There is an old Chinese adage that has coerced centuries’ worth of petulant children into finishing their dinners: “Every grain of rice in your bowl is won by the sweat of the brow.” It may not be the most appetizing of associations, but it underscores a sentiment that has been long lost to urban culture: food comes from people. Grains do not materialize out of burlap ether. There was a human being who arrayed the seedlings, who tended the fields, who was relieved to walk home every night.
Last year, I discovered a modern parallel in the unlikeliest of places: my college dormitory shower. It is there that I encountered Jamal—a winsome young man with cropped hair and a toothy grin, beaming at me in sticker-form from the back of my LUSH cosmetics container. LUSH’s ‘face stickers’ campaign, which attaches both the name and caricaturized face of the factory worker to her/his bottled product in sticker form, may be one of the more acute examples of modern businesses humanizing their brands (and their workers). Nonetheless, it’s telling that the LUSH team needs to confirm on their website: “yes, those face stickers are real people.” Detachment from the distant chain of producers to whom we owe an immeasurable amount (shoes, petroleum, flowers) has for so long been the norm that such touches of personalization are shocking—even dubious. We’re used to eating apples and consuming coffee without ever wondering how many hands we’ve inadvertently shaken in the process.
It might be all too obvious that every purchase we make (or do not make) is a vote of consumer confidence, but proponents of the local foods movement are reminding us just how meaningful our choices actually are. Boston boasts numerous local foods initiatives: The Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts, Higher Ground Farm (the world’s second-largest roof-top farm), and 28 farmers markets in and around the metropolis. The Boston Local Food Program seeks to build “a strong local economy” through “a vibrant and diverse local food system.” The slogan of The Boston Collaborative for Food and Fitness stresses a personal ownership over one’s consumer choices and community: “My city. My market. My food.”
It’s exactly this spirit of human connection that Todd Meyers, the director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center, credits with the local foods movement’s popular appeal. “People like to feel connected to their community—to other people,” Meyers explained in an interview with HPR. “It’s hard for people to relate to others who are far away. And the farther the distance, the less connection you feel.” A 2015 Gallup poll appears to confirm this sentiment, indicating that 67 percent of Americans report having “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in small businesses, as opposed to the 21 percent who are confident in “big business.” But as physically and emotionally satisfying as shopping the local farmer’s market might be, it is dangerous to assume that eating locally fosters social responsibility, environmental consciousness, and better health. In fact, a number of voices have begun to suggest the opposite.
The Rise and Fall of Local Foods
The modern supermarket is miraculous testimony to centuries of international trade. Bananas originated not from Brazil but from Southeast Asia. Sugar is native to the Polynesian Islands, and tomatoes did not arrive in Italy until 1548 (when they were first used as decorative ornaments). Locavorism—a commitment to eating locally grown food—is nothing new either. 16th-century monarchs in Spain and China were highly suspicious of foreign trade and reliance, begrudgingly exporting their native crops. Pierre Desrochers, Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Toronto and author of The Locavore’s Dilemma, has spent the past two years examining the development and disintegration of local food movements’ pasts. Drawing upon his research, he asserts two points: first, that history repeats itself; second, that local food movements have never been associated with happy times.
During World War I, a local food boom occurred in the United States as agricultural production ramped up in response to European demand. Government slogans such as “Food will win the war” and initiatives such as “Meatless Tuesdays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays” encouraged citizens to consume greater amounts of vegetables and fruits, which were too delicate for shipment. Once the war ended, however, the large-scale local food initiatives also vanished. To offer a bleaker example, political mismanagement of the local food production effort in China’s communes during the Great Leap Forward resulted in catastrophic famine. Some 30 million people starved.
“In every generation, environmental romantics are reborn. Once upon a time, they were reacting against the railroads; today they’re reacting against modern logistics, container shipping, trucking,” Desrochers told the HPR. “You always have inefficient local farmers who cannot compete against distant suppliers, so it’s always, ‘Well, let’s keep the money among our people.’
“In the end, I think the big appeal is that humans are essentially tribal animals. Our ancestors, for countless generations, lived in small groups, so supporting your local farmer is always something that appeals to people. … Long story short, [local food movements] are reborn every time there’s a war. But every time international trade is reestablished, these movements fall apart.”
The Sustainability of Sustainable Eating
If local food movements have historically emerged during times of crisis, the local food movement of the millennial age has blossomed out of twin factors: climate change and the rise of modern agribusiness.
This past July, Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley was lambasted when he suggested that global warming was to blame for the crisis in Syria. Although Assad’s slaughter of Sunni Arabs and embrace of Al-Qaeda are certainly more direct contributors, the connection that O’Malley (and several scientists) have drawn between a local drought and the uprising shed light on an important point: the three-year long drought that hit Syria from 2006 to 2009 caused food prices to skyrocket and diseases brought on by malnutrition to proliferate. One-and-a-half million people abandoned their farms and flooded into the cities for survival. Even if the extreme ongoing drought in California does not pose any major inconvenience to the average Angeleno’s lifestyle, climate change’s biggest victims will be the poorest countries.
Joan Gussow, Professor Emerita of Nutrition Education at Columbia University, believes that California’s devastating crop failures are “a warning to us.” If consumers do not make sacrifices, eating local foods may be the default for future generations.
