The Pros and Cons of Local

Last night, I became a new member of Slow Food Vancouver Island.  Hurray!  It was the AGM, and I think I can safely say it was the most fun AGM I’ve ever been to.  No agenda was distributed, the meeting started with a simple, yummy meal, there was a cash bar, and the meeting even took place at Hilary’s Cheese and Deli!

I’ve thought about joining Slow Food for many years.  I’ve always supported the concepts, but when I looked into the organized movement itself, I had a hard time seeing a real place for myself.  Slow Food International, based in Italy, began with a couple of key initiatives that came from the ideal of preserving traditional food production and traditionally produced food ingredients.  The Ark of Taste was a kind of mega-catalogue project of these ingredients and foods that I found confusing.  I supported the ideals of preserving local and traditional food knowledge, but the concept of the Ark of Taste had a very European focus when it began, and it seemed, from a distance at least, like another kind of fetishization for the rest of the world of the special, expensive, superiority of European products like Italian olive oil, real Parmigiano Reggiano, etc.

At the meeting last night, it became clear that there had been some of that attitude in the founding years, but that there have been some major shifts in the Slow Food movement in tandem with the changes in public awareness about the industrial food system, its sustainability, and its relationship to climate change.

The new focus of Slow Food is Local Food.  Most of us in the room are already converts to the idea that local food is better food: it’s fresher, tastes better, can be more ethically produced–particularly when produced on a small scale–and creates rewarding relationships between consumers and producers. (Slow Food apparently wants to re-label “consumers” as “co-producers”, but that’s another discussion!)

But I was struck as I listened to the discussion at the meeting by a tone that suggested that local is ALWAYS better, and that more local is better–that we should be striving towards a 100% local economy, at least when it comes to food.  And this is where I start to get wary.

There are some very compelling reasons to “buy local” when possible.  Putting your money into small business, or into local products, keeps that money in the community; Wal-Mart head office doesn’t take a cut.  And when that money stays in the community, the whole community gets the benefit of that investment in important ways.  Supporting food producers on Vancouver Island (in my case) is a key step in building food security on the Island, which builds resistance to a whole host of potential disasters (earthquakes at least seem likely) which might keep supplies from the mainland at bay for days or weeks.  Resiliency comes from depth and diversity, not from a single industrial food distributor when 90% of our food is imported.  And if we want to re-create the global industrial food system, then buying directly from our local producers seems a great place to start.

But.  Is local always better, and is all local all the time the right goal?  I’m not sure it’s that simple.  Let’s take the food miles issue, the assumption that local food has a smaller carbon footprint than imported food.

It turns out that most of food’s carbon footprint does not come from its transport, but from its production.  How food is produced matters, and whether it’s produced with petroleum-dependent fertilizers, chemicals, and heavy equipment or not has the biggest impact.  There are GMO’d, large feedlot, unsustainable food producers locally as well as internationally.  Just because they’re making their impact closer to you doesn’t make it more sustainable for you to buy from them.  I struggle with this commercial side of things.  Local, often family-run farming businesses are trying to make a living and I want to support them.  But the scale of producing that’s often required to make a living can require practices that I’m not comfortable with.  It’s much easier for the lady down the street who’s raising a few chickens on the side to produce free-range eggs.  The farmer who’s in the egg business needs to keep tens of thousands of chickens to make a living at it (and not a very good one at that), and as soon as you are trying to keep tens of thousands of chickens, there have to be trade-offs made in their care and quality of life–you are part of the industrial food system, for better or worse.

Then there are the food miles and the efficiency issue.  Intuitively, it just makes sense that it should have less impact to buy food produced a few miles away than to buy food that has been flown or shipped in from half-way around the world.  But, unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case–at least with the options available to us today (I’ve chosen this link because it has links to the studies that have been done; there are others making these very interesting points in a variety of places).

In fact, small and local often means the least efficient use of fuel resources; think about the small-scale farmer who packs his or her not-very fuel efficient old panel van with a few bins of produce to take it to the farmer’s market or local store, where all of us drive our sort-of fuel efficient individual cars to go and buy it.  At an even smaller scale, Skipper and I used to buy most of our produce from a farm on the Saanich Penninsula.  We loved to do it, and loved the connection with the family farmers.  But we recognized that this was not the most efficient practice; each individual driving his or her car out 30k to the farm made even less sense than the farmer packing up everyone’s produce and taking it to the farmer’s market that we could walk to.  I have the same hesitations about the CSA‘s usual set up.  It actually makes sense to me that the global food distribution system would be economically viable (and cheaper than local) in part because it is so efficient.  Which isn’t the same thing as sustainable or ethical, of course!

The point is not to stop buying local, or to question the value of that practice.  My point is that the food system today is complicated, and the solutions need to take into account those complexities.  Trade is as old as human history, and food trade has enriched our human lives forever.  As anyone raised before the 1970s (somewhat arbitrary date)  in Canada will tell you, food was not usually exciting, tasty, or varied in the “good old days”–and if you were poor, it wasn’t particularly nutritious either.  Canned peas or cream of mushroom soup anyone?  Gardens were more important, and each region did have its delicacies.  But few people are really advocating a return to that kind of pre-industrial (ok, I know deciding when pre-industrial begins is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish) food life.  And I’m also not convinced that it’s better to drink local tea from herbs in my garden than it is to support fair trade organic  coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar, etc.  Michael Pollan via Peter S. Singer makes a compelling case in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that it is ethically important to not be parochial and protectionist and only consume those products locally produced; that those in the so-called developing world need those of us who can afford it to buy their ethically produced products.

Slow Food’s Ark of Taste is now contained within the Foundation for Biodiversity, and it is actively working with activists and food producers in the developing world to support their work, survival, and ideas to reconfigure the industrial food system.  Part of that process is supporting those trying to re-build local food economies which have been destroyed over the last 50-60 years in the paradox that was “de-colonization” (but that’s another post too!).  So all of us benefit when every local community is able to build more local food resiliency and depth.  But I’m not sure that’s the only component of a better food system, and I think it’s important that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Thoughts?

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