I See Your Math and Raise You One Study

September 3, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Rob Gardner

We Jews revere food.  Long before the Stage Deli slapped some pickled tongue, chopped liver and Russian dressing across three pieces of rye and called it the Shelly Berman, we ate the Hillel sandwich.  This Hillel, he knew not only to combined the charosets and the chrain in one enjoyable matzah package, he knew that the essence of Jewish law, the Torah, could be reduced to one sentance.  “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”  The rest, he liked to point out over a glass of cel-ray tonic, was commentary.  In other words, does it require any more than saying, “get your food as close to your home as possible.”  Can smart people ascribe to such a basic idea.  This simple idea mostly called locavorism or eating local, however, seems forever under scrutiny.  Our friend, Monica Eng, looked at the latest scrutiny in a featured article in Thursday’s Chicago Tribune.  I continue to wonder what motivates the scrutiny.

Monica writes, “a growing chorus of writers, politicians and bloggers is challenging the locavore movement, painting it as naive and elitist at best and dangerous to the livelihood of conventional commodity farmers at worst.”  She noted that “a hotly debated New York Times op-ed column attacked “locavore math,” questioning the movement’s assumptions about the energy used to grow and transport produce, and she reported of a forthcoming tome praising the “10,000 Mile Diet” and arguing that ”locavorism is a misleading marketing fad that, among other problems, ignores the threat it poses to the current affordability of food and to the economic health of developing countries.”  Luckily for those who want a little rational with their tasty morsels, Monica finds that, well, the math does in fact compute.  She finds a University of Chicago scientist with data to back up locavore claims about less energy use in their food.  Then, to counter the nutrient challenge (for instance just thrown up on this site last week by the Chicago Food Snob, JoeC), she cites a recent study for the Harvard Medical School showing “that healthier crop varieties, richer sustainable soil, riper harvesting, shorter vine to fork times and less handling can give local sustainable produce “distinct advantages” in nutrition over conventionally grown produce shipped long distances.”  The locavores drag the pot this time.  Because as Hillel knew, their can be truth in simplicity.

I talked briefly with Monica before this article went up.  She did not ask me about something I’ve been thinking about since this latest round of local backlash, nor is it something she covers directly in her article.  What’s driving the challenges to eat local.  Even if we are affluent patrons of urban markets, served by small, hobbyist farms as Republican Senators Chambliss, Roberts, and McCain allege, does it justify such anger.  And boy does it drive some anger.  They seem angry at us for be smarmy, didactic, and otherwise pressuring.  After all, as JoeC, the Chicago Food Snob argued, our imposing standards force chefs into menus they do not want and price points they cannot afford.  Do us locavores really wield such power?

I understand price sensitivities over local food.  I understand many real world issues over eating local including the imperfect state of farmer’s market and the imperfect supplies of local foods.  I understand the challenges of tracking down food and putting up food for later.  I understand what it takes to cook and prepare meals.  I’m not shy about admitting that there are many challenges to the locavore challenge.  I remain unable to fully understand the motivations of the anti-locavores.

There are some I fully understand.  I fully understand those who feel their livelihoods are being threatened.  As Michael Corleone always aptly puts, “it’s business.”  Monsanto shareholders need to eat too.  Clearly, Big Ag finds the locavore movement threatening.  If they did not, they would not resort to such dire, Malthusian arguments.  Google Big Ag and you will find over and over the same basic argument: “we will all die if we do not farm our way.”  I might not agree with them.  At least I respect why they are what they are.

I really do not understand the tropes thrown out all the time.  The joyless locavore existing on shriveled turnip sandwiches (filled with the barest portion of micro-greens snipped from under a basement grow lamp).  On the verge of scurvy AND beriberi, he still wants to make you eat his way.  Never mind the threat posed by such eater, who knows one?  At best, we have seen 100 mile purists, motivated by the sense of challenge the same way others will jump out of planes or climb mountains; because it was there. Pretty much all the die hardiest diehards I know catalogue their “exceptions”.  In fact, at times it can seem like a fantasy football draft the way exceptions get parceled out.  You cannot paint a picture of us when pretty much no one looks like that picture.  Eating local is not absolutist nor exclusive.

It leaves me wondering about this group in between.  Those with no apparent bias.  Why did Steve Budiansky feel the need attack locavores in the NYTimes with a mix of mixed up facts and odd oddities–do locavores use their fridges more than others as Budiansky seems to indicate?  With Budiansky and a lot of his ilk, there tends to be offerings to the tokens of environmentalism.  Even the Big Ag people will try to come across as saying they are real True Green (look Ma, no till!) Still, behind this veiled do-goodism, seems something else.  Budiansky titles his piece, “Math lessons”.  Lessons.   I find the motivations against locavore come mostly about trying to sound smarter.

As long the Internet run of Slate.com has shown, there is a certain ability to sound smarter by spouting contrariness.  With so many people jumping on the eat local train, people who discover how food should taste; people who discover that eggs do not have to have salmonella, milk can come from animals free of hormones; cannot you seem smarter by going the other way.  The cool kids are really the ones on the 10,000 mile diet.  Right.  Good thing, as Monica Eng reported this week, we have some smart people on our side too.