Point Eat Local
by Kate Heller
Counterpoint Or Bye-Bye Local?
by Remy Elbez
What, exactly, does it mean to eat locally? For some strict localvores, it could mean deriving one’s whole diet from what grows within a 100-mile radius. For others, it could mean consuming anything that grows within one’s state or within a particular geographic region, or even within one’s country.
What links these varying definitions, though, is the concept behind them. The complex global food system that depended upon multitudes of middlemen is collapsed to necessitate minimal steps, resources and time while increasing food quality, efficiency and awareness. The importance of ‘going local’ lies not only in the shortened distance between the potato field and the consumer, but also in the more direct interactions that will benefit the local economy, environment and surrounding community.
Firstly, buying locally supports the local economy, as the direct transfer of goods from the grower to the consumer keeps money in the immediate community rather then dispersing it across several intermediaries. Secondly, moving goods across shorter distances instead of moving them through several processing and packaging plants costs less and requires less energy, manipulation, and preservation.
From an ecological standpoint, diverse growing landscapes are much healthier for soils and ecosystems. Large scale monocropping schemes in which a single crop is planted across vast distances for a maximum yield of cheap product should be substituted for local systems that produce a variety of foods. One crop planted in the same plot of land year after year takes the same nutrients from the soil annually. More fertilizers will be needed to restore the soil and increasingly specialized (most likely genetically modified) strains of crops will be needed in order to endure the deficient growing conditions. By simply planting a diversity of crops and rotating such around your gardens or fields, the farmer employs a natural method of returning equilibrium to the soil and a way to trick pests. A healthier, stronger environment is maintained without the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
Evidently, eating locally benefits the economy and the environment, but something greater sustains the localvores. Consumers can buy technology, clothes, cars, and real estate, but food is our most intimate form of consumption. All the economic, social, and environmental statistics aside, I would much rather be chewing and swallowing a tomato from my backyard, from around the corner, from a farm 100 miles away that was harvested yesterday and touched by only a few hands instead of one that has been grown, harvested (before ripening), handled, packaged, refrigerated, shipped, unpackaged, refrigerated and then, perhaps, purchased, in an environment far removed in both space and time from its origins.
I like to know more about what I eat than merely seeing the image of a glossy product sitting on a fluorescent shelf. I want to know where it grows and when it was picked. I want to be able to picture the plant as it sat in the ground, or to at least know that I could drive no more than a day to see this picture, as opposed to having to board a plane to visit a country 5,000 miles away. I want to connect my dinner to something intimate, whether that be the landscape in which it was raised, the person who raised it, or even the current season.
There’s another dimension of eating – a cerebral dimension. It involves eating your food, enjoying your food, knowing your food and the story behind it; it can be done to any extent and under any budget. To eat locally is not so much about a strict mile limit, but rather about knowing what you are buying and who you are supporting. It's about shifting away from a period of blind and excessive consumption to one in which the consumer is conscious of social, environmental and economic concerns and uses three daily meals to voice - or chew on - such beliefs.
While the world endures one of its fiercest economic crises, eating locally seems to be the new trend. This trend claims exceptional contributions to society as a whole: we eat better products, we are healthier, and we support our local economies. Ostensibly, we end up with a strengthened community and a happier society. Unfortunately, this is quite far from the truth.
Firstly, eating locally lacks a real definition. Is it buying food from your county? Your state? (This would lead to mass starvation in Washington D.C.) Or from within, say, 100 miles? Technically, then, if I buy food from Ontario here in Michigan, I am still eating ‘locally,’ but I am not supporting the local economy. The very loose and convoluted definition of the term draws a fne line between benefits to the local consumers and propaganda from the local producers.
Considering health care is one of the primary sectors of expense in advanced economies, any simple idea to improve health without spending more money is always welcome. With regard to the specific health problems that Americans face – obesity, heart disease, diabetes – the way we cook our food impacts our health far more than the origin and quality of the food itself. Using reduced fat oil on your fries, for instance, will alleviate your cardiovascular problems – not buying sweet potatoes from Michigan instead of Yukon Gold’s from Idaho. Then again, maybe Idaho is considered local.
Secondly, eating locally seriously jeopardizes the diversity of products available to us. Michigan may have plenty of products to choose from, but, for example, we cannot grow oranges, bananas, chili peppers, chocolate or many other goods we eat on a daily basis. Forget your morning tea or coffee, the banana before jogging or the olive oil in your salad. By producing locally, we would have to eat differently depending on the seasons, or have certain vegetables and fruits canned to last the entire year.
Trying to produce exotic products locally would be disastrous, environmentally and economically speaking. To grow, say, oranges in Michigan, we would need greenhouses and a lot of fertilizer, traces of which we will find in the fruits and in the soil. Given that more than 80 percent of the greenhouse gases associated with food are emitted during the production phase, we would be choosing to pay the price of higher pollution and reduced efficiency in order to grow our goods at home.
The environmental and health benefits from eating locally may seem trivial but what then, about the economical benefits? Buying foods directly from the farmers could reduce the price we pay by eliminating global distribution from c o r p o r a t i o n s . The farmers could sell their small production- scale goods for a higher price to the consumer than what the big firms such as Wal-Mart would have bought them for, and consumers could still buy goods at a lower price than Wal-Mart would have sold them for; both would be happier.
However, this process excludes the distribution chain. When the distributor buys the farmers’ entire harvests – the unit price of the food is lower, – but because the farmers sell everything, they earn more money than in the retail market. Also, the time and resources spent by the farmers to package, transport, and sell their products presents a significant opportunity cost; farmers lose money conducting processes in which they do not specialize. Thus, the production cost of local foods would be higher, especially if we put more effort into producing exotic crops. Customers would be unable to afford the high cost of local food, and consequently, the government would have to subsidize domestic producers in order to sustain their competence amongst non-local ones. Unfortunately, that extra money spent subsidizing local agriculture could be taken from research, education, and innovation in other aspects of society.
Any rational economist knows protectionism is one of the worst avenues to pursue during a global downturn.
We are reluctant to buy from far away what we can naturally produce locally. We are ready to pay more for local goods because we feel they are important to our local culture. Ultimately, though, imported goods are higher quality, more competitive on the market, and much more diverse – not to mention that they are lower in cost. It would be a waste of precious resources to try to produce crops that would be less efficiently produced.
It is true that many Western growers are anxious about the future of their profession. The way to fight exploitation on the behalf of big corporations and distributors is to speak out on behalf of the exploited farmers, not to stop buying their goods altogether. The money we save by not buying local food, by not attempting to preserve our local culture at all costs, could actually be better invested to make it thrive.
About the Issue
Point author: Kate Heller is a University of Michigan senior majoring in Anthropology and minoring in the Program in the Environment. She is part of the Michigan Sustainable Foods Initiative through which she works to encourage dorms, university programs, students, and staff to rethink their consumption and consider its effects on community and environment.
Counterpoint author: Remy Elbez graduated with a master’s degree in Physics and Economics from Ecole Polytechnique in France, and is currently a PhD student in Applied Physics at the University of Michigan.
Edited by: Trisha Jain
Cover by: Miriam Svidler