Local Food – Loaded With Questions

In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, she describes how 18-year-old Almanzo and his friend risked a 12-mile excursion in search of a settler who, it was rumored, had moved to South Dakota a year prior to the other pioneers — and reportedly produced a crop of wheat. The townspeople of De Smet were starving, as blizzard after blizzard (1880-81) had paralyzed everything, including the supply-bearing trains. The young men risked their lives to successfully purchase and transport wheat from a man nobody knew personally, saving the townspeople from certain death.

Question: Did the new settlers “buy local?”

Local Food

Photo courtesy of Trent Loos. Apologies for slight blur. He’s a busy man focussing on things other than smaller print on an airport sign!

Agvocate and radio personality Trent Loos recently snapped this photo at the Burlington, Vermont, airport. After listing local food production businesses, the display concludes, “Why eat local? To promote the Local food S.C.E.N.E. (Security, Community, Environment, Nutrition, Economy).”

This has raised many questions in my mind, so I thought I’d share my queries with you.

What IS “local?”

Is “local” defined as 20 miles from home? 40? 100? 400? 30 minutes? 1 hour? 4 hours? By bicycle, car, plane? Is it defined at all, or is it flexible, like the definition of “sustainable” and “natural?”

Do restaurants that sell themselves as “local” use all local products all the time? Or might they fudge a bit to always provide, say, lettuce? Or wine? Or coffee? Or olive oil?

What do “locals” do in times of drought or flood? What happens if trade routes and trade relationships have been severed?

If a product is “local,” does it have to be produced using only “local” inputs? Seed, fertilizer, water, vet medicine, finance? Labor? Electricity, gasoline, diesel?

Do “local” foodies engage in Internet buying and selling?

Is it okay to sell to tourists? Does it matter how much CO2 was emitted in the drive to the “local” provider?

Can “local” food be served on trans-continental or international flights?

Would Vermont-based Cabot Creamery be able to provide locals with good quality, low-cost cheese were it not for their factory-efficient mass production… and the fact that I can buy it at Wal-Mart in Texas?

Is it okay to promote yourself as “local” in one locale while marketing all over the country?

 

Baffling Support

 
Many modern-day agriculturalists applaud the “local food” movement. Perhaps it is a desperate desire for more consumers to understand and appreciate what it takes to produce. Maybe it’s a longing for childhoods, when federal and state regulations had not put every small packing plant out of business.  Some might operate under the assumption that such support makes them appear cleaner, greener, more “one with nature” and therefore more appealing to urbanites.

Whatever the reason for supporting it, farmers and ranchers should understand that the local food movement is anything but a friend to modern agriculture and consumers. In order to advance, “local” food must denigrate tried and true production practices.  In addition, it is a slap in the face of continuous human improvement — refrigeration, transportation and distribution, food safety and preservation, ag engineering, genetics, artificial insemination, etc.

Due to individuals making private decisions rooted in the pursuit of profit, production efficiency has improved dramatically over the past two centuries. Along the way, our air, water and landscapes have become cleaner and safer and more beautiful.

Turning back the clock to a romanticized subsistence agriculture era is an emotive abandonment of reason and will only detract from security, community, environment, nutrition and economy.

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I love to garden, I’m not afraid to shovel manure, nor do I shrink from killing my own fish or animals for meat. It’s extremely cool to grow your own food and to understand where food comes from. But it’s entirely another thing to criticize modern food production that has been responsible for the unprecedented supply of fresh and safe food we now enjoy. Each category promoted in the “local food SCENE” display does exactly that. I take issue.

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