of Europe or America where the animals are largely grain fed. Processing the grain into fodder adds tremendously toward that imprint. The grass fed vs. grain fed debate is another matter entirely.

The basic tenet of a strict locavore philosophy is wrong. Eating foods only grown in a 100 mile radius would probably lead many people to malnutrition, especially in temperate climates. Food sources would run out in late winter. Animals would need to be slaughtered every autumn; otherwise they would starve since there is not enough grain to feed them for the period of time when they cannot be pastured. Land space and usage issues in many parts of the world near densely populated urban areas are inadequate to support food sourcing in a 500 mile radius. And without citrus fruits or fresh leafy greens I don’t know how many of my New England friends will be willing to drink spruce tea in the middle of winter to ward off scurvy. I wonder how many of them actually know pine needles have more vitamin C than citrus fruit?

In his book, An Edible History of Humanity (Walker Publishing 2009), Tom Standage points out the costs of transportation per ship, per truck and per car. Merely using your personal vehicle for a trip to the market makes more of an impact on the carbon footprint than an ocean going vessel does to cross the seas. In the case of Potatoes, the emissions associated with cooking them are greater than those of their transportation. Green house tomatoes have a larger carbon footprint than vine ripened ones transported from another climate.

Eating local advocacy dates back to Pliny the Elder, who as Standage adroitly points out, felt that buying imported food was simply a waste of money. Pliny complained about importing pepper from India. Modern day locavores talk about food miles—an idea that the distance food travels is a reasonable measure of its environmental damage. Same argument / different problem. Pliny’s Roman global economy is nothing like our space-age economy and Pliny’s environmental troubles are nothing like ours.

Nor have we learned anything from the industrial age when population centers consolidated and locally grown food suddenly became less important because the land could be more profitably used for a factory (or coal mining) and food could be easily and cheaply imported from elsewhere. (Keep in mind post World War 2 processing has not yet happened. ‘Imported’ food was still more or less whole and not genetically engineered. Again, a different argument.) We are still in the grip of this Malthusian trap, most notably with the United States’ government sponsored ethanol production, where we grow corn for fuel (arguably the most inefficient biofuel – don’t argue- believe me or do your own research. I’m not here to bore you or write an MIT thesis paper.). This plan means biofuel competes with food production. It takes quite a lot of corn and energy to process ethanol which artificially boosts the price of corn for animal fodder thereby increasing the cost of other foodstuffs. England dealt with a similar problem back in 1846 (although it was coal) and repealed its’ ‘corn laws’ to the effect of lower food prices and bolstering a world dominant economy.

There is merit to the eating local movement: you are supporting local farmers and business people and you are getting food at its freshest. You can decide which farms or purveyors to patron and you get to make this decision based the farm’s business practices as a guideline. However, a strict locavore mentality is illogical and possibly dangerous if it were not nearly impossible to live by. Just don’t think you can save the world by making everyone eat locally. Use your mind, do your own research and don’t believe everything you hear whether it is from your local hippy or some giant conglomerate. Don’t believe the rhetoric. I’ll cite my last case point: many small farms throughout the USA who participate in a CSA and farmer’s markets, farm-to-chef, farm-to-table, and all the others trappings locavores love, will not bother to get a Certified Organic Farming label because: 1: their personal growing standards are already higher than what the certification requires and: Because it is too expensive! Somebody out there actually charges farms for the organic certification!

Perhaps the greatest reason for eating local is not so much in saving the planet, rather a social one. Learning where food comes and supporting local farmers. Farms are messy and beautiful; you get to see the fields change with the seasons and see the animals when you visit a local stand. Buying something that is nutrient dense, and picked no more than day ago at the height of its flavor and has not been processed and packaged is special. Farmer’s markets and CSA’s offer variety and inspiration. You get to teach your kids food does not come only in box or in cellophane packaging. And you are doing something with your loved ones that is out of the routine of your regular trip to a supermarket where you buy your pantry staples. It’s about creating a special meal.