Having just finished Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of food and the benefits that accrue from eating locally. There is the obvious benefit of reducing carbon emissions, since there are massive amounts of fossil fuels burned to transport all the different foods to the odd ends of the world. There are also benefits that accrue from destroying the industrialization of food production, such as the reduction of groundwater pollution and decreased used of antibiotics in our food.
However I do not think it is necessary or even desirable to destroy the global food chain. There are great advantages in the quality of life in having different sorts of food available year round. While it might not be natural to be eating green vegetables in the middle of a North East winter, it is certainly much more healthy and enjoyable to consume a balanced diet throughout the seasons. Obviously steps need to be taken to reduce the carbon footprint of transferring goods around the world, but that is true in general and really applies to all expenditures of energy. The amount of energy consumed by humans is not going to drop; we just have to find cleaner and renewable ways of generating it
To get back to the food chain issue, it is a commonly held belief that eating locally is going back to the “good old days” of pre-industrial farming. So it was somewhat amusing to discover, as I started plowing through John Ferling’s massive history of the American Revolution “Almost a Miracle”, the following quote:
He thought Boston was attractive and its climate good, at least until his first New England winter set in. The food was superb. There was an abundance of seafood, including turtle soup, which he relished. Madeira and tropical fruit, also among his favorites, were consistently available.
Even in the late 1700’s, food was being shipped from the Caribbean up to the Northeast, setting the patterns now followed by fruits and vegetables migrating up from Latin America. There will always be a human desire for the exotic and the nonseasonal food; it has always been satisfied to the best of technology’s abilities. Tropical fruit might barely survive the sailing ship voyage up the American coast, but these days a freighter can have it here in plenty of time while a plane takes only a few hours.
Eating locally is a good, and probably a necessary, thing, if we are going to improve the health of both people and the land they live on. But advocating an absolutist position like a ‘hundred-mile diet’ is both unpopular and contrary to human desire. It is also contrary to all prevailing notions of world trade and exchange. Assuming our society (not American, but human society) does fall into absolute rack and ruin, international commerce will continue to broaden and grow. This is undeniably a good thing, assuming the associated environmental risk is both properly assessed and offset (the externalities of shipping goods around the world needs to be factored into their cost, as does the environmental impact of countries with overly permissive standards). A balance needs to be found that allows ecology to be preserved and even promoted, whilst still allowing us in the frigid north a taste of mango.