The Guilt Trip of Locavorism

A non-ag student tries to understand local food

By Maura Thomas

Art by Maura Thomas

I try to participate, as a matter of taste and convenience, in the habit of buying and eating food close to home—a practice called locavorism. In Ithaca, we find ourselves with ample sites to indulge: Greenstar Cooperative Market, the Ithaca Farmer’s Market, countless local CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), etc.  A shock to those of us raised in the white fluorescent aisles of Stop and Shop and the A&P, these places dazzle us with row after sparkling row of products, showing off items that overtly promote lifestyles of honesty, health, and vitality.

Eating locally, engaging with knowledgeable and friendly vendors at farmers markets, and keeping a garden all make the mind and body feel so good. It’s nice to know when my bread comes from a friend who bakes in Trumansburg, and I like buying local apples from Cornell’s own orchards. In general, it’s the sense of doing something manageable and direct that is often flattering to one’s own self-image. Even if we know this terrarium world is smushed in on all sides by modern industrial agriculture and homogenized grocery chains, we have in the farmers market, CSA, or local brewing company, the taste of an idyll that lasts just long enough on the tongue to suspend the ugliness of it all—before dissolving.

Vitality. This is where most of us fall prey to the charms of buying sustainable, organic, local, and ethical. Cue woeful remarks about industrialism, urbanization, a choice Thoreau quote. As a theoretical issue, who would argue against its integrity? But when we isolate that one increasingly popular subset of these trends—locavorism—the debate gets complex and confusing. Locavorism deals specifically with the number of food miles a product travels from production to consumer. Locavores favor products with as few food miles as possible, with miles largely serving as a proxy for greenhouse gas emissions.

The merits appear natural (all natural?), but some are urging us to rethink. In The Locavore’s Dilemma, economic geographer Pierre Desrochers and analyst Hiroko Shimizu riff off the localist manifestos of food writers and activists like Michael Pollan in an effort to undermine and abate what they believe are the misconstrued benefits of locavorism. Basically, they argue that by fetishizing local agriculture we ignore the broader, more consequential (human, environmental, and economic) issues currently at play in a world dominated by global agriculture.

“Urbanization is the most efficient use of land for the almost nine billion of us sharing a defined area. Excessive tillage and monoculture might be destructive, but are they more efficient?”

The authors identify five myths about locavorism—among them that it “heals the earth.” The list of really awful problems that face our environment today becomes dangerously long, dangerously fast. There’s global warming (the big one), deforestation, factory farming, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, urbanization, and overpopulation. Locavores claim that the small-scale and localized agriculture, whose local products have few associated food miles, will both keep soil healthy and prevent needless resource waste in transport (whether by sea, air, or road). Desrochers and Shimizu, however, argue that some climates are especially suited to growing certain types of food; the increased efficiency in production in these areas often cancels out the associated transportation cost later. This way, trans-national and international agriculture may end up with the same ecological footprint as less efficient, localized production methods. And what about overpopulation? Some, like Desrochers, see locavorism as an “out” by which we curiously deal with overpopulation by invoking its opposite—a reinvestment in the small-scale and rural. However, urbanization is the most efficient use of land for the almost nine billion of us (theoretically) sharing a defined area. Excessive tillage and monoculture might be destructive, but are they more efficient? Do they ultimately feed more for less?

Locavorism also remains a practice (or ideology) much easier to enter into and sustain here, in a place like Ithaca, rather than elsewhere. Is it only viable in a “prime and diversified agricultural area in a temperate climatic zone,” and, I would add, to the middle and upper-middle classes. This idea finds its best caricature on Portlandia, when Peter and Nance (played by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen) ask so much about their chicken entrée that the restaurant eventually provides the chicken’s dossier, on file. It wasn’t always so unnatural, though, to want to know exactly where our food came from. And some of the appeal, especially from millennials, may just be that we want some good ol’ community again—a taste of some ideal life, before we came along, and before our parents, too.

Before you all go “COOL,” throw up your hands, and walk away from the twenty kinds of carrots you’re choosing from in the grocery store, remember that locavorism is a choice, and a consumer one at that. I could make a different case for vegetarianism or veganism, but locavorism’s moralistic stakes are (for now) relatively low. Of course, the issues overlap. Buying eggs locally, for example, might ensure that you know conditions are humane. Yeah, sometimes the now infamous Portlandia line echoes in my head—“Is it local?”—when I’m looking at produce. I do still try to buy locally when season and price permit. While there’s no satisfying conclusion to be made, thinking about the practice, at least, is a good exercise in conscious shopping. A lot of questions remain, but they’re on the shopping list.

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