Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Reductionism and local food: No easy way out.

“Local Food: Is it Good or Bad?” -headline this winter from the Globe and Mail

The local food outside my front door.

I wrote a few articles for the university paper during my undergrad, and remember being told that newspapers were written at about a grade eight reading level – back then, anyway. Apparently, they are now written at a grade four complexity level. I wish I could tell you that local food is good. Or bad. Or anything that wouldn't require a long, involved blog post. But I can't. 

What I can tell you is that either the G&M is weakly trying to arouse readers' interest by being polemic, or that most people are seeking a yes or no answer on complex issues. We live in a complex world; I understand that it is personally impossible to investigate the details of every issue that should be of interest. That's why we rely on good journalism to help us do so.

If the articles aren't nuanced, it's no surprise that the comments on it are even less so. One commenter argued against the local food movement, juxtaposing the image of “1 farmer transporting 30 pounds of produce to market 80 miles into town” with “a global supply chain involving perhaps 100 people, transporting 100s of tonnes of produce using high efficiency transport systems like container ships, rail and finally an 18 wheeler over 1500 miles”, claiming the latter is cheaper because it more efficiently uses energy and transport inputs.

This pretend example (unless it was 30 pounds of truffles, the farmer would hardly earn more than the gas money to transport it) ignores all of the other factors that can (but do not always) make mass-produced and mass-transported food cheaper: tax breaks and subsidies to intermediaries and overwhelmingly to large farmers, exploitative labour conditions for farmworkers and food industry workers in developing countries (and developed ones), the externalities such as water pollution that the large production units often are not accountable for.

So, unfortunately, the local food issue does require some critical thinking. Take the concept of food miles. An oft-cited 2006 study showed that, counterintuitively, importing lamb from New Zealand into the UK results in less of a carbon footprint than lamb grown in the UK*. Opponents seize on this as evidence that local foods are no better than – or worse than – industrial ones. Even a more nuanced view ends up suggesting that lettuce from Spanish fields in winter is better than British greenhouse lettuce, when eating seasonally is a way to make the issue moot - illustrating the oversimplification at work when a movement - local food - is reduced to an argument about food miles.

The reasons to eat locally go beyond food miles. Eating locally can keep money in the community, supporting small farmers. It can help build a more secure food system not reliant on fragile, far-flung supply chains and industrially produced products more susceptible to safety recalls. Perhaps most importantly, it gives you more ability to choose what you are supporting. Do you want to support organic farmers? Farmers who pay decent wages to their farmworkers? Farmers who treat their animals humanely? Farmers who have similar tastes in music? You can find out what local farmers' practices are, and you can choose. 

Am I, too, reducing the arguments too much? Well, I'm not a trained journalist. But the comments section is open for discussion! You could also suggest your favourite food journalist.

*Saunders, C., A. Barber, and G. Taylor. 2006. Food miles: Comparative energy/emissions performance of New Zealand’s agriculture industry. Research Report 285. Lincoln, New Zealand: Agribusiness & Economics Research Unit, Lincoln University. For a critique, see Shuman, M. 2007. On the lamb.

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