Thursday, February 14, 2008

Eating Local ... What is Local ... Why Even Try?

Writing over at the epi-log is kind of a new experience for me, and hopefully it will be a chance to discuss and promote local eating. For my first post (if you haven't read it yet click here) I wanted to give an brief introduction of some of the reasoning behind or desire to farm. Knowing where our food comes from is important to us and supporting our community is equally important. It was a brief post and not very detailed, but it did spark a couple of interesting comments that you should check out at the bottom.

I think the poster brought up some points that many people would agree with. What is the definition of "local"? Why shouldn't we enjoy the benefits of living in an affluent society and purchase food at lower prices? Isn't one of the benefits of the global trade that we can eat fruits in Iowa in the middle of the winter? And, how about one of the commenters last points ... buy purchasing overseas products we are actually supporting farmers who are poorer than the farmers in the United States.

As I mentioned these seem like valid points to most consumers in the United States, maybe even more so to people who love to dine at a higher level than I do. But, I think it just shows why we (farmers) must produce food that is better than anything out there so that the eating speaks for itself. We must be educated, informed, ready to answer questions, and engage intelligently and winsomely in debate.

What do you think of those points that were brought up? How can we as farmers educate the consumers on those specific areas? Thanks to "The Beginning Farmer" reader mellifera I have a feeling that purchasing food products that originate overseas may not help the farmers as much as we would like to think. So, what else do you think? What do we need to do to educate our friends and neighbors?


Mellifera said...

Tehee... how did you know I'd have thoughts about that one? ; )

My experience is that when farmers elsewhere grow things for export (to the US or elsewhere), they switch from growing staples they can eat to growing non-staple niceties. Ie from taro and manioc to watermelons or noni fruit, or from corn and beans to chocolate and sugar, etc. This ok since they sell for more, but then again now everybody has to buy their staples from somewhere else (usually from *cough* developed countries with crazy subsidy programs that make staples really cheap). So in effect, a specialty crop from far away has double the food miles since the exporting country has to import staples to make up for the land used up by specialties. Huh... I wonder if local-food activitists have ever thought of that one, I just put 2 and 2 together myself.

The juice company I worked for wanted to do some research on what land would be best for growing noni. Unbeknownst to company brass, their flagship fruit was a weed that can frequently be seen growing out of cliff faces and brackish tidal pools. (No joke. I have pictures.) They wanted high-quality fruit, so they wanted farmers to plant their noni on the best soils (never mind that plants under stress tend to make more of the chemicals associated with medical benefits). Sorry guys, planting a weed that'll grow anywhere on your best soils when you're on a tiny island to begin with is a recipe for disaster. The data showed the fruit having higher ppms of their marker compounds when grown in salty sandlots, and I tried really hard to make sure they knew that... it's amazing how ingrained the "more fertile is better" assumption was and how easy it is to overlook data when you've already decided something.

So anyway, the companies that export food to the US are also usually American (and even if they're not, developed countries are all kind of the same in their attitudes toward banana republics). Their concern is supplying food Americans want and making a profit. This leaves out a lot of considerations, most notably "What would best serve the exporting country and their citizenry." Export-oriented agribusiness causes plantations (I guess we call them factory farms now)- exporters don't want to deal with a million little unreliable farmers. This means the actual people lose their land and livelihood, either by selling or being forced off, depending on how the current regime feels about property rights. It's just like that ag extension guy in Tahiti I was talking to- the exporting government gets excited about the possibilities of having Big Agribusiness get going in their country, push it heavily, and don't realize there are consequences.

Also, the FDA doesn't exist outside the US. A couple years ago I was about to buy some fish from China and then thought better of it... and I'm SO totally vindicated! There's some kind of back-of-the-mind assumption that things must be tested before they can come over the border, and that is so NOT true. Too expensive. As revealed in a truly scary article in US News a few months ago, even pharmaceuticals come into the country no questions asked.

Steven said...

I sure am glad Mellifera is on here! I love the personal experience stories. ;-)

Ethan Book said...

mellifera - Thanks for the insight!

Yeoman said...

Why local? Where to start?

A very bulky book could be written on this, and indeed, one should be. But, to do the topic a grave injustice, I'll toss in a few things.

1. Life isn't economic. That may sound odd, but it gets to the point raised by Berry in his book title, "What Are People For". More particularly, if everything is governed on what is most efficient, and most economic, we all would live in a way very contrary to our nature.

Turned around, what this means is simply this. All animals have what zoologists call an econiche. That is, a place in nature where they are most happy. Take them out of it, and they're like the caged tiger at the zoo. . .not too happy. People were meant to be close to nature. Indeed, people were meant to live in nature. Farming isn't, therefore, so much a job, as an instinct. No wonder, as people have been farming for at least 10,000 years, if not longer. Everyone who can read this had ancestors who farmed. It's in our genes.

