7 reasons why food miles matter

Is locovorism a naive luxury of the rich, or something more?

Lots of folks are hatin’ on locovores these days. And lets face it, the locovore movement gives them plenty of fodder for the fire. (I say that from a place of love, really.) The new food movement or whatever you want to call it is susceptible to over-simplification and a serious case of self-back-patting.

I forgive us this, because at the root I believe that more and more people are grasping for anything to make them feel safe in the face of the runaway train that is climate change. It’s scary, it’s bigger than all of us, and most of us have no power to change it in a big way. Focusing on food miles is a concrete way to wrap your arms around your sense of helplessness.

Maybe I overstate our motives, but all I know is I feel afraid for my son. No one can deny the terrifying changes in our weather. I’m not sure it’s possible to overstate the potential heap of trouble we’re in. Any attempt to move towards change is a good thing.

Those who criticize focus on one measure alone – the impact of food miles on the carbon footprint of a food product. This is foolish narrow-mindedness and a symptom of the type of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place.

1. Water

Hands down, water is the most important reason you should try to eat close to home whenever you can. It’s easy to not think about the impact on water resources when we buy food from far away, because we’re buying food, not water.

When you purchase fruit from far away, you are exporting water from the region where it was grown. Especially if that produce comes from someplace like California (which produces a huge percentage of the nations food), that represents the loss of an incredibly important, rare and valuable resource to that region. Every drop that leaves reduces their future ability to produce food.

If you live someplace on the coast like I do, chances are that water is going to go straight out to sea when I’m done with it.

Add it up and the result is shrinking water tables and increased salinization of farmer’s fields. Veggies don’t grow so well in salt.

2. False promises of economic freedom through trade

One of the big arguments against locovorism is rooted in our psychopathic economics-based world view. The argument goes like this:

There are too many people on the planet. We are all going to starve. We need cheap food. Food can be grown cheapest where land and labour is cheapest. Land and labour is cheapest in the third world. We should stop growing food in the first world and import cheap food from the third world. This will be better for everybody.

Except for it’s not.

If the third world is using their land to grow cheap food for us fat folks over seas, where do they grow their own food? The economists tell me – Now they will have money to buy food. See, they’re better off! Except for if it is now no longer “economical” for third world farmers to grow traditional foods, whom do they buy them from?

Is this the part where western fast food stands waiting in the wings? Or is it starvation and malnutrition? Which is worse? How do we measure the degradation of local food cultures?

Add to this the fact that rather than the time-honoured agricultural practices that are central to the local culture, these multi-national corporations are more likely to be employing destructive forms of industrial agriculture which enslave local workers to the gerbil wheel of purchased pesticides, herbicides and seeds.

Suddenly our “need” for cheap food is both reducing our ability to produce food, destroying local economies and causing biological contamination of food-crop genetics that are as old as agriculture itself.

Vandana Shiva is the best resource for more information on this topic. Her book Stolen Harvest is a good place to start.

3. Biodiversity

Industrial, globalized agriculture favours uniformity and efficiency. That means standardized breeding stock over diverse breeds with historical value and mile after mile of the same variety over inter-plantings of symbiotic crops.

Under our current system, our diet is comprised of fewer and fewer crops and those crops are drawn from an increasingly shallow gene pool.

This is bad news on a lot of levels.

Take turkeys.

Most turkeys produced in North America are bred by only three multi-national companies, and most are broad-breasted white turkeys. Funny thing about these guys – they can’t mate. It is physically impossible because they have been bred to have such large breasts (for all of us who love white meat) that the male cannot physically mount the female.

Think about that for a minute.

A living being that is physically incapable of procreation.

Isn’t the nature of life to produce more life? Isn’t that why we’re all here? To keep on keepin’ on?

Now think about the fact that the majority of what we eat is dependant on only three major producers, and that they all are growing essentially the same thing. Say something goes awry? With the breeders or the birds?

We’re whooped.

Extrapolate that out to nearly every major food product and you start to get an idea of what we’re dealing with.

Troubling, no?

Just because something is grown close to home, it’s not automatically going to contribute to genetic diversity. However, if in getting to know your foodshed you support farmers who are using sustainable systems that honour and respect the place they’re in, you’re more likely to find plants and animals elegantly suited to their place and time. That, in a nutshell, is what biodiversity is all about.

By the way, I have raised commercial breeds in my backyard, and I can tell you, they kind of suck at living, and they don’t taste near as nice.

