A consideration of local food

Organic Veggie Vendor

Photo by beautifulcataya via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In the cover story from last week’s edition of The Cap Times, Lindsay Christians considers the popularity of local produce in the Madison area. She writes,

Over the past decade or so, the word “local” has evolved from simple geographic indicator to marketing gold. Dane Buy Local, a nonprofit that promotes locally owned businesses, had the biggest boost in its nine-year history in 2012, increasing membership by 18 percent to about 700.

Sometimes consumers “don’t realize things are available locally, and in many cases it’s better quality than you can get somewhere else,” said Dane Buy Local President Colin Murray. “It’s more sustainable … and the shipping costs alone” may make local products competitive.

Another selling point is the pastoral romance of the countryside. An artistic rendering of the state of Wisconsin hangs on the wall between the L’Etoile and Graze restaurants showing where the beef and potatoes came from.

Metcalfe’s Market posts “food miles” on its local produce (a problematic measure of sustainability, but a popular one nonetheless). In late summer, the Willy Street Co-Op hosts an “eat local” challenge, restricting eaters to foods from within a 150-mile radius for one month.

Soon, every vendor at the Dane County Farmers’ Market will have a sign that shows where, on a map of Wisconsin, the farmer comes from.

“Local trumps organic for our customers,” said market manager Larry Johnson. “We do have some certified organic growers, we have some who are transitional. But local seems to be important for most of our customers.”

It’s a nice piece that also examines the sometimes fuzzy definition of “local” food, so I encourage you to check out the full article here.

For a contrarian view that questions the value and impact of local food, see the sidebar that accompanied the main article. Christians writes,

Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu are preaching a message farmers’ market shoppers don’t want to hear….

“Locavorism … is at best a marketing fad that frequently and severely distorts the environmental impacts of agricultural production.

“At worst, it constitutes a dangerous distraction from the very real and serious issues that affect energy consumption, the environmental impact of modern food production, and the affordability of food.”

Positioning themselves as a pair of anti-Michael Pollanites, Desrochers and Shimizu attempt to deconstruct a number of locavore “myths,” among them that locavorism helps the local economy, heals the earth and increases food security.

Such critiques are worth considering, but they have their weaknesses as well; two major ones come to my mind. First, anti-locavore arguments often seem to pooh-pooh human behavior that is motivated by anything other than simple economic cost-benefit analysis. Second, and crucially, such arguments frequently ignore the current structural inequities in a human-made system designed to favor commodity monocultures and the giant agri-corporations that rely on them. Is it really more “efficient” to grow the countless acres of soy and corn that fuel the processed food and chemical industries, given the associated costs shouldered by individuals, families, and society at large instead of corporations?

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