We can't all farm. There's not enough land left to do it, with the size of the human population. But we can all be close to farming. The further we get from it, the more debased, in some fashion, we become. Some societies understand this, and preserve family farming for that reason, which is reason enough.

2. People are meant to eat food.

That may sound like an odd one, but it's the point of a book recently written by a British author, and its correct. Most people aren't really eating food. Most people are eating an industrial product, and that isn't food.

No matter how much we might pretend otherwise, the mere fact that a bag of chemicals disguised as food doesn't kill you immediately doesn't mean it is good for you. And a food economy based on international, or even long distance, transportation of "food" is actually an industrial enterprise. It has to provide you with a chemical substitute for food.

3. Industrial agriculture is bad for farmers in general.

By and large, while exporting our food industry to more rural nations (a policy, by the way, that was very much a part of Nazi economic thought, and Communist economic thought) may temporarily raise third world incomes, it does so only temporarily. Over time, it wipes out local agriculture, and then moves the 3d World farmer off his land, which then goes to some industry that pays him peanuts. The expansion of industrial agriculture to the 3d World accelerates the depopulation of rural areas in the 3d world, encourages environmental detestation everywhere, destabilizes agriculture in the first world, and contributes to the ever increasing formerly rural population living in the crowded cities of the 3d World. It'd make much more sense to encourage the stabilization of agriculture in the 3d World for their economies.

4. Global food economies are based on a false and dangerous energy model.

The fact that international exportation of food can occur at all is completely based on the current petroleum based energy system. I don't want to sound alarmist about this, but as China expands economically, and as we all grow more aware of the negatives of petroleum use, this is an inherently instable model.

Moreover, the true costs of this model are rarely understood. When we buy a foreign food product in the grocery store, the true cost of it is not on the label. Transportation systems are heavily subsidized globally, including here in the United States. In the US, the highway system is all provided for by taxpayers, and the taxpayer who pay the least to use it is the trucking industry. The trucking industry is subsidized through the undertaxation of truckers for road use, and tax breaks to trucking companies. Add to this various direct supports to shipping, etc., and it means that, in essence, you are being taxed to merely have this system exist.

Additionally, a sort of reverse taxation occurs when we take into account that the foreign 3d World farmer receives very little in the way of government services that you receive in the 1st World whether you want them or not. So the price of everything produced in the 1st World is higher, as the government provides more. In the 3d World, the government worries very little about the citizenry, for the most part, who live and die with very little received from their government. Their governments also do not worry about the environment, and do not really care if farming is really soil mining. So, it's undoubtedly true that products raised overseas will be cheaper, but at a terrible cost to the foreign farmer.

This amounts, in my mind, to sort of a closet racism. In essence, the 1st World doesn't mine if farmers in the 3d World die doing it, and mine their soil, as it isn't us.

5. It's against the Yeoman Principal.

Jefferson opined that a democratic government had to depend on Yeomen farmers. His reasoning was that only they were truly independent enough to decide what was good for a society. Cities, he felt, always bred corruption and depravity.

There's really something to that. As we've become less and less agrarian, we've become slaves to larger and larger economic entities. Preserving local family farms helps preserve some economic independence. Frankly, a lot more could be done along these lines, but we do not as it's perceived as contrary to economic efficiency. It is indeed so contrary, but we'd all be a lot better off if the Walmarts of the world were illegal, and people had to buy their goods from small, family owned, businesses, which is another type of yeomanry. In other words, the economists encouragement of economies of scale is also the encouragement of a modern type of mercantileism, which reduces our freedom and happiness.

6. A nations and region should produce what it can.

In the 20th Century, food independence was a major goal of many nations. The UK based it's refusal to let Ireland become independent, prior to WWI, partially on the thesis that it meant the UK would have to import food. And the UK worked very hard in the mid-20th Century to see that it could feed itself, or, where it could not, that created a beneficial relationship with it's dominions that was based on mutually satisfactory production and export. India made food independence a major theme after it achieved independence.

In short, making your food supply global is dangerous. Again, this sounds alarmist, but look how well making our energy system global has worked out.

Ethan Book said...

Great response Yeoman! Thanks for taking the time to articulate that out for everyone. I hope people take the time to read it all the way through and process the information...

Yeoman said...

Another reason. . .food recalls.

And not just beef, like today's, but lettuce, spinach, etc. . .

Walter Jeffries said...

The problem with the idea that buying from developing nations supports poor farmers is that almost all the money goes to middlemen and shippers. Very little goes to the farmers. Most poor farmers aren't doing much in the way of exporting anyways.

It is better for their local farms to feed their local people (who often are starving according to the news reports) and for us to buy from our local farms to encourage our local farm infrastructure. This reduces pollution, improves quality and provides for more food security in the long run. The fact that the big corporations get shafted by such an approach is, of course, just a side benefit...

Ethan Book said...

Walter - Thanks for the great wisdom on this post and the others today!

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