Double Rebuttal

August 27, 2008 at 8:22 am

Michael Morowitz

I awoke this morning to hear two attacks against local eating, one on the radio while I was still in bed, the other a blog post that popped up in my feed reader. Both of them missed the mark by reasonably wide margins.

First, on WBEZ I listened to the Marketplace Morning Report at 4:50am (I get up early so you don’t have to). They played a segment from Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute. Mr. Wilkinson correctly points out that food miles may not be the chief source of carbon emissions that your food creates. He goes on to point out that there is a complex, nuanced relationship between the food we eat and the environment that we live in:

A tomato raised in a heated greenhouse next door can be more carbon-intensive than one shipped halfway across the globe. And cows spew a lot more greenhouse gas than hens, or kumquats, so eating just a bit less beef can do more carbon-wise than going completely local. It’s complicated.

Yes, Mr. Wilkinson, you are correct, it’s complicated, which is exactly why I was so puzzled when you moved on to such a gross oversimplification in your next statement:

But one thing is clear enough: the farmers in Mexico, China, and Brazil, who produce a lot of the imported food Americans eat, are poorer than the farmers here in Iowa…But the way poor people get less poor is to do business with people who have a lot of money, like us.

Are central and South American economies so dependent on food export incomes that if we decreased our consumption by a fraction, they’d slip further into poverty? I doubt it, but I’d like to see Mr. Think-Tank back his hypothesis up with some research. Is he advocating outsourcing our food supply as a goodwill effort towards improving conditions in third world countries? Aren’t there economic, security, and safety concerns that come along with that line of thinking? Does he advocate buying cars that were made in the poorest country we can find? What about our clothes? The Chinese workers that make most imported clothing are very poor, but they’re not exactly treated well by their employers or their governments. I don’t have all the facts in front of me, but to quote Mr. Wilkinson, “it’s complicated”.

Steven Dubner, author of Freakonomics, published a piece in his blog by James McWilliams a historian at Texas State University. Mr. McWilliams takes the anti-locavore argument to silly new heights by equating “eating local” with “setting up regional food systems”. He points out that every region is not equipped to produce a completely diverse food supply year round.

The first comment at the bottom of this blog post hits the nail on the head when he points out that Mr. McWilliams is “setting up a straw locavore”. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a locavore or even anyone at a farmer’s market who is pushing for diverse, independent regional food systems. We understand that coffee doesn’t grow in Iowa and there’s not too much wheat growing in Arizona. Most locavores I’ve spoken to advocate a more simplified diet that focuses on the best of what their region has to offer. Either we make some sacrifices to avoid foods that aren’t local, or we make concessions for the things we enjoy or need.

Mr. McWilliams spent a lot of energy attacking a position that really just doesn’t exist.

Both of these pieces illustrate what’s behind a bit of my frustration with the word “locavore”. They both seem to believe that it’s an unyielding point of view, like veganism. They’re taking this misconception and attacking a belief that doesn’t really exist, meanwhile taking aim at practical local eaters at the same time. Motivations behind eating local are not singular nor are they unyielding.

Is it really so wrong to want to choose a ripe peach grown in your home state rather than grapes shipped in from Chile?

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