5.31.2016

The Value of Local

Before I embark on the New Orleans Eat Local Challenge, spanning throughout June, I want to explore whether eating locally is worthwhile.  Is there really a benefit to eating locally?

The benefits of local food have been lauded for decades, albeit with a few detractors rearing their heads.  Among the enumerated pluses are: supporting of the local economy by keeping money with your neighbors rather than funneling it out of the state or even the country; bolstering small local farms, which are generally far more diverse and less environmentally degenerative than their industrial counterparts; and eating food that is prime in both nutrition and taste.  Even mainstream publication Consumer Reports has noted that, if nothing else, eating locally is a nationwide trend that likely offers a variety of positive side-effects.

Local food is often promoted as a more sustainable way of eating.  Per Sustainable Table, the "the leading sustainable food resource for consumers", "[s]upporting local/regional food systems helps support local, sustainably run farms, can help protect our health and the health of our communities, and helps stimulate local economies." 

The benefits of "eating locally" are not universally accepted however.  Philosophers Peter Singer and Jim Mason tear the idea apart pretty thoroughly, in fact, in their book The Ethics of What We Eat.  Singer and Mason identify three primary reasons to eat locally: 1) to help local economies, 2) to support family farming (thus beating back industrial farming), and 3) to protect the environment.  They then proceed to disagree with 1 and 3.

On the first point, they argue that it's more important to support poorer farmers in developing nations than our local farmers.  To this argument I must call shenanigans.  They use an example that it is better to help developing world farmers feed their children than to help farmers in San Francisco put their children through college.  To this I'll say two things: a) I don't live in San Fransisco; pretty damn far from it in fact.  b) When we purchase produce grown in developing countries, precious little of that money goes to the people who grew it.

To wit, most of the produce sold falls into the globally shipped category, and yet the farmworkers involved in that trade are still unconscionably poor.  Why?  Because it is the middle men who keep the money.  It never gets to the producers - why would they share it when they don't have to?  The farther the food travels, the smaller a portion of the profits the farmers actually see.  Buying more of this food will not give these people more money.  Only changing the system will do that.  Thus, shorter chains are better for farmworkers.

While the philosophers don't dispute that buying locally helps to preserve small family farms, they explain that locally grown produce can be more environmentally destructive than produce shipped long distances.  To make this point they do the carbon footprint math on hothouse-grown tomatoes vs. those vine-ripened and then shipped - and indeed the hothouse come out as the villain.  This supports the idea that it is best to eat locally and seasonally, an idea which I'll agree with fully.  Luckily, there is nearly always local produce naturally in season here in Louisiana.

Singer and Mason also fail to address the most self-serving of the benefits of eating locally: local food tastes better and is more nutritious.  This isn't just sales pitch nonsense.  Because local produce is picked later in the ripening process, travels far less distance, and spends less time in storage, it generally offers more dense nutrient content and better flavor than "conventional" counterparts.

Sustainable Table agrees that there are issues with making "local" the only bar against which food is measured, noting that "industrial food in disguise" can be "greenwashed" or "localwashed" to seem more sustainable than it is.  After all, as I've mentioned before, even mega-piggeries are local to someone.  Buying locally also doesn't guarantee that farmworkers are treated or paid well.  However, "plenty of local food is produced according to the highest sustainability standards."  It is important, then, to know where your food comes from - but to know more than that as well.  Fortunately, when you are at a Farmer's Market you can just ask.  I dare you to try that at a chain grocery store. 

Finally, it's important to note that arguments against local food sourcing often fail to recognize just how fragile our global food system is.  Any interruption of that global system, whether it be weather events, fuel shortages, crop failures, or any other disruption of any one of the many carefully timed moving pieces of the food system can cause catastrophic food shortages, and no part of the world is immune.

As economist Andrew Simms noted in his essay "Nine Meals from Anarchy," "[c]ivilisation's veneer may be much thinner than we like to think."  Local food structures are more resilient in the face of these pressures in a number of ways.  For example, shorter food chains provide fewer opportunities for troubles such as fuel shortage or blockage of transportation routes, and small local farms hold far more biodiversity making them less susceptible to crop failure.

Eating locally is not a perfect answer to all of our food system woes.  Of course it isn't - there is no such thing.  Regardless, it has value and is a worthwhile pursuit.

Aren't you glad we put that to bed?  I am.  Let's get on with eating locally!

The photographs accompanying this post were taken at the French Market Crescent City Farmer's Market, held every Wednesday from 1pm until 5pm.

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