The Wall Street Journal’s Virginia Postrel recently defended Michael Pollan, a best-selling author and a leading advocate of buying locally grown food. Postrel notes that Pollan sounded like a privileged elitist because he dared “to put numbers on his oft-repeated prescription to ‘pay more, eat less’” — $8 for a dozen eggs and $3.90 for a pound of peaches.
“But Mr. Pollan was only being honest,” writes Postrel. “Patronizing local farmers who produce in small batches tends to cost more. You may find some peak-season bargains at the farmers’ market, but there’s no such thing as a free locavore lunch. Getting fruits and vegetables only from local farms necessarily limits variety—few crops are available everywhere all the time—and it doesn’t come cheap.”
We agree and were pleased to read Postrel’s comment, but then Postrel does a compete about face, and chides the “local movement” for their myopic ideals: “The locavore ideal is a world without trade, not only beyond national borders but even from the next state…Fully realized, that ideal would eliminate one of the great culinary advances of the past half century.”
Then Postrel goes on to praise the global food trade: “Now my neighborhood supermarket sells five types of lettuce, plus spinach, endive, escarole, radicchio, frisée, rapini, three kinds of chard, mustard greens, dandelion greens and kale.”
She even suggests local-food movement initiatives are “dangerous”. We certainly understand her appreciation for year-round exotic fruits and vegetables, but Postrel is either naive or oblivious to the perils of the global food trade and the hardships local farmers endure from flying asparagus to markets from Argentina in January, and air-freighting mangoes around the world in Winter. We question whether she understands the true nature of today’s global food network as it relates to the underlying motive behind the The Local Food Movement.
The whole idea behind the local food movement is to free local farmers across the globe from the very structure of today’s global economy. As The International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC), a non-profit organization concerned with the protection of both biological and cultural diversity, points out: “Not so long ago, each region offered numerous economic niches for small, diversified farms, which provided the wide range of products nearby consumers needed. The globalization of food, on the other hand, impels every region to specialize in whichever commodity its farmers can produce most cheaply, and to offer those products on global markets. All foods consumed locally, meanwhile, must be brought in from elsewhere.”
When farmers — employed as indentured servants to huge corporate-owned food behemoths — are forced to specialize in one crop or commodity, the local soil is completely destroyed by the elimination of crop rotation, and the forced use of petrochemicals, among other things — rich ecosystems are replaced by monocultures in the name of profits and higher crop yields. “And monocultural production leaves crops highly prone to devastation by pests and diseases.”
Crop rotation is “the practice of growing a series of dissimilar types of crops in the same area in sequential seasons for various benefits such as to avoid the build up of pathogens and pests that often occurs when one species is continuously cropped. Crop rotation also seeks to balance the fertility demands of various crops to avoid excessive depletion of soil nutrients.”
Author Raj Patel who predicted the 2008 global food crisis, describes the modern global food system as a “system that destroys rural communities, poisons poor city dwellers, is inhumane to animals, demands unsustainable levels of use of fossil fuels and water, contributes to global warming, [and] spreads disease.”
The United States imports roughly half of its produce from the developing world. “Many of these countries do not use the same level of sanitary practices in processing and harvesting these foods” as does the United States, says Mike Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia in Athens. “Inadequate food safety practices in developing countries have caused a number of well-publicized outbreaks here and also, most likely, profound (but unreported) problems with foodborne illness in some of those countries.”
“The developed world has resources to maintain high-quality food safety systems, while the developing world does not,” says LeeAnn Jaykus, a colloquium participant and professor of Food Science at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “Resource inequity makes it very difficult to tackle food safety from a global perspective.”
And now that commodity prices have exploded, and unemployment continues to soar, paying more for locally grown food may be out of the question for many struggling in this economy. According to recent Census Bureau figures, a record 43.6 million people were in poverty last year. That’s 1 in 7 Americans and the most in 51 years of record keeping.