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August 20, 2007

Eating Local: It’s the New Organics


Ten years ago, the fall from purist grace for organic foods was under way. During the Clinton administration, the Department of Agriculture, responding to pressure from organic food growers, consumers and grocery stores issued its first federal organic labeling standards.


The standards were so weak they led to a public outcry, which prompted the administration to reassess what it had done. The Clinton administration had issued rules that favored mass producers over small, local ones, which did damage to its own credibility and to organic food in general. After that, a growing number of people came to regard organic food as just a high-end racket meant to swindle people with too much money and not enough smarts.


Because organic food was originally built upon a set of ethics and not as a response to demand in the market, its purists looked for something different. Slowly, what emerged was a movement that coupled those ethics with the knowledge of what is causing global warming – the conversion of fossil fuels locked in petroleum deep in the ground into carbon dioxide floating around in the air.


Eating local came to represent what organics had previously represented.


The movement’s principal purpose is to shrink one’s carbon footprint by whittling the number of miles food travels to the dinner plate. The typical American meal travels 1,300 miles.


This summer, the movement has been popularized by the 100-mile diet, which seeks to build a diet on foods grown within 100 miles. The last few years have seen growth both in sales and popularity of Community Supported Agriculture, in which patrons buy subscriptions for a share of the produce and are entitled to inspect the growing conditions and do some of the work.


A 100-mile diet is a lofty goal. Anyone who drinks coffee violates the basic principles first thing in the morning. But it has begun to generate serious criticism, which is usually a prerequisite for consideration as a mainstream idea.


A couple of recent op-ed pieces in the New York Times and London Times argue that some local foods release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than those grown in, and then transported from, a place more suitable. One example used was lamb raised on clover in New Zealand versus lamb raised in England on grain. Another was hothouse tomatoes raised during a Maine winter versus fresh tomatoes shipped in from South America.


If your goal is to simply reduce your carbon footprint, paying a massive premium for chicken grown on a small, sustainable poultry farm in Mexico is better than buying it from a Tyson feedlot tucked in among the hills and hollers of Arkansas.


But the same sentiment that prompted the organic food movement is behind the “eat local” movement – food-related ethics. Someone who wishes to have a mostly local diet for health and environmental reasons will seek it out. In the case of chicken, for instance, they’ll skip both Tyson and poultry from Mexico in favor of the guy down the street who lets chickens roam free in his farm yard.


Furthermore, local food is in many ways a backlash against globalization as a way to rebuild regional food distribution. It’s only been in the last 40 years that you could rely on local fresh meat and produce not in season. Before that, you ate chicken and fresh tomatoes during the summer, and beef and canned tomatoes during the winter.


Supporters of organic food argue – sounding much like supporters of globalized manufacturing – that money from American consumers provides income for people who might otherwise be struggling to scratch out a living. One of the people who support this, not ironically, is the CEO and co-founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey.


In an open letter to Michael Pollan, whose 2006 book, “The Omnivore Dilemma”, raised issues with organic food, Mackey wrote that it is part of his company’s social responsibility to provide good wages in exchange for environmentally sound practices. But he also added that he wants to see Whole Foods start to invest more in locally grown produce and meat, and that the chain plans to devote parking lot space to farmers’ markets.


More than criticism on the editorial pages of the New York Times and London Times, this is perhaps a sign that local foods has arrived as a viable theory – just as major chain supermarkets look to tap into the organic food market, the chains that sell organics are hoping to cash in on eating local.


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