Last week Globe & Mail columnist Margaret Wente attacked locavorism as “the most wasteful, inefficient way to feed the human race you can possibly imagine.” She said it was, “bad for the environment” and perplexingly, claimed that the purported “core beliefs of locavores – that organic is best, chemicals are bad, and genetically modified crops are evil – are responsible for keeping large parts of Africa mired in poverty and food deprivation.”

I’m not quite sure how to respond to her comments about Africa. I would like to think she’s joking, but just in case she’s not I’ll point to the more conventional arguments about that continent’s intractable problems with food: drought, desertification, distribution and food security issues, and politics and corruption on both sides of the north south divide. Enough said.

As for the rest of the column, Wente’s arguments seem more ideological than data or even common sense driven. For example, she asserts that “modern, mass-produced food (not junk food, real food) is cheaper, more nutritious, safer, higher-quality, more reliably available and far less wasteful than the local kind.”

Wente is right when she says that industrially-produced food is more reliably available. Global distribution networks are amazing. If the strawberries in California fail, we can get them from Mexico or Israel. This is a luxury of the modern world that many of us wouldn’t want to do without as part of an overall eating strategy.

And I will grant you that industrial food can be appear to be cheaper. But this is where Wente’s points start to become less persuasive. Industrially produced food seems cheaper because we’re not calculating or paying its full cost. For example, who’s picking the cheap food on which we gorge ourselves? It’s often migrant or easily exploited workers. And we often ignore the environmental cost of intensive food production, including its transport, because we haven’t formally introduced any systems that force us to account for it.

To this point, farmer Joel Salatin, speaking in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, argues that with his [local] food , “All of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water – of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap.”

And the rest of Wente’s arguments are also a stretch. Industrially-produced food isn’t higher-quality or more nutritious. It’s usually picked before it’s ripe. It’s often stored and always transported, which gives its nutritional value lots of time and opportunity to degrade.

And I’d be curious to see how Wente arrived at the idea that industrially-produced food is safer, especially when our government is so intent on cutting back on food safety inspections. Those same glorious food distribution networks that bring us Israeli strawberries in February are the ones that can ship E Coli round the world in just a few days.

But let’s set aside the point and counter-point here. Read Michael Pollan’s books, or, if you’re policy-minded, the European Commission’s report “Opinion of the Committee of the Regions on ‘Local food systems’”, published in January 2011. After having studied food production and distribution extensively, the Commission has come out strongly in favor of what they call ““short supply chain” food distribution because, pace Wente, they’ve identified many social, cultural, economic and environmental benefits. Naturally, they don’t prescribe local eating as the only way to eat. But I’ve not heard “locavores” say that either. The point is to make local eating part of an overall approach to eating.

To me, one of the most critical points about local eating is actually one that Wente raises in the context of a dismissive aside. Perhaps facetiously, she asks why it’s become “the rage to look in the eye of the people who grow your vegetables?”

She answers it in part by theorizing that we romanticize the land because we live at such a distance from it. And because we long for the personal, and artisanal, and for connectedness.”

Well, yes.

The thing to bear in mind hear is that connectedness isn’t just some upper-middle class indulgence.* Connectedness is price of entry to being human. And food is, and has always been, one of the most fundamental mechanisms to connect us. Producing food connects us to nature, tradition, the seasons, a local ecology and even our own bodies. Producing food also connects us to our human vulnerabilities. There’s a reason we give thanks at mealtimes, or at least, we used to when we were more attuned to the significance of food in our lives.

When I buy at the Farmer’s Market at the Evergreen Brickworks, I experience all of these connections more strongly than when I shop at the local grocery store. They are in the foreground, rather than some invisible background. The food there is connected to my own place, experience and time, not a commodity produced by parts and in places unknown. In other words, a zucchini is more than a zucchini. It is something that draws me deeper into place, time and relationships. This has always been as much a part of food’s job as providing calories on which to run, like so much gas in a car.

Buying food at the Brickworks is exciting, not because I’m getting some validation of yuppie values, but because connectedness in engaging and enriching. That itself is a kind of pleasure. A nourishment beyond the cheapest possible calories. And, as Albert Borgmann says, “pleasures embedded in engagement will not betray us.”

Photo Credit Mike Derblich. Image Courtesy of the Evergreen Brickworks.

 

* Joel Salatin says his customer aren’t “elites”, “We sell to all kinds of people.”

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