“At this point, the average calorie of food takes 10 calories to produce. The least we should think is how we reduce the energy cost of our food,” Gussow remarked in an interview with the HPR. “What we should not be shipping around is fruits and vegetables, because they require a cold chain from start to finish. There’s no reason for it, unless you insist on going against nature, which does not produce fruits in the winter. Anyone who has fresh orange juice in the winter every morning is crazy.”
Indeed, a common maxim now claims that food travels 1500 miles from the farm before it reaches a person’s plate. A current report from the FDA Commissioner of Food and Drugs estimates that 20 percent of vegetables, 15 percent of fruits, and 80 percent of seafood in the United States is imported. Even domestically, California serves as the country’s produce powerhouse, growing 69 percent of the nation’s carrots, 71 percent of spinach, 99 percent of artichokes, and almost 100 percent of almonds and walnuts.
Nonetheless, according to Todd Meyers’ and Steve Sexton’s study in the Wall Street Journal, eating locally does relatively little to reduce carbon emissions associated with transporting foods by trains, trucks, planes, and ships. Their findings show that transportation accounts for 10 percent or less of the emissions produced by the food supply chain. By contrast, the food production stage contributes about 80 percent of total carbon emissions.
“Growing food where it is inappropriate is essentially more damaging,” Meyers explained to the HPR. “It uses more resources, more energy, more fertilizer, more water, more everything. The yields can be so low per acre that if you want a potato in Alabama, it’s better to buy it from Idaho than to try and grow a bunch of potatoes in Alabama.”
It may matter not only how we grow, but also how much we grow. There are currently 23 million Americans who live in ‘food deserts,’ or low-income urban and rural neighborhoods located more than a mile from a supermarket. Comparative climate disadvantage would not only lower agricultural efficiency; it would also lead to growth in food prices. The cost needed to offset the price of subpar growing conditions would produce a direct increase in the price of fresh vegetables and fruits—the very foods that America, in the midst of a national health crisis, would do best to keep affordable.
Beyond domestic considerations, there are issues of world hunger and labor regulations. But Gussow argues that sustainable agriculture and fair labor practices are fundamentally “incompatible” with the current global economy. “There are so many things that happen in farming—so many wrong policies, so many wrong ideas,” Gussow said. “But if you look at countries that we’re told need our trade, and you look at how those people make a living, you’ll ask yourself whether this is really an advantage to them, or should they be feeding their people?”
Desrochers, on the other hand, advocates a pragmatic approach to the anxieties surrounding the economic climate. “It’s nice to be able to skip a Frappuccino to pay a dollar more for your peaches, but a lot of people are doing their best to stretch their budget. There are still a few billion people the world over who are malnourished. We’re going to have at least two billion to add to the global population in the coming decade. I don’t think local food can cut it.”
Mindful about mouthfuls
The local foods movement might thus seem unduly idealistic and romantic, but the issues in food systems are, to borrow a phrase from Oscar Wilde, “rarely pure and never simple.” Despite (and because of) the efficiency and economy of big agribusiness, there are a host of concerns that the local foods movement attempts to address and remedy. Locavorism can be interpreted as a xenophobic, nostalgic act of crisis-era protectionism, but it is also a form of protest against the modern industrial farming practices that have come to dominate global agriculture.
While U.S. Organic Standards approves over 20 chemicals used for the growth and processing of food, a study at the University of Washington’s Seattle Children’s Research Institute discovered that families who ate local and organic foods actually experienced a doubling of BPA levels and a 2,377 percent jump in levels of the toxic chemical DEHP compared to those who made no such effort. There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that pesticides and genetically modified foods are safe. However, there are also innumerable food activists who question the authenticity of such research. In a disturbing investigation published in the New York Times this September, journalist Eric Lipton reported the discovery of agrigiants such as Monsanto and Stonyfield Farms aggressively courting academic researchers for assistance in public talks and legislative testimony—an unsettling snapshot of the lobbying war between billion-dollar pro- and anti-GMO firms.
It is for such reasons that Diana Donlon, Director of the Center for Food Safety’s Cool Foods Campaign, believes buying local foods is nutritionally advantageous. “If I buy grapes from Chile, there may be some pesticide residues on them from chemicals that would be outlawed in this country,” Donlon said in an interview with HPR. Citing agribusinesses’ use of FDA-restricted herbicides on foreign soil, Donlon noted that workers “in developing countries are being exposed to herbicides like dicamba that they wouldn’t be exposed [to] in this country.”
For all her support of the locavore movement, Donlon nonetheless believes that local foods will remain “a small piece of the puzzle.” While she credits the movement with improving community resilience and bolstering local economies, she concedes that locavorism probably won’t define the future of agriculture. Although local foods and farmer’s markets will always be an option for those who enjoy them and can afford the premium, international trade will continue to thrive as long as American consumers are demanding chocolate, coffee, and oranges year-round.
After all, there is a world beyond “My city. My market. My food.” Indeed, those who choose to pay an extra dollar for a pound of fresh nectarines at their local farmer’s market should feel empowered to enjoy their choice. But there is a concurrent need for urban eaters to grasp an essential reality: food does not begin and end with the consumer. In our modern economy, local demands will be met with global consequences. The sum of our deceptively personal choices at the supermarket each week plays an important role in what the rest of the world gets to put on their plates.
UPDATE (11/1/15, 11:54 a.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s surname. This article has since been corrected.
Image source: Flickr // Jamie McCaffrey // Wikimedia // Allie Caulfield // Anna Frodesiak