Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sunday Dish: The Locavore's Dilemma and Food Literacy

Huffpo is full of interesting tidbits on food news, with a focus on California. Nowhere else does "out of the box" laws get more attention than in this creative yet experimental state, especially as the fruit basket of the US (I mean that in the most culinary sense of the word, folks..). This article, a forwarded link from California Watch, discusses a new resolution on Food Literacy whereby September is to be dubbed Food Literacy Awareness Month.

This resolution will allow resources to be put toward encouraging several state departments to work with local communities to increase awareness about environmentally healthy food choices and promote local California-based local food products (in support of the "locavore movement"), among other somewhat vague but seemingly innocuous vision statements. You can read the full bill here.

So what's the harm? Who wouldn't agree with this bill? Well apparently there are some industry interests that do not. According to the article, the legislature received 20 signatures from egg, tomato, grain and warehouse supporters against the measures in the bill, citing claims of inaccuracies in the foundation of the bill in regards to nutritional value of organic food and economic benefits of eating local food.

I've waxed philosophical about organic food, so I'm going to focus on the pros and cons of the local movement, something I've been conflicted especially since the Micheal Pollen revolution of 2006. Don't get me wrong, I love farmer's markets, but mostly because the variety of items available is astounding in this state and I run a higher likelihood of buying something in season (a merit to the local movement, IMO)
These are industries local to California, why would they be opposed to promotion local food, in other words, their products? Strange. Guess there might be some money at stake. Maybe it comes from the fact that its easy to be a local around here, but doesn't always have the same cost or meaning.

Major agricultural industries (large producers) right here in the Central Valley can easily claim local status at any grocery in this populous state, which doesn't have the same value as say going to a farmer's market and buying food at a more micro scale (even then you still have to do your homework). The bill does promote improvement of access to farmer's markets, gardens, and local food stands, which might put the large producers at risk. My guess anyway as to the problem, I'm no agricultural economist.
Before you throw organic tomatoes at these hold-outs, oh committed locavores, consider that this movement might not be all that its cracked up to be, and really ask yourself why you do it.
The antithesis of the Omnivore's Dilemna, Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu authored the book the Locavore's Dilemma, which when I have some more spare time I may decide to read both side-by-side. In an article review of the major points of the book, re-considerations of the main reasons people have want to eat local have some merit.
You can read all the reasons on your own and make your own opinions about whether these points bear weight, but the one that struck me the most were the environmental considerations and reductions in greenhouse gases. This study showed that the bulk of greenhouse gases were not from transportation, but from production. Therefore if reducing the effects of climate change is your goal, you should seek out those foods that are in the best spot to be produced, not necessarily what is in your back yard.

Water use and land conservation come to mind - are we really meant to have all types of foods to also be local? Does it make sense? Is the climate right? What are the alternate uses of this land? Is this really in season for this area or is this filling a comfort-based national demand (i.e. winter tomatoes in CA)? The Central Valley has a history of lush soils, but competition for water with fish and wildlife makes some operations, even the friendly "mom and pop" operations somewhat environmentally controversial (bear in mind I'm a hydrologist working to defend conservation, and so these things are always on my mind!). Never stop asking questions.

Finally, coming back to the bill at hand, if we are trying to improve the environment and our health, we should ask ourselves the best way to do it. We need to promote consumption of more vegetables over easy fast food calories (in general, not ban them as some communities attempt to do to avoid unintended consequences) especially in poor neighborhoods, and promote urban gardens (to me these have more of a social benefit than a nutritional one, teaching children how to grow their own food - something I need to learn too, with my little garden of death looming over me every day).
So I wish the bill luck. And I also challenge you, locavore friends, to ask yourself why you strive to eat local. To quote Helen Lee of the Public Policy Institute of California, "Maybe we have to look at the relationship between food pricing, taste ... and other dynamics like comfort and cultural aspects of social class."
Buy local logo comes from Saving Dinner, who discusses the pro side to the local movement, although I'm inclined to disagree with some of the statements. Overgrazing photo comes from a Natural Resources Conservation Service photo linked here, but I've seen similar scenes on the hills near Petaluma where San Francisco bears an increased demand for local beef. California Aqueduct photo from Essential Urbanisim that has a wonderful article on food, water, and desertification, which is another topic for another day.

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