If you’re into the local food movement or the politics of food in general, you’ve probably heard the famous Wendell Berry quote: “Eating is an agricultural act”.
The simple question “What’s for dinner?” has implications far beyond our dinner plate. The popular success of books like Michael Pollan’s In Defence of Food have brought the issue to the mainstream. When even Oprah’s talking about it, you know it must be Big.
More and more regular people are starting to realize that what they put on their dinner table has the ability to send a powerful message, or a pathetic one. Do we choose real food as Pollan suggests, or are we eating fake food? Have our choices supported a small family farm or a huge international conglomerate? How far has our food travelled? Was it grown sustainably? Did the animal live a short, miserable, unhealthy life? Did our organic mixed greens come all the way from Arizona in a refrigerated truck, creating heaps of pollution on the way?
It’s easy to get confused, and give up. But we can’t. Because Berry is right. Eating IS an agricultural act. Our collective choices in our kitchen impact farm land and the environment just as much as the choices the farmer makes. One thing the slow food movement emphasizes is that as consumers, we need to realize that really – we are co-producers.
Which is why I garden and why a recent article in the Vancouver Courier made me sick to my stomach. Sandra Thomas wrote about a recent report from the Fraser Institute written by Diane Kats. So, wanting to be a responsible ranter, I read the report. It didn’t make my stomach sick but boy did it make me mad. If you feel up for it, and maybe have a dammit doll handy, have a read yourself: – The BC Agricultural Land Reserve: A Critical Assessment. What a biased bunch of propaganda hooey. Say it with me – dammit dammit dammit. Sheesh.
How such a one-sided, narrow look at a subject can be considered a critical assessment I have no idea.
Kats is certainly not a fan of local eating – she even took a shot at our beloved local authors Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon of The 100-Mile Diet fame. (I am making a very indignant face!) She describes localism as “ignorance of (or a lack of appreciation for) the forces that have driven the development of modern farming and the expansion of global trade”. Lady, just ’cause I grow turnips in my front yard doesn’t mean I grew up in a hole.
On the contrary, eating locally has brought me face to face with those forces and the more I think about where my food comes from, the more I want to learn. I have read more on food and farming and gardening and organic practices and the agricultural industry and government agricultural programs than I read James Joyce during my entire English degree. Come on. Where is the sense in that? The movement is based on intimate knowledge on where our food comes from, not ignorance. (Here comes the dammit doll again.)
I will concede that the local food movement can have a tendency to over-simplify the issues. Having low-food miles in and of itself doesn’t mean much, just like something being labeled “organic” doesn’t mean much. As with everything, the devil is in the details. However, the glorious thing about eating locally – is if you want to actually know how something is grown YOU CAN ASK THE FARMER. What a revelation. If I have any questions or doubts or concerns about what I’m putting in my mouth, I can go to the farm and see for myself. More than once I have decided against a local product when I saw the conditions it was growing in.
One line in the report made me laugh out loud. Kats says that eating locally can actually increase our food miles as we drive short distances more often; we make more trips to the farmer’s market or grocery store because we are eating more “unprocessed, locally grown agricultural products”. Um, I think they call that FOOD. Maybe it would be more sustainable of me to shop exclusively at the 7-11 on the corner? I’d be in no danger of purchasing “unprocessed, locally grown agricultural products” there, and I could walk.
Oh and really the grocery store is your best bet anyways because you can go anytime for everything. Last time I checked my grocery store doesn’t have buskers or children playing or friends sharing coffee or conversations or the opportunity to shake the hand that feeds me. (If anyone can remember which of the books on my shelf talks about how many more conversations we are likely to have at the farmer’s market, please post if for me. I seem to recall it was something crazy like 10 to 1 more convos.) Do economists and Fraser Institute researchers write reports on that? Number of conversations? They should ’cause (dammit dammit dammit) that is what local eating is about. Community. Dammit.
Kats sums it up by saying that the Agricultural Land Reserve “deprive[s] citizens the freedom to use their land and the means to generate wealth from their investment.” Never mind the rest of it; the environmental concerns, the benefits of green space on our water and air and climate and the fact that once its gone we’ll never get it back . . . Nope. It “deprives the public of the tremendous benefits of the markets in order to indulge special interest groups who favour hay fields over houses.” As opposed to the special interest groups who favour houses over hay fields . . .
The ALR has not single-handedly squashed small family farms in B.C. and discouraged young people from going into farming. (If we want to talk about ignorance . . .) Farmers face huge obstacles from all sides and it is a wonder that any small family farms remain at all. Which is why it is important that we all remember that eating is an agricultural act. We must make thoughtful choices at our dinner table and make sure that our voices are heard above the din of those who fail to see the big picture.
So take that! Dammit!
Use this MLA Finder to find out how to contact your local MLA and tell them to save the ALR.
And by the way, you can find your very own dammit doll at a christmas craft fair near you.