Locavores: Eco-Friends or Foes?

On September 28th, Bon Appétit held their annual “Eat Local Day” at Collins.  I have always viewed this event as a step in the right direction towards environmentally sustainable food production.  However, the more I involve myself in the issue, the more I realize that eating locally is not necessarily the elixir to this problem, despite Bon Appétit's good intentions. Consider a hypothetical situation in which every Californian became a full-fledged ‘locavore,’ eating produce only grown within 100 miles of his or her home. Each person would shop solely at farmer's markets and exclusively eat seasonal produce; giant conventional farms would be replaced by smaller family operations; massive supermarkets would be rendered obsolete.  Locavores would rejoice at this scenario, claiming that the world had been saved.  Realistically, though, the locavore's dream would render California a barren dessert, with no more water to sustain its 30 million people.

Although almost any crop can be grown in California, not every crop is suited for the state's environment.  Take rice for example: it grows best in warm, moist plains. California is not moist.  Yet a large percentage of the country’s rice is grown in the state.  Technology and human inputs can change the environmental variables, but the state is not naturally fit for rice production.  To compensate, farmers flood fields (rice paddies must be flooded in order to be harvested), only to see most of that (often imported) water evaporate. With various other crops, pressure from locavores to eat local leads to the use of greenhouses.  These must be lit and heated for most of each day.  When Californians place an ultimatum solely on local produce, they are often in effect demanding that farmers produce crops that demand such extensive environmental manipulation that the energy it takes to transport from other states or countries becomes relatively insubstantial.  By being so focused on eating local, progressive environmentalists are unwittingly pushing for something that may actually harm the planet.

I am not arguing that local eating is independently harmful to the environment.  Rather, I am worried about the emphasis people place on this one piece of the puzzle. A product's ‘local’ label often fools more naive consumers. When it comes to eating sustainably, we need to make conscious choices and consider the global consequences of our actions.  Repeating the popular mantra of “eat local” just won't cut it.

James E. McWilliams sums up my belief well in his book Just Food: "By no means do I deny that localism has its benefits, nor do I deny that agribusiness is generally irresponsible.  But I am nonetheless insisting that there are more productive, creative, and global ways to think about the complicated problem of eating an ethical diet.  There are alternatives to the local alternative."

I hold that global food production must adopt a moderated approach to the current dilemma.  As it currently stands, only the upper classes of the world's wealthiest societies can eat "sustainably".  However, the reality of the situation is that for third-world countries, "sustainable" means the ability to sustain current populations. It is ineffective to advocate a solution that is attainable for only a minute fraction of the world's 6.5 billion people.

Environmentalists should champion a new movement that encourages consumption of foods grown under natural conditions in regions to which they are native.  This will not only decrease energy costs, but will also boost economies in the countries that produce these foods. The world's people must work together to improve food production practices. American farmers, with the use of agricultural science, chemicals, and environmental manipulation, have the ability to grow foods more economically than their second and third world counterparts.  But when we do this, we are just increase the socioeconomic gap between the rich and the poor of the world, as we are lessening our need to trade with them.  Poorer countries are inevitably less environmentally conscious.  The world’s governments, therefore, need to cooperate in order to create a global food production system.  After all, this is an international affair if there ever was one.

In Claremont, I have been surrounded by the "eat local" mentality.  I am one of the heads of Pitzer's Shakedown Café, whose entire menu has always been based on local and organic food.  I am currently responsible for researching all of the farms the restaurant purchases from, in order to make sure all the food we get truly is sustainable, rather than just local and organic.  Furthermore, I have worked in--and been heavily influenced by-- a restaurant whose chef insisted on buying expensive organic produce from the farmers market, despite the fact that the restaurant was failing to make a profit.  For years, I have advocated eating local to friends and family.  Now, however, I realize that I was too easily convinced of the merits of the locavore movement.  I swallowed up the information without actually thinking about it.

As college students, it is our job to consider issues to their fullest extent.  Our ideas will be the ones that shape future beliefs.  If we look at all problems like we have looked at sustainable food production, there will be serious problems.  Simply accepting a basic mantra will not solve anything.  I know that there are a lot of students at the 5Cs who are willing to do all they can to individually live sustainably. But before we start changing our eating habits, let us first consider the issue fully and be realistic about the problem.