4. Cultural diversity

Food is more than a commodity, a number on a trading board, fuel for a machine.

Food is a repository of shared memory and experience. It is an expression of who we are and where we are from. It can communicate love, comfort, joy. It is a celebration of life, a coming together, a means to cure a cold or mend a broken heart. It is life-giving and sustaining. It ties us in the beautiful unending cycle of birth, life, death, decay and round again. Without food, there is no life.

It most certainly isn’t just food. (Sorry Mr. McWilliams.)

If we follow the free-trade model to it’s logical (I hesitate to call it logical) conclusion, we will see a further centralization and standardization of our food products. This is necessary if one values current economic views of efficiency (as screwed up as they might be.)

If that happens, what happens to the nuances of our food cultures around the world?

5. Food justice

The powers that be in the world of industrial agriculture have one key message: You need us. If you do not accept our toxic, contaminating, life-destroying products, you will all starve.

This, quite frankly, is bullshit.

The world currently produces two times the calories needed to support the population.

Industrial agriculture as they pitch it is currently doing the opposite of what it promises. Instead of ensuring a future of food security for all, it is degrading the soil and water necessary to produce food in the future in the name of short term profit for a chosen few.

Instead of empowering farmers to feed their families first and their community second, they are enforcing an unsustainable culture of indebtedness and reliance on outside inputs rather than a self-sustaining, closed-loop system rooted in nature’s paradigm of plenty.

All of this short-sighted greed masquerading as progress has but one consequence:

We are stealing from our children’s mouths.

We have hunger in the world today because we have injustice. We have huge corporations partnering with international organizations, whom the people of the world did not elect to represent them, bullying the third world into buying their products and allowing the destruction of their local, indigenous food systems.

We have hunger because we have war and poverty. We have hunger because we have greed and waste.

I’m not saying eating close to home is going to solve world hunger. However, if we all took the time to nurture and understand our own foodshed, we might be more inclined to do more to protect the foodsheds belonging to others around the world.

If nothing else it will help us to remember : First do no harm.

6. Human rights

Eating food from far away and making our food choices based on price alone, implicates us in human rights abuses of food workers around the world.

It is easy to turn a blind eye when the abuse is happening thousands of miles away from home. Most of us don’t have a clue about the working conditions and poor pay many farmworkers around the world experience.

This ties back into the false promise of the economic benefits of trade. If we are not paying a worker a fair wage AND we are taking away their ability to grow food for themselves, how on earth do we expect them to feed their families?

At the end of the day it comes down to this:

7. Out of sight, out of mind

If we eat close to home whenever we can, we are more likely to see how our food is produced. We may get a chance to actually meet the people who put the food on our tables. We might drive by the fields where it was grown.

Eating close to home engenders a sense of transparency and a level of accountability that the global, free-trade food system does not.

That said, we cannot simply sit idly by.

We have to understand that we are co-producers in all of this, and with that comes responsibility.

Responsibility to ask questions, be informed, demand better. To call for bans on GMO’s in our fields. To educate ourselves on sustainable farming methods. To ensure that worker’s rights are being respected. To demand that animals are raised humanely and with respect.

Most importantly, it is all of our responsibility to find a way for EVERYONE, not just the yuppies at the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings, have access to food that is good, clean and fair.

5 thoughts on “7 reasons why food miles matter

  1. Heidi @ lightlycrunchy

    We have always been local consumers for food, goods and services, but I have to admit that our reasoning has never really been environmental, it’s been to help our community. In a rural community, neighbours and community are everything.

    1. The Slow Foods Mama Post author

      Aha! Number 8! Let’s ad it.

      So funny – I got so caught up in the anti-locovore groups saying we’re causing third world hunger and hurting the economy that I forgot one of the most important benefits.

  2. Growing Up in the Garden

    On number 2… It can also work the other way. Some markets in developing countries get flooded with cheap imports made with cheap corn/soy grown in the United States, making it very difficult for the local farmers to sell their produce/meat in their local communities.

    1. The Slow Foods Mama Post author

      That’s exactly right. Shiva goes into great detail about the effect of cheap soy oil on the local edible oil market.

      Local micro-processors who met the needs of families for inexpensive fresh oil in small quantities were shut down and the families couldn’t afford to buy the larger, more expensive packages of imported soy oil, and when they did, their kids wouldn’t eat it.

  3. Pingback: A definition of Local Food Systems | ANATOLE

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