Will the Anti-Locavorism Never End?
A blog post from a few months ago — titled “Do We Really Need a Few Billion Locavores?” — upset many eat-local fans. Among the many sins I committed were:
1. Using food coloring to make sherbet. (Hey, sorry, but I was just following the directions on the ice-cream maker one of my kids got as a present; sue me.)
2. Seeming to equate making sherbet with eating local. (I didn’t mean to; it was one story that led to another. But since so many people got the wrong impression, I’d consider that a failing less of locavore fundamentalism than of my writing.)
3. Being the kind of grump who hates all good things including nature, children, puppies, etc. (Believe that if you must; I hope it is not true.)
Anyway: If you are part of the camp who thinks all these things are true, you may not want to read any further. What follows is an assessment of locavorism that lays out, more patiently and measuredly than I did, the reasons why it is not the environmental panacea its supporters may think.
The author is James McWilliams, a historian at Texas State University, and the section below comes from a book he’ll be publishing next year called Just Food. Thanks to James and to his publisher, Little Brown, for letting us jump the gun a bit.
by James McWilliams
A Guest Post
The argument that we must relocalize the nation’s distribution networks to accommodate small growers ultimately runs into a really inconvenient question: should every region even have a local food system?
The query, however much it causes locavores to grit their teeth, is a critical one to ask. Regions with climate and soil conditions poorly suited for diversified agricultural production must dedicate substantial inputs to fossil fuel and water.
This is true whether the operations are big or small, mom-and-pop, or franchised. Should regions that are seeking self-sufficiency in environmentally stressed locations be accommodated with a custom-designed distribution and processing system (not to mention a community willing to engage in the massive contradiction of sacrificing precious local resources to support a supposedly environmentally friendly ideology)?
As Jennifer Wilkins, a scholar at Cornell’s Division of Nutritional Sciences, writes: “In the long run, of course, and increasingly in the short run as well, significant food production may not be possible in these regions.”
Locavores will often respond to this line of attack by arguing that people should not be moving to these areas in the first place. But again, that kind of logic sends us back to never-never land. Unless one can envision the government in a place like the United States telling citizens and corporations that they cannot settle in a particular region because the resources do not conform to a locavore vision, we’re back to the thorny reality that some places simply cannot justify, on environmental grounds, a localized food system.
Ever been to Phoenix?
Call it an inconvenient truth. Moreover, it’s one that has implications well beyond the obvious water-stressed regions. Even in locales that have great potential to provide a region with considerable food, there are reasons to be skeptical that locavorism is an achievable idea.
Consider fruit and vegetable production in New York. The Empire State is naturally equipped to grow a wide variety of fruits, including pears, cherries, strawberries, and some peaches. But none of these compare to its ability to grow apples and grapes, which dominate production (accounting for 94 percent of all fruit grown).
At current levels of fruit production, apples are the only crop that could currently feed New Yorkers at a level that meets the U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowances. Every other fruit that the state produces is not being harvested at a level to provide all New Yorkers with an adequate supply. Other fruits such as bananas and oranges are not produced at all because conditions are unfavorable for growing them.
What does this situation mean in terms of feeding the state with the state’s own produce?
In a nutshell, it means citizens would have to give up tropical fruits altogether; rarely indulge in a pear, peach, or basket of strawberries; and gorge on grapes and apples — most of them in processed form (either as juice, in a can, or as concentrate).
Eating state vegetables poses its own problems. Of all vegetables produced in New York, only 9 of the 80 which are most consumed cannot be produced within state. This statistic is encouraging for the prospect of local consumption. Not only is the region naturally conducive to growing a diversity of vegetables, but it’s already doing so to such an extent that it could provide enough beets, cabbages, onions, pumpkins, snap peas, and sweet corn to feed the state populace an adequate diet of vegetables.
So what’s the trouble? Why not go for it? The devil, as usual, is in the details.
As with fruit production, to move vegetables from New York fields to New York forks would demand, in Wilkins’s terms, “a rebuilding of the processing industry.” Whereas the global economy’s infrastructure allows the importation of fresh produce all year round, consumers — again, given the extremely unlikely prospect that they would tolerate a radically reduced menu of options — would have to accept only processed fruit and vegetables in the off season.
Since the stuff would not be exported, it would be frozen, canned, juiced, or pickled. Whereas the conventional system of production and distribution has in place a series of large-scale processing centers capable of handling these tasks in a handful of isolated locations — not so for localities.
Herein lies the rub. As three scholars writing in the British Food Journal explain:
In recent decades large scale food processing and production has been undertaken in factories on industrial estates, but a return to small units within communities may well bring environmental problems such as smell, pollution, waste disposal, visual intrusion, and nuisance for those communities.
Localities might be thrilled with the prospect of a sprawling farmers’ market in their hood, but what about a small fish-processing plant designed especially to meet local needs? One imagines it wouldn’t be long before a “defensive politics of localism” became a “not in my backyard” point of contention, punctuated with “Eat Local, Process Elsewhere” bumper stickers.
Moreover, given that the New York case study is one that covers a relatively large area of production (it’s 400 miles from New York City to Buffalo), these problems would be exponentially compounded for locavores who want to keep their diets within a 100-mile radius.