August 20, 2007
Eating Local: It’s the New Organics
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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’
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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