The Locavore Debate, Revisited


Photo courtesy of scottroberts-flikr

scottroberts-flikr

How can local food systems support a resilient and sustainable future food economy in the United States? That was the question of the day at a recent conference entitled, “Reviving the American Economy-One Heirloom Tomato at a Time.”  But for some, the question isn’t so much how, but even can local food systems support a sustainable food economy.  It’s always important to be open to dissenting viewpoints, so it was with great interest that I listened to Pierre Desrochers of the University of Toronto critique the “eating local” paradigm.

According to Desrochers, who has garnered a respectable amount of publicity as an “anti-locavore,” choosing to eat local foods isn’t necessarily the sustainable choice many believe.  Although he brings some very critical and noteworthy perspectives to the broader food system debate about energy efficiency and CO2 emissions from ‘food miles,’ he also obfuscates and distorts the broader goals of developing resilient local food systems, and for this reason I’d like to address some of his main talking points here.

Food System Resilience

The main thrust of Desrochers’ argument against the resilience of local food systems is his belief they may lead to future food insecurity.  He suggested that local food systems are inherently more unstable in the face of plant disease outbreaks, crop failures, and the limited growing seasons of different latitudes.  His argument, in sum, was against a pre-20th Century food system, where local crop failures might spell disaster for rural, isolated communities.

But is this really the vision of the local food movement?  I don’t believe local food system advocates are calling for a return to eating only what is produced in isolation of wider regional or global food systems-an idea which is historically contentious to begin with.  By creating a false dichotomy between choosing either an extreme local food system (where one would have to subsist only on foods grown directly in your locality) or a global one (where food would only come from where it was cheapest to grow-a “cheapness” dependent on agricultural subsidies and externalizing environmental health costs), it seems Desrochers has only constructed a straw man in order to knock it down. 

The reality of nearly all food systems is that they are nested on varying scales, from the local to the global, and can interact between scales.  As CLF Visiting Scholar Kate Clancy and co-author Kathryn Ruhf acknowledged in a well-articulated article 2010 in Choices on regional food systems, “An ideal regional food system describes a system in which as much food as possible to meet the population’s food needs is produced, processed, distributed, and purchased at multiple levels and scales within the region, resulting in maximum resilience, minimum importation, and significant economic and social return to all stakeholders in the region.”

In sum, Desrochers’ suggestion that widespread adoption of local food production might lead to the next great American famine is only even remotely tenable if we ignore the pragmatic and sensible reality that opportunities for creating truly sustainable food systems exist between the local and the global. Read More >

Response to “Math Lessons for Locavores” op-ed

Grist.org recently invited bloggers through it’s Grist Talk: Food Fight series to respond to an August 20th op-ed piece, Math Lessons for Locavores,” by Stephen Budiansky in the New York Times.  What follows is my response:

“I agree with Mr. Budiansky that freight is by some measures cheap, and that the interstate system and trains are convenient conduits from farms to distributors to markets, although this idea is not so new.

community garden in Waverly neighorhood, Baltimore, MD

community garden in Waverly neighorhood, Baltimore, MD

A more interesting question to tackle is: what does the desire to be a locavore say about our disjointed food system, and is there room for improvement by developing regional food systems?

Mr. Budiansky’s argument runs thin when we take a hard look at what consolidated industrial farming and food animal production “return to our land,” as he puts it. It is difficult to be in favor of a farming approach that relies upon mono-cropping using genetically modified seeds and synthetic fertilizers. Likewise, food animal production facilities make for poor neighbors when their (virtually unregulated) wastes and associated land application and spray-field sites spread allergens and antibiotic-resistant bacteria throughout farming communities.

So why pick on locavores? Because when they seek local food, they may also be seeking to buy organically grown or raised foods, from small to mid-sized farms, which can impact entrenched agribusiness interests. Changing food preferences and buying habits may be changing the way food is grown, distributed, and consumed.

For example, the American Meat Institute was defensive when the Meatless Monday campaign, for which Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future serves as a scientific advisor, suggested on NPR that reducing meat consumption one day a week could be good for your health, by potentially reducing saturated fat intake. It isn’t surprising: the average American spends about $550 annually on meat. If the conventional food-animal industry improved production methods by removing growth-promoting antibiotics and recognizing animal welfare, both the quality of their products and the perceptions of their customers may increase.

Food decisions carry weight, and so the lesson here is to speak with your fork and the farms will follow!”

– Dave Love

[This post originally ran Monday, August 23 on Grist.org]


Locally grown, Locally shared: A new model for giving in Baltimore, MD

Over a hundred Baltimore residents gathered on Saturday night for the 4th edition of an innovative fundraising event called STEW. STEW is a joint project of Baltimore Development Cooperative and Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse, where attendees pay $10/person for the opportunity to share a multi-course locavore meal and listen to the financial needs of three amazing local non-profits. At the end of the meal, attendees vote on how to distribute their +$1,000 of pooled donations.

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The Velocipede Bicycle Project presenting at STEW IV

The eponymous 2640 (St Paul St) housed the event, which contained three communal tables—dressed in brown paper tablecloths, mismatched silverware, cups, and plates—spanning the length of a church hall. The meal left this blogger pleasantly surprised about the delicious variety available within a 40 mi radius of Baltimore, and in April no less! Food was donated by local farms: Calvert’s Gift Farm, Great Kids Farm, Participation Park, Real Food Farm, and Truck Patch Farms. Volunteers cooked and served the food, with a warm and professional feel.

