On Eating Local

During my years living in Melbourne, Australia, Eat With Me was very important to me. The small start-up aimed to connect people around the world through experiences centred around food; its events were how I met many of my closest friends in Melbourne. Although Eat With Me recently ceased operations, I was honoured to have the opportunity to write their blog for over a year, concepting, researching and writing posts related to food and community. Below is a two-part blog post written for the Eat With Me digital community. 

Part One: Local Matters...or does it? 

If you are interested in food, you are surely no stranger to the locavore movement: the food trend du jour advocating buying and consuming foods that are produced within close proximity to your community. Of course, these ideas are really nothing new–John Mariani points out in an Esquire blog that the earliest humans were locavores (of necessity, of course), although the term hadn’t been invented yet.  In the modern era, people like Stewart Brand and Frances Moore Lapp were writing and talking about eating local long before it became the ’new organic.’

Among its many virtues, eating local is said to be more environmentally sound. Because food is transported a shorter distance, it represents fewer ‘food miles’, and therefore has a much smaller carbon footprint than, say, fruit imported from South America…or does it?

Recent research has begun to challenge the assumption that buying local is significantly better for the environment. David Cleveland, an environmental studies professor at U.C.S.B. wanted to find out what would happen if the residents of Santa Barbara County–one of America’s most agriculturally prolific counties–went 100% local. What he found shocked him: the greenhouse gas emission savings per household were less than 1%.

According to Freakonomics Radio, the explanation is relatively simple: transportation represents only 7% of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the average westerner’s diet. Most of our food system’s carbon footprint is the result of production, and therefore will be approximately the same regardless of whether it comes from near or far. In fact, in some cases, the environmental impact is less when the food is produced elsewhere. For example, tomatoes grown in the U.K. require three times more energy than do tomatoes grown in Spain, since the English climate necessitates help from hothouses.

If this all comes as a bit of a shock, I don’t blame you.

If you’re interested, here’s a Freakonomics video explaining Chris Weber and Scott Matthew’s food miles research…and suggesting one small change we can all make to reduce our diet’s carbon footprint. Hint: it’s a particularly easy one for those of us in Australia.

Now before you start going all Alice Waters on me, let me clarify: we at Eat With Me are huge proponents of eating local, despite the research described above. It’s not just about food miles. There are scores of other reasons why the locavore movement is important environmentally, socially, and economically. Check back next week to read more. 

Part Two: Yes, Local Matters

Last week, I wrote about how eating local food may not be better for the environment, at least from a carbon emissions standpoint. But the Locavore Movement is about much more than food miles, and the Portlandia video above cleverly satirises one of the many reasons why local matters.  While being concerned about whether a soon-to-be-consumed chicken had playmates is a tad extreme, knowing where our food comes from and the conditions in which it was produced is not.

This week, Animal Australia launches a compelling new campaign called “Make It Possible”, which uses a Babe-like singing pig to shed light on the nasty truths of factory farming. The fact that many people don’t know about these conditions represent a major disconnection between us and the food we eat.

This disconnection, Carolyn Steel argues in an excellent TED Talk, has resulted in a society that doesn’t value, trust, or respect food.

Food that used to be the centre of the social core of the city at the periphery. It used to be a social event, buying and selling food, now it’s anonymous. We used to cook, now we just add water…We don’t value food. We don’t trust it. So instead of trusting food, we fear it, and instead of valuing it we throw it away.
They’ve made us dependent on systems that only they can deliver, and that are unsustainable.

One of the characteristics of modern food systems that Steel finds particularly troublesome is corporate control over them: 80% of global trade in food is dominated by 5 multinational corporations.

Scary? We think so.

A bizarre illustration of how food trade has been overtaken by large operations comes from California’s Santa Barbara County, which I talked about last week. When a landslide cut off highway access between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, food distributors were unable to get their food into the county, and local farmers were unable to get their food out. The result? The produce section of supermarkets went bare, and the farmers’ produce went bad. The supermarkets would not (or could not) sell the local produce because of their contracts with major food distributors.

Given given trends like this, it’s probably not surprising that the number of farms in the U.S. has declined by two thirds in the past 50 years. In Australia, the number of family farms declined by 9% in just five years (2001 to 2006). In my opinion, this is terribly sad.

So why eat local?

Because doing so keeps us connected to our food and how it’s produced, supports local farmers and community markets, and helps keep control over our food more ethical and closer to home. These are just some of the reasons. If there are other factors that I’ve missed, I’d love to hear them in the comments section.

Check out this lovely video about Chase Farm, which made me want to head to a farmer’s market (or better yet, a farm!) straightaway. For those of you in Melbourne, the next Collingwood Children’s Farm Farmer’s Market is on Saturday, 10 November.

Images found on Design Love Fest