Home > local food > Beyond Food Miles – Some Real Reasons to Go Local

Beyond Food Miles – Some Real Reasons to Go Local

Concept: Mike Adams| Art: Dan Berger | http://www.newstarget.com

Buy local.  That’s all you need to know, mainstream progressive types and critics of locavores alike will tell you.   It’s a simple rule, easy to follow, and apparently morally outstanding.  But things are often not as simple as they seem, and as is often the case with the latest in ethical trends, simplification of complex issues allows for popularization to occur.  Have megafarms churning morally disgusting, nutrient poor meat units?  DON’T EAT MEAT.  Coffee in huge plantations exploiting local labour?  BUY FAIR TRADE.  Child and/or sweatshop labour?  BUY CANADIAN.  But simplification can lead easily to weaknesses in addressing the initial purpose, and more devastating still, lack of knowledge in the original issue to begin with.

Let’s take that first example.   For years the ethics of meat-eating and animal treatment have been a hot topic amongst those who consider themselves to be looking out for nature and its systems.   The advent of factory production of beef, pork and chicken and the complete squalor within which those animals live is enough to make anyone stop eating meat.  As Michael Pollan has said, “You know, to go to one of these places is to stop eating industrial pork, basically. I mean, if we could see into this industrial meat production, it would change the way most of us eat.”  The problem with a knee-jerk meat moratorium is that even though most meat available in today’s food marketplace is suspect, vegetarianism is far from the most sustainable food lifestyle in most cases.  Lierre Keith argues persuasively in “The Vegetarian Myth” (and most eco-conscious farmers would agree) that animals are not only an important part of any ecologically-centered farm, but an integral part of it.  Organic crops don’t grow as easily without a source of animal compost, and to deny this is to turn to petroleum-based fertilizers.  One need only look at nature to know that a complete productive cycle must often include animals.  But the straightforward vegetarian prescription for behaviour destroys this balance and often leads to ecologically devastating monocropped grains and beans as a staple.

Now how about local food?  The simple rule here becomes food miles.  All you need to know is where it comes from and you’ve got a ready-made moral code.  Add in a limit like 100 miles and you’re good to go.  Fortunately, most competent progressives go further, adding in building community, knowing where your food comes from and supporting the local economy.  The problem with these arguments is that they are open to strong counter arguments from mainstream neo-liberals.  I’ve seen countless articles and a new book (Just Food) deriding this local food trend as bad for efficiency and thus the environment.   The devastating part is that on their terms, they are right.  If you buy bananas from Ontario, it means the energy used producing the fruit would more than make up for the transportation energy costs.  But never mind extremes.  If you take Kingston, Ontario as an example, there are lots of places that are more efficient to grow lots of common foods (such as strawberries).  But framing the issue with food miles as an indicator completely misses the point.  The real reasons for going local are more complex and should be kept in the forefront of the discussion.

The first one is that large-scale (conventional OR organic) farms that serve export or trade-based distribution systems cannot sufficiently integrate biodiversity into their operations in anyway closely resembling nature’s example of self-sufficient ecosystems.  These farms generally have a few crops or animals which they specialize in.  Their specialization means that they cannot close the cycle that most natural systems work by.   A simplified example of this would be something like: plants eaten by animals, who in turn provide wastes and their bodies to scavengers, bacteria or other animals, who then break down their complex molecules into usable nutrients for the plants.  Monoculture crops lack requisite animal wastes, and industrial meat operations turn to inappropriate food stuffs and antibiotics to keep the animals from dying.  The bottom line is that inputs such as petroleum, fertilizers, antibiotics, essential minerals and pesticides pick up the slack in the cycle.  These create dependencies and “externalities” in large-scale farming that alone make smaller, biodiverse and integrated farms the more plausible choice for our future.

Which leads us to another problem.  Petroleum use. 4 out of 5 of the inputs I mentioned above are either petroleum-based or petroleum intensive.  Local food naysayers will often cite energy efficiencies inherent in large enterprises as the key to our future sustainable food system.  Unfortunately, it’s rarely discussed that, one, the efficiencies are made either directly or indirect off the energy of oil, and two, oil is reaching its peak production point, by most estimates, within the next decade or two, if not already.  If you accept these two ideas, then your ethical choice for food should be small-scale integrated farms that use as much of the sun’s energy to do as much of their work as possible through working closely with nature’s cycles.  This is where local food comes in.  Small-scale farms generally don’t send their produce to far-off lands, and they are close enough that you can determine for yourself whether you believe that the farm is honestly trying to reduce it’s oil dependency and integrate nature-emulating systems.

A final reason to buy food locally is that staying local with your food choices allows you to experience feedback loops that are cut when you don’t understand the consequences of your decisions.  Civilization, ever since its inception, has served either by design or unintentionally, to distance humans from the consequences of their actions on nature.  Cities and factory farms are just the latest instantiation of this progression.  Though local food consumption doesn’t solve this fundamental problem (even getting into farming doesn’t), it puts you closer in touch with the land base you live on.  You can know your farmer, even visit a local farm, notice progress or recession over time and eat seasonally, among others.  This all helps to base your food eating decisions on the realities of YOUR ecosystems and act appropriately.  Let’s face it, exporting fresh tomatoes in January from elsewhere defies natural logic just as growing bananas in Canada for local consumption does.

So, what’s the ethical basis of the local food movement? Not food miles, that’s for sure.  And not blind support for local farms.  The local food movement should be based on a responsible and in-depth appreciation for food and farms, and the realities of growing it on a planet that doesn’t march to the beat of our drum.

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