The End of Food

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Forage locally or consume globally?

Is the homegrown food economy delusion or destiny?


                                                                       From Seattle Metropolitan Magazine, 5-06



For consumers who aspire to think globally but eat locally, Small Potatoes Urban Delivery, aka SPUD, is the ideal blend of conscience and convenience. Since it opened its local branch last summer in a refurbished SoDo warehouse, this Vancouver, BC-based company has offered Seattleites home delivery of a full line of health-oriented, largely organic, and, as often as possible, locally produced groceries. SPUD even makes “homegrown” central to its marketing: customers get invoices showing the distance each item traveled to reach them—these days, about 800 miles on average, compared to 1,500 for mainstream stores. “We don’t shop price, we shop location,” says Henri Parran, the Seattle store’s general manager. “The less a product has traveled, the better it is.”

But there’s more to local sourcing than clever promotion. SPUD is part of a growing national movement of vendors, growers, and do-gooders who believe we should be eating locally, not shipping in food from thousands of miles away. They offer many reasons: Locally grown food is fresher and often of higher quality. It imposes fewer environmental and social costs. It helps consumers reconnect with the land. And each local purchase supports not only local producers but the entire local economy. One respected report, The Andersonville Study of Retail Economics, found that 68 cents of each dollar spent at local retailer stays in the local economy, versus 43 cents at a chain retailer. And many eat-local advocates think Seattle is just the place for the homegrown movement to expand from a trendy niche to a viable model for a new food economy. “We have a lot of progressive consumers,” says Eva Otto, a boardmember at the Seattle office of BALLE, the national Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, “a lot of local produce and a very healthy farmers’ market circuit in places like Bellevue, Ballard, Columbia City, Capitol Hill. Seattle is ripe for this.”

Don’t hold your breath, warns Gary Smith, a Washington State University economist and president of the Pacific Northwest Regional Economic Conference. Yes, local food is popular in the Northwest, especially luxury items such as craft beer and bread. But Smith says the idea of Ecotopia producing even a significant fraction of its own eats runs counter to many powerful economic and social forces.

First, the loss of local farmland, the shrinking number of local distributors, and  other long-running trends have already undermined local production capacities. Then there’s the seasonal problem: Northwest farmers may be astonishingly productive, but they can’t grow mangoes, coffee, and many other items; others grow only at certain times of year. The only reason we consumers don’t see these gaps is a hyper-efficient global distribution system that supplements local eats with imports, sustaining the illusion of year-round availability. Local may sound appealing, Smith says, but “I can’t really see how a local food economy would work. In fact, I see the world going the other way, in a hurry.”

 Homegrown advocates insist that year-round food is overrated: instead of insisting on fresh lettuce and strawberries in January (when they’re often flavorless anyway), consumers and local vendors should accept a menu more in tune with the calendar. We’d savor our salads and strawberries in summer, then ease into wintertime squash, cabbage, leaks, turnips, carrots, and canned and frozen produce. And, the advocates avow, we’d discover a huge range of local foods the megamarts ignore. “The persistent idea that a local diet can’t be varied is an indication of how disconnected most of us are from the reality of living in one of the planet’s richest ecological regions,” writes says J.B MacKinnon, who blogs about his efforts to forage within 100 miles of his British Columbia home (at http://thetyee.ca/Bios/J_B__MacKinnon). “There is a world of local foods to be found below the radar.”

Alas, such sentiments aren’t for everyone. Hardy folks like MacKinnon may search out native shellfish and local grain varieties, but most urban consumers probably aren’t ready to become hunter-gatherers. “Advocates of a local food economy will tell you that we shouldn’t be eating salads in January anyway,” says Chad Kruger, who promotes climate friendly farming at WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources. “But that’s the kind of food that people want and have come to expect.”

So are local foods doomed to the margins? For now, local production can’t compete with an industrial food economy delivering cheap, fresh, and 365 days a year. But local advocates see several hopeful signs. Kruger says some local producers are becoming competitive enough to challenge national producers. Shepherd’s Grain, a collective of Northwest wheat farmers, managed to land big flour contracts with the regional operations of two national food service companies, Sodexo and Bon Appetit.

Similarly, some eat-local advocates have adopted a more flexible definition of “local,” recognizing that a strict 150-mile limit isn’t feasible for all foods. Scott Exxo of the Portland-based Food Alliance suggests that while fresh produce may be easy to grow close-in, other foods, especially grains, may demand space and conditions found only at further remove: “What’s local for tomatoes isn’t local for wheat.”.

Third, and perhaps most important, today’s ultra-cheap industrial food economy may not be sustainable, due to the rising costs of key resource inputs—labor, water and, especially, energy. Petroleum is crucial to making fertilizer and powering cheap transport. If its price keeps climbing, the lynchpins of the global system—growing food in low-cost regions and moving it cheaply to wealthy urban buyers—will fall out. At that point homegrown food, even when expensive and only sporadically available, may seem like a bargain.

For now, homegrown advocates hope consumers and producers alike will at least consider local foods. “No one’s saying you have to buy everything locally, or that a healthy local economy is one that’s cut off entirely from the national economy,” says BALLE’s Otto. “But it does come down to the decisions people make. So start small. Decide to go the farmer’s market once a month. Or decide that when you do buy apples, you buy them from Washington.”

Still, until the petroleum push comes to shove, in a consumer culture built on immediate gratification at everyday low prices, it’s hard to imagine even a significant minority of consumers choosing to pay more for fewer choices, and forgo grapes in January. Indeed, even many natural-food stores seem doubtful about the imminence of an eat-local revolution. “When locally produced items are available, we do carry them,” says Amy Schaefer, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods. “But our produce department would be mostly bare for many months of the year if we only bought locally.”

Grow our own

Bottom line:

“A lot of local produce and a very healthy farmers’ market circuit…. Seattle is ripe for this.”

—Eva Otto, Seattle office, National Business Alliance for Local Living Economies

Money spent locally stays at home

A homegrown seasonal bounty awaits

Tasty carrots beat tasteless berries

Global agro-industry is unsustainable

Eat the world

Bottom line: “I can’t really see how a local food economy would work…. I see the world going the other way.”

—Gary Smith, president, Pacific Northwest Regional Economic Conference

Local farmlands are dwindling

Industrial produce is cheaper

It’s available year-round

It’s what consumers demand