Are you a locavore?

i-587271b82b4466ce26612be47b486987-localvores.jpgI only heard this term recently, as one of my students is beginning a research project on the topic. The idea, of course, is that the more food you eat from local sources, the better your impact, or lack there of, on the environment. (Well, I had heard of this concept before, but not that particular term.)

“Buying local is like a hippie movement of 2008, but is it really a good use of a college graduate’s time,” asked food science professor Joe Regenstein. Indeed, is it not “indulgent and hedonistic?” He had just heard Cornell nutrition expert Jennifer Wilkins analyze claims made by “locavores” in a panel discussion on supporting local food producers Feb. 28 in Emerson Hall.


I agree that biasing consumption towards locally grown resources is not necessarily the best idea. It may require such expenditure of energy, and heroic use of chemicals, to grow certain foods locally that we are better off having certain foods shipped over longer distances. What is really needed is not a locavore movement, but rather a “smartavore” movement, where we take into account all of the different relevant factors and make rational decisions. Is that too much to ask?

Probably.

The locavore movement will certainly become politicized and polarized, or indeed, it already has. You are either a locavore or you are agin’ the locavores. Economists at both sides of the political spectrum will whip out models that disprove what the other side is saying. And so on.

Here is the rest of the Cornell Press Release cited above:

Said Wilkins, a senior extension associate at the Division of Nutritional Sciences: “The Empire State Poll results indicate that there has been an increase in ‘local heroes,’ who believe locally grown food is important enough for them to go out of their way to get it.” The number of farmers’ markets nationwide, she said, increased to 4,386 in 2006 from 1,755 in 1997. “National research has also shown that whether food is grown locally affects food purchases more than whether it is grown organically.”

She added, “Conventional markets tend to favor varieties chosen for yield, growth rate and shipability — commercial traits often come at the expense of nutrition and taste.”

Regenstein, however, said that changing how Americans eat and improving the overall nutritional value of food are much more urgent needs than eating “local.” He said, “One of the beauties of our food supply system is that it draws from all kinds of soil, which prevents certain nutritional deficiency from food that is grown from only one kind of soil.”

Despite the two widely differing perspectives, eating local food has become a growing trend at Cornell and in the Ithaca community. Cornell Cooperative Extension is actively involved in the local food campaign in Tompkins County. Through the Local Food Growers Initiative, Cornell Dining is purchasing about “30 percent of its food locally,” according to Anthony Kveragas, a Cornell senior executive chef, who participated in the discussion.

Panelist Ken Goodwin, service manager of Ithaca Wegmans supermarket, described Wegmans’ commitment to supplying local food as a response to consumer demand. “Ithaca Wegmans has the highest demand for organic products among all of our 70 stores,” he said. Ithaca Wegmans works with 24 local suppliers providing everything from produce to beer and cheese.

According to Wilkins, the fewer miles food is shipped, and consequently the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, are factors that justify buying local.

“To transport the same food, the conventional system releases four to 17 times more carbon dioxide than a local system,” she said, quoting from a recent Iowa study. However, “mode of transport matters, too,” Wilkins said, citing a study showing that, on a per bottle basis, fewer emissions enter the atmosphere when “a Bordeaux [wine] is transported by container ship to New York than a cabernet from California by truck.”

Food safety is another issue that concerns both sides of the debate. Wilkins said that “while local food is not by any means immune to contamination, the consequences of a problem in a highly concentrated food system are far greater. Also, I suspect that smaller, more localized production and processing systems are less attractive to terrorists.”

Regenstein, however, argued that “many local growers are not trained to process food properly.”

The locavore lifestyle, he said, is “indulgent and hedonistic” when “three people drive their BMW for 30 miles to pick up 5 pounds of produce.” Higher yields per acre is more important than growing 20 different crops on a local farm, he declared. “We should use resources more wisely because we have over 6 billion people on this planet.”

The panel discussion, moderated by Ellen Harrison, former director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute, was part of the Crop and Soil Sciences Seminar Series at Cornell.

Comments

  1. #1 Coturnix
    March 5, 2008

    Locavore was last year’s Word Of The Year, I believe. I think the idea is to eat what normally grows locally, support local farmers in growing their traditional staples, not to force fancy stuff to grow locally. The fancy stuff you can still import and eat in moderation.

  2. #2 Kevin C.
    March 5, 2008

    I’m definitely not a locavore, seeing as I live in Alaska.

  3. #3 Mary
    March 5, 2008

    The first I heard of it was in the context of the 100 Mile Diet: http://100milediet.org/. The exemptions cracked me up–reportedly Bill McKibben created the “Marco Polo” type exemption that permits spices that a 13th century explorer would have had access to: http://pgeatlocal.blogspot.com/2006/10/marco-polo-rules.html

  4. #4 Tim
    March 5, 2008

    For non-apartment dwellers; the ultimate in being a locavore is to grow your own veg. garden. This practice permits you to eat organically if you grow organically; provides good quality exercise; reduces transport energy expense to near zero; brings you into touch with real nature; and productively occupies you when you would otherwise be out driving your car or buying unnecessary toys!

