A few months back in Herbivore (a vegetarian alt-news magazine, for the uninitiated) I read a plea to the readership to eat locally. In the piece, author Jen Billig, the Activist Gardner, argues that one of the biggest issues facing people (anybody who eats, not just veg-friendly folks) these days is the connection between food production—in this case the growing of foods—and its distribution to America’s thirst for oil. The article, though loosely written, makes a valid point: growing food takes oil, both to produce fertilizers and pesticides as well as trails of unfixed carbon and other pollution in the wake of the trains, planes, and automobiles that tote foods to groceries. Plainly the impetus is some notion of reducing fossil fuel consumption, either as a means of production or of transportation. As such it dovetails nicely with the environmental movement at-large in that less oil used is a good thing. In any event, Billig’s point is well taken as, ahem, food for thought. (I'd put a link to it, but Herbivore is pretty low-fi. You can check what webstuff they have here.)
And then just last week, the alternative news matured to national standing. Venerable Time magazine ran with a cover image of a looming red apple whose sticker proclaimed, “Forget Organic, Eat Local.” Time’s piece was appropriately fluffy given its general audience, a not terribly introspective personal essay, really, detailing author James Cloud’s internal dialogue concerning which option—organic or local, as if they were mutually exclusive—serves his taste buds better. While Cloud’s essay presents a manageable picture of the state of eating locally today, it's woefully limited in its thinking. For Cloud the debate is new, a product of one American’s increasing sensitivity to the role petroleum products play in getting goods on shelves. In that sense his argument is even less complex than Gillig’s because he doesn’t even touch the fact that most fertilizers and pesticides are partially, if not wholly, derived from petroleum distillates.
Furthermore, his research smacks of the assigned story. He cites, most only obliquely, some books that have informed his thinking: Ann Cooper’s Bitter Harvest, Joan Dye Gussow’s This Organic Life, Gary Paul Nabhan’s Coming Home to Eat, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Samuel Fromartz’s Organic Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew. The article notes that these books were published, respectively, in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2006, and 2006. It’s this kind of “five year rule” mentality that comes off as the urbanite doing all his research at his local Manhattan Barnes and Noble. Similarly, the seemingly overt reasoning for the article in the first place—organic versus local—peters out at some point, becoming an amusing foray into what role local plays for Cloud, all the while chomping on his McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish. Then again, maybe I’m projecting the missing organic argument. There’s something about the Filet-O-Fish that undermines a writer’s credibility on organic stuff for me.
Urbanite mentality indeed, by the way. The tone of the article has a kind of New York condescension. He calls the farmer’s co-op—from which he buys a significant portion of his food, at least while he wrote this story—pejoratively “lefty” and is suspicious of it for reasons he doesn’t bother to explain. His position on farmer’s markets—he repeatedly calls them “inconvenient”—belies the urbanite’s hustle. While I understand that Time magazine isn’t America’s bastion of critical thinking and complex analysis, I had higher expectations for the article. At the very least I would have thought that the piece might engage in something other than the dilettantism that Cloud writes. His most interesting source is a trip to Google’s Café 150, one of eleven food service locations on the Google Campus, where the on-site chef prepares daily meals based solely on what is available locally—as they define it, within the titular 150 miles. And yet, as enlightening as the visit is (or could be), Cloud comes off more amused by the concept than its significance or utility, like a guy who's happy to be on a expense account.
By the end of the article, I wondered how much of the piece works as a valid explanation of a contemporary issue, what I presumed cover stories were supposed to be. In my judgment: very little. True, toward the end Cloud is willing to cop to the fact that he likes his organic granola bars and Froot Loops because they are easier to deal with than the eggs he gets as part of the eating locally program he eventually signs up for. At the same time there is a lurking sense that, despite all the nice things he has to say about the locally grown foods’ tasting better and possibly being better for him, he comes off as the city-dweller that can think about his food in only two ways. First, as commodity that needs to be wrestled with daily, primarily because he has to buy it to live, and ancillarily because it just might have something to do with gas prices. And second—when he has the chance—as a romantically connected to where his food actually comes from, like when he sees the kids on the family farm who gather the eggs he eats. That moment, by the way, is as warm and fuzzy as only a person who has never visited a farm can write it: it’s pithy and clichéd because he’s “connected” by being there (despite the fact that he doesn’t harvest anything himself).
A serious consideration of agriculture’s widespread use of petroleum is in order. Time, however, drops the rock. Perhaps the most important thing that comes from the article is the implied lesson for those who are willing to take up the eating local banner. Namely, that this business about local (and to a lesser extent, organic) foods is still, despite making it to the mainstream, a fringe movement. And by fringe movement, I mean—as Cloud seems to imply—something that city folk can’t be bothered with except as a hobby. That Cloud takes care to make a false opposition between organic and local doesn’t help either.