"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Do Locavores Really Make Any Sense At All?

For urban residents being a locavore means buying high-priced but fresh food from the local Farmers’ Market.  While not exactly local (farmers’ markets restrict growers from beyond a certain geographical circumference, usually 100 miles or so), the crabs from the waterman who pulled them out of his pots on the Rappahannock, the fresh produce from Poolesville, or the organic, range free chickens from Western Maryland, have always been fresh and high quality.



Most people shop at the Dupont Circle Market not only because the food is good, but because it is kind of club of like-minded people, a meeting place for people who have fond images of weekend markets in Tuscany or Paris where stalls are filled with wheels of Parmesan, hundreds of varieties of goat, sheep, and cow cheese; ripened, hard, or flinty, smelling of barnyard and woods; even more types of fish and shellfish, aisles of fresh vegetables, breads, flowers, and meats.

While the Dupont Circle market is small by comparison, it has an eager feel – the foods are all familiar, and the lines form before the opening bell.  It has bustle, chatter, anticipation, and a lively interchange between local producers and a savvy clientele 

The market is a fun place; but if it were not there every Sunday morning, few people would not miss it.   Whole Foods and other specialty supermarkets, responding to the demand of high-income consumers with experience and taste, are constantly upgrading their products.  The food from Dupont Circle is now really not that much better; and fruits and vegetables from Mexico, Chile, Indonesia, and other US trading partners are available year ‘round.  Whole Foods produce is organic, only sustainable fish are sold, and buyers are careful to select for the best seasonal products.  For example, when Yukon Gold potatoes are out of season, California Golds replace them with an explanation about crop diversity and rotation.

Given this international diversity of products, all selected to ensure freshness and high quality, few people have any interest in eating only locally-produced food. The Washington area is not a marginal agricultural region, whose farmers need an economic assist; and the local growers and producers are making a fine income by selling at a number of similar markets in the region.  Buying from a local grower is not helping him survive, nor contributing to a growing agricultural sector, nor replacing commercial farming.  It is simply a feel-good commitment so an indefinable idea.  

Real locavores however, are far different, and have an often passionate commitment to supporting local agriculture, husbandry, and fishing.  Encouraging high quality produce is but one objective.  Even more importantly locavores are committed to encouraging and maintaining a local economy of food-growers.  Buying locally is beyond taste; it is a political statement.  It combines the principles of buying locally, buying organically and sustainably, and developing a sub-economy capable of at least keeping large commercial interests at bay for a while. The sentiment of the locavores hearkens back to an older, simpler age where large, industrial farms were not even a remote consideration; where Grandma went out to her garden and pick the fresh vegetables for the family meal, where Granddad went up to the orchard to pick the apples for the pie.

Pierre Desrochers has recently written a book challenging the locavore movement which has the intriguing subtitle In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet; and Emily Badger in The Atlantic has reviewed the author’s contentions:
Desrochers particularly bemused by the notion that anyone would try to produce local food "when it makes no economic sense," when we have developed over the course of centuries an international and increasingly efficient system for feeding the world affordable bananas and blueberries and lamb year-round. Locavores – and their kind have popped up throughout history – have traditionally championed local food, he says, for no reason other than that it’s local.
"Over the last few years, the local food movement has become something more," he then warns the Cato crowd. "In a way it’s also a rebellion against globalization, against big agri-business, against the way food is produced."
He argues that the movement is essentially political and makes people feel good by expressing their concerns about the environment, big business, capitalism, and the corruption of international trade in a harmless way – by buying tomatoes from Farmer John who lives just over the hill.  He cites the tremendous advantages of the international trade in produce and the efficiencies resulting from agri-business.  He aims at urban agriculture which, in his view, is counter-productive:
Urbanization isn’t possible without imported food, Desrochers says; and  urbanization is what makes it possible to raise standards of living everywhere. Historically, we have pushed the production of food out of cities as subsistence farmers have moved in. Now, instead of each tending our own plot of rural land for a living, cities have enabled us to specialize as lawyers and bakers and engineers, while we’ve turned farming itself into a specialty.
In the process, Desrochers points out, we’ve learned to produce more food on less land, the price of it has fallen, the range of it available at your local store has increased, and the malnourished percentage of the world population has declined. The problem with locavores, as he sees it, is that they want to undo all of this progress, with terrible consequences.
The most environmentally friendly food policy, Desrochers argues, is the one where agriculture consumes the least amount of land globally, and only agri-business can deliver this efficiency. Producing food also requires more energy than transporting it, he adds. He dismisses the concept of "food miles," which he says fails to take into account the mode of transit on which our bananas travel. The 2,000 miles your produce travels from Latin America to Los Angeles by freight, he suggests, may be associated (per banana) with fewer carbon dioxide emissions than the 10 miles it travels home in your car from the supermarket.
He also argues that it’s less energy-intensive to produce food where regions best specialize in it, than it is to try to coax those same products out of ill-suited soil elsewhere, even if that means shipping apples from New Zealand to the U.K.