  5. #5 bwv
    March 5, 2008

    The problem is that for many poor people in developing countries selling agricultural products is their only option to sustain themselves. Setting aside the fact that they are often denied access to Western markets by farm subsidy programs to begin with, this movement threatens to further impair their ability to move beyond substinence poverty.

    The US should not be growing cotton, we should be buying it from Chad. The US should not be growing sugar cane, we should be buying it from Latin America.

  6. #6 chezjake
    March 5, 2008

    For what it’s worth, in my area of upstate NY (near Albany), the vast majority of the “locavore” growers are growing organic produce — that’s less chemicals right off the top. Also, the locavore phenomenon is becoming so popular that much of the locally grown, fresher, tastier, more nutritious produce is also actually cheaper (during the summer) than stuff brought in from Florida, California, Mexico, and Texas. I haven’t bought a supermarket tomato in years.

    What’s more, far from being “indulgent and hedonistic,” in this area anyway most unsold produce is donated to local food banks. And there are very few in this area who would have to drive more than 5 miles to avail themselves of locally grown organic produce.

    Further, one of the beauties of locally grown produce is that it’s not “processed” at all. The only processing is in your own kitchen.

    In sum, I feel that Regenstein has it all wrong. I’m sure I eat a healthier, more nutritious, better balanced diet when I eat as much local food as possible. Unless he can produce evidence of specific nutritional deficiencies in locally grown food and simultaneously demonstrate that eating food from “wherever it’s grown on a vast scale” actually does get more balanced trace minerals, etc., then he’s just blowing smoke for large commercial growers.

  7. #7 Ed Yong
    March 5, 2008

    I’m a culpavore – I only eat food that makes me feel a guilty sense of self-loathing.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    March 5, 2008

    chezjake:

    If I had a dime for every tomato I personally raised, organically, in the vicinity of Albany New York, I’d have, well, several thousand dimes… It is a great area to grow stuff as long as you stay away from the GE Plant in Waterford.

  9. #9 Chris
    March 5, 2008

    I think there are a lot of intangible benefits to being a locavore. First is building a sense of community. You know who you are buying from. How many of us really know our neighbors or people in our own town? I love being able to connect with like minded people around the country via the Intertubes, but I don’t have that sense of place. If done properly, it can stem the decline of the small family farm. There’s pride in knowing you can get a locally grown tomato that tastes great. Same as having pride in your high school football team. Going to a farmer’s market is an enjoyable shopping experience, far more than going to a sterile mall.

    Obviously, there are some things I can’t get locally produced like coffee and chocolate. So if we have a budget for food miles, then lets use it for those. And as noted a decentralized food supply is more secure.

  10. #10 Craig Pennington
    March 5, 2008

    Regenstein, however, argued that “many local growers are not trained to process food properly.”

    Yeah, my local Farmer’s Market meat supplier doesn’t have the training to safely produce meat from downer cows the way feed-lot producers do. I’ll still take my grass finished beef, thanks.

    The locavore lifestyle, he said, is “indulgent and hedonistic” when “three people drive their BMW for 30 miles to pick up 5 pounds of produce.”

    My farmer’s market across the street from my grocery store. My CSA delivers to me & my neighbors. I walk out my backyard to my garden.

    Higher yields per acre is more important than growing 20 different crops on a local farm, he declared. “We should use resources more wisely because we have over 6 billion people on this planet.”

    A distributed food supply with crop diversity is a much wiser than corporate crop monoculture.

    Regenstein is a dumbass.

  11. #11 Mark Powell
    March 5, 2008

    Greg scores with the “smartavore” term! We can all get wrapped around the axle of the food delivery truck if we’re stupid.

    Local food is good, but not if you’re stupid and buy hothouse tomatoes grown with lights in a northern winter. Local fish is good, but not if it’s seafood caught off the west coast and shipped to China for processing and then shipped back.

    Everyone has their favorite issue, local, fair trade, organic. We need to get to being smartovores and synthesize these issues.

  12. #12 April
    March 5, 2008

    Whoa, I taught Greg a word. It’s a big day for me. My horoscope did say that I would really “grab the tiger by the tail” today, so needless to say, I’ve done two things:
    A. Adopted a new favorite phrase
    B. Written some tiger-themed haiku.

    Glad to spur a blog post. It is an idea which I do not always practice, as I have a gastronomic addiction which brings me to each region of the globe. But when I can, I do. I hope all of the Minnesotans among us are eating copious amounts of Hope Creamery Butter. Delicious.

    And really, the “local” wine scene is beyond abysmal. France just has it…