Our VoiceNews & Politics

Buying Local Food: Pros and Cons


Katie Bezrouch • Oct 09, 2008

These days it seems, the hippest things a person can do is grab their made-from-recycled-materials-travel-mug, fill it up with the “fair trade” blend at the coffee shop, go pick up the new bamboo flooring, throw it in the back of the Prius and bring it to their new ecologically-sound condo. Which is a good thing, considering that some consumers still opt for the paper to-go cup while buying cherry wood panels, and zooming around in a hummer. Luckily, more often than not it’s pretty clear which products will cause a lesser amount of harm to the planet. However, with all of the conflicting agendas and information available, it can be hard to make a decision.

I read an article in Time Out Chicago several weeks ago titled “The well-intentioned, politically progressive and completely ill-conceived localvore movement” by David Tamarkin. Locavores are people who eat food grown or produced locally or within a certain radius, such as 50-150 miles. The mantra behind the idea of eating local is:

1. To procure the freshest food possible
2. To ensure the farmer gets a fair price for his crop, while supporting a local economy
3. To decrease energy expenditure by reducing packaging, shipping, and storing time

Mr. Tamarkin didn’t seem to find the idea completely palatable. After outlining the good things about locavorism, he went on to say: “It ignores the rest of the world and focuses on what’s good in one’s backyard. This thinking, of course, ignores the fact that somebody else’s backyard might be more needy than our own. If the first goal of buying local produce is to help farmers in need, it would stand to reason that localvores should seek out the neediest farmers they can.”

I get where he’s going with that statement, but at the same time I have to wonder if he really researched the topic of globalized farming and food sovereignty.

In the past three decades most countries have painfully experienced their own national food production capacity dwindle, due to the ever-increasing incentive to produce agricultural exports. This immense shift in the farming industry was made possible by free trade agreements, and aroused by huge government subsidies to agribusiness. People that were once able to feed themselves actually can’t now because they are exporting all of their crops. The world can certainly produce enough food to sustain all living creatures, it just has to be distributed correctly.

While I may have convinced myself that eating locally will make me less responsible for the global hunger problem, as Tamarkin points out, there are ecological questions to be considered as well: “While a tomato that was organically grown on an Illinois farm has a low impact on the environment, an organically grown tomato raised in an Illinois greenhouse…can be deceiving. They may be locally grown, but that term fails to reveal they were grown in a heavily heated, gas-guzzling greenhouse.”

He has a good point. Most local organic farms that I am familiar with don’t harbor those kind of facilities, but I’m sure there are plenty of them. Especially the big “organic” farms that are owned by parent companies (i.e. Cascadian Farms is owned by General Mills, Earth’s Best by Heinz). While I understand his skepticism, I would hope that someone disciplined enough to eat entirely locally would probably be able to figure out that a tomato coming from the Midwest in January would be growing in a greenhouse, and may use a lot of energy to produce. What Tamarkin may not know is that with the right insulation and a thermal mass wall, a well seasoned farmer could produce tomatoes in January using very little to no energy. If they have some extra money in the bank, they could even get a couple solar panels.

My (and most) Community Supported Agriculture programs run early spring through late fall. Some will keep delivering year-round, by using their storage crops or by putting not-so-local vegetables in the produce boxes. If you are interested in participating in a CSA and you live in Chicago, or if you just want to learn more about buying local in the Midwest Familyfarmed.org has a great map of drop off locations and different farms to choose from.

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