Monday, March 12, 2007

Eatin' Good In Your Neighborhood (Or At Least Thereabouts)

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.


trout said...

I'm wholly on board with the concept of eating locally. I fully plan on patronizing the farmers market around here once it gets going. But at the same time, I'm a lot more skeptical about this movement gaining significant traction with the American public. If it's difficult and expensive to eat organically, it's usually even more difficult and expensive to eat locally. And Americans aren't so into taking the more difficult and more expensive option.

Again, I like the idea in principle, I just find it hard to wrap my head around how such an eating philosophy could even have a chance of making significant inroads in American culture, no matter how you spin it. But maybe that's just because I like to eat bananas in the middle of February too much.

Tommbert said...

Exactly--and it's that sort of thing that gets left out of the article. Instead of saying things like how much he likes to eat "foreign" foods, Cloud just puts down the idea as silly. Furthermore, he only skates around the idea that just because something is local doesn't mean it's better for you, or organic, as the title juxtaposes. Though it could be. But apparently Cloud can't be bothered with that much complexity.

On the other hand, there might be something to the Victorian sensibility about giving oranges as the most expensive Christmas present. Just because you can have something all the time doesn't automatically mean that you should. The plus side about getting denied those imported things is that if you travel, there's an impetus to eat locally there, too, instead of eating at chain restaurants and what not. Plus, getting your bananas or oranges only when you're in banana and orange climates means you might value them a little more. That, of course, doesn't mean I don't like my oranges every day of the year.

The trouble inherent--that guarantees the eating local idea won't gain a lot of traction--is that if a good number of people actually ate locally, it would dismantle to a degree a world economy whose goal is to supply things that you can't get for yourself. Yeesh. However, there's still something to growing what you can, even if it's just tomatoes that you have in a pot on your deck or herbs in the kitchen window. Any small thing you do to reduce your dependence on imported foods--like the reducing your fuel costs in the arguments that run parallel to eating locally--is supposed to be a good thing. Like the Emersonian strain that runs in Wendell Berry, too much dependence on other people is a problem of character. At bottom, I can't see anything wrong with watering a houseplant and happening to get condiments.

trout said...

Hear, hear, tommbert. My window-box planting of a jalapeno pepper last year was a great success--one that I intend to repeat this year. Suck on that, you jalapeno conglomerates who seek to divorce me from the modes of production. I'll take myself out of the global economy and destroy global capitalism one spicy pepper at a time.

MBQ said...

This, to me, is one of those areas where absolutism just isn't going to cut it. We've gone too far down the path that says you can have fresh (relatively, anyways) bananas anywhere in the country at any time of year to ever come back.

Certain foods can't be grown locally, of course, either seasonally or year round and the idea that one part of the country can eat oranges but not, I don't know, wheat, while another part of the country can get wheat and not oranges will never fly. (And I don't think I would want it to.) The better scenario, as I see it, is to encourage people to get what they can locally (or from their window box) and then supplement non-locally.

But then that brings up the entire problem, as you guys mentioned, of time and expense.

While not wanting to sound completely uncaring of the Eat Locally and/or Eat Organically ideals (because I'm not), the bigger problem for me isn't that Trout wants (and gets) his February bananas at all, but the cost in fuel/oil consumption it takes to get bananas from point of growth to point of consumption.

If people won't give up bananas in February, then the goal should be to get them bananas with as little damage as possible. There are two ways to do this:

1. Massive BioDome farming which would enable New England's banana consumption to be grown, if not within a 150 mile radius, then at least a 300-350 mile radius, which is a lot better than where we are now. A BioFarm brings with it a whole host of problems, of course - one being that we'd still be dealing with a corporate farm which doesn't meet the political goals of the Eat Local movement.

Of course, that begs the question - would you be willing to eat local food if you had to buy that food from a global corporation? If your primary goal is to decrease fuel consumption, I'd guess you would. If your goal is to decrease a reliance on corporations, I'm guessing you wouldn't.

But what if BioFarms were owned and operated as public utilities? I don't know - I'm thinking as I type so the greater implications of all this aren't a primary concern at the moment.

2. The rise of so-called Green Cars. And forget bio-diesel, which is turning out to be more of a half-step than the leap we need to end our reliance on oil. The real answer, IMO, is hydrogen-fueled cars. Norway is currently constructing a Hydrogen Highway (the HyNor Project: which will go a long way towards proving the feasibility of hydrogen based cars in the here and now.

They waste produced by Hydrogen cars? Water.

A side-benefit of Hydrogen cars? Because of the way hydrogen is produced in the car's fuel cell, you'll have excess energy created by your car that you will eventually be able use to power your home or office.

Since bananas in February is a concept that is going to remain, creating a means of getting those bananas from there-to-here without using a drop of gasoline (with all the benefits that brings with it between getting that oil out of the ground and into a vehicle) seems like a workable, meaningful, highly beneficial solution.

Of course, that depends on why you want people to eat locally in the first place.

trout said...

If hydrogen cars are seemingly on the horizon, are hydrogen planes and trains far behind? If so, then you're well on your way to eliminating one huge problem with the global economy--just think how efficient and eco-friendly the Global North exploitation of the Global South could become! And we could even water the desert with the wastewater produced by these hydrogen planes! It's like a win-win-win. Or something. In all seriousness, though, I ask about the hydrogen planes because I'm completely ignorant of the subject and too lazy to find out myself.

trout said...

Nevermind--I'm not as lazy as I claim.

MBQ said...

Two articles of note about hydrogen trains:


Europe hopes to have a hydrogen train ready for a 2010 launch, so it's not imminent but it's not decades down the road, either.

joe said...

not being a subscriber to herbivore, i wonder how billig's take compares to an article i read about this issue in harper's a couple year's ago... the author wrote from a pro-hunting standpoint, and tied in some of the hunter/gatherer vs. agriculture ideas shared by daniel quinn, but it seems like it may have made similar points

Tommbert said...

The Manning article is a good find, joe. Thanks for posting the link; wish I could have done the same with Billig's!

Both do indeed come from the same place--an understanding of connectivity in systems that one does or does not want to participate in. Though (kind of obviously, I think) the Herbiviore crowd wouldn't want to see the elk get shot, a careful reader would see that the impulse is precisely the same: use what you need, get it closer, take action instead of talking.

Manning's article in Harper's is a much clearer discussion than the one he gives the short end of the stick to in his book Grassland. Part of the issue might be that he has had seven years to percolate. Or maybe 2004 seemed like a better time. In any event, both arguments have a number of issues with them. That however is content for a different string. A way between both might, nonetheless, be David Orr's notion of full-cost thinking. Be mindful, he intones, of where your stuff--food or otherwise--comes from as some things are more expensive than the monetary price you pay.

In any event, a way out would be the hydrogen car, to be sure. Wish we could get people of the Hindenburg argument, though...