This is the second post in a series on eating local — what it is and what it isn’t. See the first post here.
The post came about because we went to a restaurant that advertized itself as a place to go to “eat local.” Conversations at the some of the other tables about what this meant started us to discuss whether some of the ideas bandied about had any validity about the “good” we were doing “eating local.”
Growing Local Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Eating Freshest
Now we get to even more of the muddy mix: some presume that locavores have a more healthy diet, meaning more vitamins and nutrients, since “local grown” might be fresher. Again, notice I say “might”, because food can be shipped by rail from one coast to the other in 3 days, which is pretty fresh, actually. And with a weekly farmer’s market, food might sit for as much as 6 days before being offered for sale in a local farmer’s market! Locally grown may even be available during harvest season from our local supermarkets even though many of us do not realize it.
Growing Local Doesn’t Mean It’s “Organic” or “Sustainable”
And there is no guarantee that locally grown produce is “organic” (although it may be), or more “sustainable” (meaning that farm land is being cared for in a long-term eco-conscious way). Again, using our most populous state, California, as an example, the
problems of irrigation and water resources are legion, whether the farm or backyard gardener is being organic or not. “Sustainability” is an amorphous target that changes as our knowledge grows about the long-term consequences of our actions or inactions.
Growing Local (Produce) Doesn’t Mean It’s More “Diverse”
Nor is there any guarantee that produce that is “grown local” is more “diverse” than what is not “grown local.” Seed producers, both large and small, have worked on producing high-yield seed and roots, and a farmer growing for a farmer’s market or a CSA will try to get the best yield out of his/her acreage, in many cases using the same high-yield sources as the large operations. (And I can buy heirloom seeds from many sources, none of which are local).
Growing Local Doesn’t Mean It’s Safer
Buying “local” food does not make it safer, either. In general, our food is safe, whether grown on small or large farms, whether organic or not, and whether grown far or near to us. Serious food contamination outbreaks have happened, but they happen to large and small concerns all over the nation and the world, not just in the hotbeds of large production agriculture (remember last year’s listeria from cantaloupe processing in CO; and this year’s salmonella in cantaloupe in IN and salmonella in mango from Mexico). No business can risk its very existence, or at the least its reputation, because of taking short cuts to food safety, whether local or across the continent. Local growers have no more incentive than those growing from a more distant location to grow safer.
Grow Local When You Can, Eat Local When You Can, Just Don’t Get
Mixed Up About What It Means
So go ahead and buy local when possible to help the local economy at the very least. But be aware that it may or may not be environmentally sustainable, organic, healthier, safer, or more diverse than what you buy in a supermarket. It may be a good thing to do, but don’t think it is a blessed solution to our future food and nutrition needs or desires, or that it can or should replace our mass-marketed produce. It is a seasonal niche for farmers and consumers living in northern climates, and a delightful opportunity for those of us able to travel to farmer’s markets, purchase a share of a CSA, or have land that we can devote to growing our own. Good growing and good eating to you all!
The End of the Story
By the way, as for the restaurant experience that started me thinking about “eating local”: their fish of the day was mahi mahi from Hawaii and we were dining in Maryland! What do you think about eating local now that the local farmer’s markets are thinning out now that winter is coming? Are you a CSA member? Are you still harvesting from your own garden? Did you share your garden bounty with local food banks — they would welcome whatever you can bring by.