The inspiration for STEW, as decribed on their website, was “the ’network dinners’ organized by the art-activist collective campbaltimore in 2006, Incubate Chicago’s Sunday Soup, Brooklyn’s FEAST, as well as the amazing dinner that took place at 2640 during the City From Below conference.”

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Rod and Amanda at STEW IV

The first course was a tangy and sweet salad of mustard greens, sorrel, and radish tops, which was followed by a presentation by the Velocipede Bike Project, a community bicycle cooperative in the Station North neighborhood of Baltimore. The next course was piquant and crunchy sliced radishes in sorrel butter and roasted asparagus rubbed with salt and pepper. Following these veggies, another group presented on the International Drag King Community Extravaganza to drum up support for this rotating annual event to be held in Baltimore in November 2010.

To much excitement, the main dish and the namesake of the event was a delicious rabbit and dumpling stew (or) a strikingly green, vegan spring onion soup. After slurping up the last drops of soup from my bowl, Follow Your Dreams Inc. (FYD), a youth center and recording studio in the Harwood neighborhood of Baltimore, gave a stirring request for funding along with a deeply introspective, spoken-word poetry piece by a young FYD participant. Over desserts of vegan dark chocolate brownies, buttermilk panna cotta, or almond sponge cake, the attendees voted on how the three groups would receive their pooled money.

The funding breakdown by group was as follows:

· Follow Your Dreams, Inc. ($665)

· International Drag King Community Extravaganza ($170)

· Velocipede Bike Project ($170)

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future was well represented at STEW IV by Amanda, Angela, Becca, Brent, Jillian and myself (Dave). I’m looking forward to STEW V next month, to learn about, interact with, and support other deserving Baltimore non-profits.

– Dave Love

Baltimore Food Makers potluck

On the recommendation of a friend, I had to good fortune to attended the Baltimore Food Makers monthly potluck this Saturday to share home-grown, home-preserved and home-made food with a group of ~30 “food makers.”  Before eating we all gathered around the spread of food and each maker discussed with zeal his or her dish– covering the smallest details about prep, food sourcing, and questions from the crowd.   As the discussion of each dish drew to a close I felt a collective sigh as we acknowledged the embodied time and love poured into the food.  I eagerly watched as pickled watermelon rind, cured duck and beef, bison jerky, bbq tempeh, cornbread, black-eyed peas, and other delicious dishes were uncovered the large dining room table.  My plate, below, was full of tasty bites in no time.

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The Baltimore Food Makers is ~1 yr old group that provides a forum for sharing skills and resources about cooking, eating and farming for those in Baltimore.  They have a great list of local food sources, and an active google group with >100 members.  The theme of this potluck was “Meat / Faux-Meat — AKA Making do with Meat, Making do without.” To give more background, here is an excerpt from the potluck flyer:

When it comes to meat, there is even more of an incentive to make do with small amounts of it or none at all.  Meat is expensive, there are environmental implications to it on a large scale and there are easily debatable ethical implications to it as well.  Some of us choose to cut back on how much meat we eat, some of us find different places to purchase it from, and some of us choose to do away with it entirely.

This month’s potluck is about how you find creative ways of using meat, and/or how you use meat substitutes to take the place of meat.  On the carnivorous side, this might including stretching some very small amount of meat into a big dish, curing/smoking meat to preserve it and therefore make it last longer, using odd normally unused bits (i.e. Aliza’s chicken feet) or any other creative use of meat.  On the herbivorous side, for the vegetarians and vegans in the group, this might include uses of tofu, tempeh, seitan, TVP (I’ll never understand the branding department that came up with this name) or anything else that might be faux-meat.

…If you do bring a dish with meat, please make sure the meat was raised someplace where the animals are treated well (i.e. free-range, pasture/grass-fed or simply knowing the farmer who was involved and what the life of the animal was like).

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Everybody that I talked to was friendly and inviting.  Conversions about our favorite recipes for fermented drinks were washed down with home-made sweet and dry cider, ginger beer, and kombucha.  After munching on vegan dark chocolate cake and a sliver of flan, I learned about curing meat in a make-shift basement drying rack.

We didn’t shy away from discussing the risks of curing and canning either, as I learned more about methods for preserving food through fermentation and canning in a high salt and low pH environment.  One disease that home canners/fermenters are at more risk for is botulism, a paralytic illness, caused by the toxin produced from a rod-shaped, anaerobic bacteria, Clostridium botulinum that is present in soil and can proliferate in non-refrigerated, perishable foods.  Foodborne botulism  can be dangerous for infants eating home-canned baby food (Armada et al., 2003).   Ways to inhibit C. botulinum while home-canning food are by controlling pH (pH <4.5) and heat pasteurizing food  to >250 deg F in a pressure cooker for 20 min (CDC).

I’m looking forward to the next Food Maker potluck, and sharing some of my own safely-canned spicy green beans, kimche (fermented cabbage), and idli (steamed, fermented dal cakes).   I’m excited to continue learning from others who have many more years experience farming and cooking.   With the Baltimore Food Makers, eating delicious food is easy– but with the right mix of regional ingredients and community, sharing a meal is an incredible way to re-build our local food systems from the ground up.

– Dave Love