Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Food Miles from Home

I hadn't planned to write a more thoughtful post as this sticky weather has me mostly operating at a very basic level. But here in the air-conditioned confines of My Favorite Coffee House, I've had the chance to catch up my other reading and have the time to comment on the latest news on local eating.

My lovely friend Phoenix sent me a link to a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times: "Food That Travels Well" by James E. McWilliams. In it, he points out that while paying attention to food miles is worthwhile, sometimes the life-cycle energy embedded in local food is actually greater than that in food shipped halfway around the globe. I agree that it's worthwhile to know more about the entire process of food production so that you understand what energy is used to feed you, and there's a lively discussion over at Gristmill that adds some intriguing thoughts to the whole debate.

But one phrase from the piece jumps out at me as highly debatable: "it is impossible for most of the world to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet through exclusively local food production."

Really? Having recently read Drinking the Rain by Alix Kates Shulman -- a book about a feminist finding joy and growth in solitude, it's not ostensibly a book about local food, but she waxes eloquent about foraging and learning to become much more self-sufficient where food is concerned -- not to mention some of the other books I've reviewed here, I don't think that's an accurate judgment. Instead, I think it offers us an opportunity to rethink what we eat based on what our various bioregions can offer.

Sharon over at Casaubon's Book has a detailed post on what she's learning about her own region: what "common" foods aren't so well suited for her area, what wild foods and lesser-known plants might be better to add to her local diet.
Even the Southwest has bounty to offer, according to Gary Paul Nabham.

Admittedly, this means taking the idea of "local eating" to another level, but it's one worth exploring. I've had the pleasure of learning more about local wild foods thanks to this year's farmers' market, and I'd encourage everyone to learn more about what wild edibles are native to their areas as an inexpensive and adventurous way to supplement their regular eating habits.

In addition,
Julie at Eat Local Challenge offers her take on the editorial and explains that yes, she does have a more complex set of criteria and reasons for eating locally (and she articulates them very well!), but sometimes it's easier to explain food miles to those unfamiliar with the concept. And Brian Halweil at the Worldwatch Institute gives simple guidelines to help you understand when to choose local and when long-distance food might be a better bet.

I've tried not to let the whole "100-Mile Diet" or "local food" theme become a hard and fast way of looking at my meals. Yes, I want to source as much of my food locally as I can, but I want to do it sensibly, understanding how the food is produced and how it fits into the rest of my diet. And I'm fully aware that there are some things I simply cannot find produced locally, but those are the items where I try to buy organic and fair-trade if I can, and from small locally-owned businesses if at all possible.

It takes more thought, yes, but I've found that I appreciate my food more if I understand all of these factors a little better.

UPDATE: A commenter over at The Ethicurean pointed out that McWilliams's original article offered a more thoughtful overview of the problems and promises of local food, and I think you may find that piece easier to digest. He still indicates that many regions of the U.S. and the world cannot provide a "diverse" local diet to all people, but the assertion doesn't slap me in the face as much since he does lead up to it with more about climate challenges. This article also reviews in more detail what he would prefer to see with "life cycle analysis," and I can't argue with that.

I'd still add, though, that many people who are looking to source their food locally are doing so more thoughtfully than simply basing their decisions on arbitrary boundaries. From the comments I've seen here, the discussions I've had with friends, and the articles I've seen elsewhere, I'd say the majority of local-foods advocates understand that it's not just distance that counts, but how the food is raised, how animals are fed and treated, and how the food producers fit into community.

McWilliams also argues that many of us idealize the agricultural past, claiming that everything was better before we headed down the road to industrial agriculture, and that even the farmers wanted to "do better" by their children than to keep them on the farm. While there's some truth to that, let me offer this view instead: Instead of either romanticizing or disparaging agriculture and farmers, shouldn't we instead place a more realistic and appreciative value on the work that goes into producing the food we need to survive? And maybe, just maybe, might we consider getting a little more acquainted with agriculture ourselves, whenever we can, to understand the hard work and the satisfying rewards found in raising our own food?

Would that really be so difficult?

(FINAL? UPDATE: The Ethicurean, staying on top of the story, offers a guest post by Michael Shuman in which he reveals that the New Zealand study upon which the Times op-ed is based is... are ewe ready?... "a lousy piece of analysis." Baaaaad, baaaaad researchers! His final take is that "
local food wins out environmentally over global food almost every time.")


At 8/07/2007 3:55 PM, Anonymous Kim U said...

That's _exactly_ the point in that NYT piece that I disagreed with.

At 8/08/2007 6:53 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

I found it difficult to read the rest of the piece after that line, when every week at the farmers' market I see the complete opposite is true. Granted, that means being more open to other food sources, like "weeds," but I think it's worth the effort.

At 8/08/2007 7:56 AM, Blogger Phoenix said...

Great response! I also had some issues with that particular op-ed.

At 8/08/2007 1:14 PM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Thanks for pointing it to me in the first place, Phoenix! See my update for a link to the original article... would love to know your thoughts on that, too.

Sure did miss you this weekend while I was canning... let me know if you'll be around again sometime soon so I can share the latest with you!


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