Saturday, November 21, 2009

Slowcal? You Tell Me

In an attempt to foster dialogue, I invite you to respond to the questions I pose here, in the hope that we can share ideas and learn from each other. I am withholding my conclusion to this post for a few days. In order to avoid any apprehension of baiting, I'll vow not to directly address any responses to this post. Any takers?

Q: Can the local foods movement support a food system that is good, clean, fair and economically viable?

The designation of locavore as Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Year in 2007 was a nod to the ascent of the local food movement. Put aside the global implications, and the local feasibility of, a fully realized bioregionalism. Consider one aspect of the debate currently surrounding the local foods movement: the extent to which geographic proximity to your food source can be used as a proxy for sustainability.

The best-known proxy of this sort is the set of standards for organic foods under the USDA National Organic Program, which has been criticized for not going far enough. Widely considered a step in the right direction, the principles of the organic standards nonetheless fail to embrace principles of agroecology that might bring our foodsystem closer to sustainaibility.

Enter locavorism, which takes fresh aim at the moving targets of sustainability. So, Bullseye? Well...maybe. For example, while it can't be denied that choosing local foods reduces your carbon footprint, it turns out that a rather large proportion of the greenhouse gas emmissions - and various other forms of non-point source pollution - from agriculture occur as a result of on-farm management decisions. This suggests that, in pursuit of environmental sustainability, the methods of production may be more important than the location of the farm. That is, if I lived in California's semi-arid Central Valley, and I purchased lettuce from a techno-industrial farm in my county, the only thing green about this would be the color of my lunch.

However, another dimension of sustainability is brought into focus when considering the merits of locavorism: economic sustainability. An obvious boon to farmers is the increased income from being able to sell products directly to consumers through markets, community supported agriculture, and relationships with local restaurants and institutions. Slightly more abstract is the multiplier effect observed in local economies. Basically, the dollar you spend with your local farmer in turn tends to be spent locally, accruing economic benefits to the community. Given the steady decline of the urban economy in the last 50 years, this seems a rather significant aspect of the local foods movement. Coupling this factor with a sustainably produced local food supply makes locavorism an attractive option.

Yet, the questions remain: How do we complete this picture, and fuse economic and environmental sustainability with a local food system? How do we ensure that sustainable practices are both a necessary condition of our food system, as well as an investment that rewards farmers? Is it enough to buy local?

You tell me.


  1. I think the big push has to come from consumers. Unless (we) they demand food grown with cleaner growing practices, commercial farmers will continue to push the limits of production in order to be profitable.
    Can we think of ways that consumers who do know and care can harness their buying power to send a message to big ag that's not already out there? Joining a CSA and shopping at farmers markets are great, but they won't bring down industrial ag -- at least not yet....

  2. One of the most powerful aspects of the local foods movement is its potential to awaken a sense of place in people. In the quest for local foods, a dialogue is opened between producers and consumers who are neighbors.

    Through the cultivation of these relationship, several values can be established. You could reasonably expect that farms in your watershed do their best not to pollute the drinking wells. In turn, consumer loyalty can give farmers the security they need to try unproven or costly (yet greener) methods. And all together, a community can organize to insist that its representatives in government do their part to assist in the transition to a culture of sustainability.

  3. I love the idea of the producer-consumer relationship in the hyper-local model, but I agree with Jessica's point about the need to "scale up" local food. We need to think regionally, especially in the Northeast.

    A few weeks ago I joined a contingent of Friedman students (many of us SFT members) in attending the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG) conference entitled "It Takes a Region." I think it was Kate Clancy who made the point that eating locally in Boston could mean eating oranges from Florida in December. Then, as September approaches again, our food procurement radius can narrow until we are eating tomatoes from Brookline or Concord or Waltham.

    I hope that farmers' markets, CSA's and other direct-to-consumer schemes continue to flourish, but in order for local farmers to acheive economic sustainability, we need options for expasion into other markets. As we move away from the direct-to-consumer model, it is necessary to have standards, so that consumers know how their food was grown without visiting the farm.

    As we see with organic, standards can be co-opted by industry. However, that doesn't mean that they are completely worthless. Organic certification ensures fewer harmful pesticides, a basic level of attention to soil fertility and nutrient management, and no synthetic fertilizers. This is a great platform to work from! Instead of destroying this platform to create a new one, can we build upon it and improve it to fit the needs of our expanding regional food system?

  4. I just found the Slow Food Tufts blog, and it looks great so far. I would like to second Chelsea's suggestion above that being a locavore in Boston may mean ranging regionally in the off-season. This model has been picked up by a company called Boston Organics, which, while not restricting its sourcing to the region just yet, tends to source organicaly grown foods from as close to Boston as possible as the growing season approaches. An alternative package from the company allows you to go "Dogma", which is solely regional sourcing and in the winter you would usually receive those foods like tubers and squash that can be stored beginning in the Fall as well as hydroponically-produced items like tomatoes.

    One disadvantage of this model is the lack of the farmer-consumer direct relationship, but it does bring the cost down a bit because the "middle-man" buys from farms in bulk and can pass their savings along to the consumer. Once complaint I have read from the company itself is that New England was not set up to provide organic food for itself--in other words, there weren't that many farms prepared to sell to the company in the quantities they need, and it has taken the time to scale up the organic agriculture in the New England states.