In another book reviewed in this article, Urban Farms, the author, Sarah Rich has a different take on urban agriculture.  More than the grab-bag political statement criticized by Desrochers:
Her book is about all the other reasons [for urban agriculture]. Urban farms can serve as a social anchor for communities. They can beautify blighted neighborhoods. They can create jobs for the unemployed and safe spaces for children. They provide outdoor classrooms for students to learn about where food comes from, but also how producing it is related to geography, math and science. Urban farms yield fresh produce to communities with scant access to it. Three of the farms Rich and Benson visit are in Detroit, a city without a single major supermarket chain.
In her introduction, Rich mentions one obvious market failure of the industrial food system, although she doesn't frame it in such terms. In "food deserts," she writes, it's often easier to plant vegetables than it is to get corner stores to start carrying them, or to convince full-service supermarkets to move in.
This argument holds little water.  Many cities – except for poor, blighted Detroit which the author cites – are reversing a trend, and big-box superstores are moving into formerly poorly-served neighborhoods.  In Washington, DC, for example, Walmart has been successfully negotiating with the city for permission to expand into inner-city neighborhoods which have been without quality service of any kind.  They are likely to be successful, for they have agreed to modify their business model to build less dominating and more integrated physical buildings. 



The opposition has come from expected quarters – the small mom-and-pop operations which have had a monopoly in the market because they have been willing to run the risk of selling in marginal, crime-ridden areas, are family businesses which save on labor costs, negotiate favorable agreements with same-ethnicity wholesalers and distributors, sell products that are close to their pull-by date, and therefore make reasonable profits. While there is no doubt that these small food stores will be forced out by Walmart, the community benefits in a big way.

Cities are always changing, morphing, evolving organisms.  Washington has changed dramatically over 35 years..  Former slum neighborhoods have been renovated and now not only are property prices up, but the quality of education and social services has improved by the influx of more affluent residents.

Urban agriculture is a short-term, idealistic response to what its supporters see is a rampant commercialization of America and the resultant elimination of an older, quieter, and much more sane way of life where there was a greater respect for food, its producers, and the land on which it was produced.  Urban agriculture has been a critical element in the growing “pan-environmental” movement – a political wave that incorporates everything from the Occupy sentiments, to the hatred of multi-nationals and free trade, to the depredations of agribusiness, to genetic modification. 

Very soon not only will Whole Foods compete successfully on taste and freshness with local markets, but other supermarkets picking up on the zeitgeist are not far behind.  A new chain for DC, Fresh and Green, replaced the old A&P and SuperFresh and will now start providing the freshest and best foods at prices lower than Whole Foods.  GM will enable produce grown far from local markets to taste like the ‘original’.  Most people will opt for this lower-priced food, even though it might vary somewhat from the high-flavor, high-priced local variety



In conclusion, the locavore phenomenon is yet another piece of the endlessly fad-driven American marketplace.  It has been supported by well-off urban dwellers with with high disposable income and has begun to move out from this profitable base.  However, in most parts of the country – the much poorer Deep South, for example – families do not eat local on principle, and have no access to the variety of Whole Foods.  They eat corn meal and fatback because it is cheap and they have little money. Not only could many residents of  North Mississippi afford Whole Foods if it were available, they cannot even afford Walmart, and make the trip across the line to Alabama to the much cheaper  Piggly Wiggly. 

Eventually income will pick up even in these locavore-forgotten areas and people will be able to afford Walmart and maybe even Whole Foods; but for the time being, if they are working, they are working low-paying jobs, and would welcome a low-cost food upgrade to their lives.

There are some ranch and farm communities in the West for which locavores have been saviors.  Because of their unique blend of retired wealthy outsiders and poor local farmers stretched to the limit because of drought, and because of a physical environment that is not attractive to agri-business, the locavore movement has provided needed income – temporary income to be sure – for the local economy.  While these farmers are likely to move to the city eventually in search of better jobs, for now they are making a living.  Those who support them feel they have strengthened the community and created a more livable communal environment.  

The locavore movement is a complex one, for it involves not just the survival or maintenance of a local economy, but also political convictions and sensitivities.  It like many emotional and political start-ups in today’s America, will come and go, do little damage, some good, and be a fun and easy way to eat well and feel good about it.






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