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Local food: No elitist plot

By Mark Bittman
The New York Times

I’m not a jingoist, but I’d prefer that more of my food came from America. It’d be even better, really, if most of it came from within a few hundred miles of where we live. We’d be more secure and better served, and our land would be better used. And I’d feel prouder, as if we had a food culture rather than a food fetish.

The Farm Bill [PDF], which is currently under negotiation for renewal — and is dangerously close to being pushed through without real debate — needs to address this issue head-on. But by subsidizing commodities, the existing bill (and food policy in general), pushes things in precisely the opposite direction. The vast majority of our farmland grows corn (we’re the world’s largest producer), soy and wheat, and these, along with meat and dairy, make us net exporters of foodstuffs.

Incredibly, however, we are net importers of fruits and vegetables, foods that our land is capable of growing in abundance and once did. Most of our imports are from Mexico, Chile and Canada, but fresh fruits and especially vegetables are shipped here from all over the world, with significant quantities coming from as far away as India, China and Thailand. And those imports are growing.

This is just plain embarrassing. Global trade is the norm, but for a country that likes to think of itself as the world’s leader in agriculture, to be unable to supply its own fruits and vegetables is pathetic. An older (2007) but likely still valid U.S.D.A. report [PDF] showed that if Americans were to meet the dietary recommendations for fruit and vegetables, we’d need to more than double our fruit and vegetable acreage. (We also must avoid the Santa Barbara syndrome. There, in one of our top fruit- and vegetable-producing counties, as much food is shipped in as is shipped out, and nearly half the people have trouble affording food.) Of course we grow enough corn to feed not only us but many of the world’s hungry (it is a whole grain, after all, when it’s minimally processed), but the majority of that corn is fed to animals and automobiles, and almost all of the rest produces junk food.

What’s wrong with this picture? The notion of importing fruits and vegetables, the idea of having everything “fresh” all the time, was until recently inconceivable and is likely to become so again, as production and transportation costs rise and the absurdity of the “system” becomes evident even to those who now profit from it. When we ignore large-scale production of local food we invite apocalypse, or at least food shortages.

By creating a perverted norm, in which everything is always everywhere and little is seasonal, we have ceased to rely upon staples: long-keeping foods like grains, beans and root vegetables, foods that provide nutrition when summer greens, fruits and vegetables aren’t readily available. We expect a steady supply of “fresh” Peruvian asparagus, Canadian tomatoes, South African apples, Dutch peppers and Mexican broccoli. Those who believe they’re entitled to eat any food any time seem to think that predominantly local agriculture is an elitist plot to “force” a more limited diet upon us.

But there’s something far more important to fear: that when imports stop we won’t have the food to replace them, nor the farmers to grow that food. Besides, how limited was the old-fashioned diet of long-keeping fruits and vegetables (I can think of 20 in a few seconds), preserves like jams and sauerkraut (and kimchi!), and smoked or salted meats? Make that contemporary with the addition of those regional and national foods we freeze or can — every vegetable you can think of, many if not most fruits, a great deal of meat and fish — and you have essentially the diet you’re eating now. It may not be perfectly “fresh,” but it could be at least semi-local.

This kind of approach — grow what you can close to where you live and eat what you can grow — is obviously nothing new. (Even in my lifetime, I can remember seeing asparagus only in late spring, Macintosh apples in the fall and Empire apples — long keepers — through the winter.) What’s new is the lack of farmland, because much has been lost to sprawl or commodity crops, and farmers who can make it happen, farmers working on a scale between sustenance and industrial.

It’s not backward-thinking to believe that this way is better; rather, it’s insane to think that abandoning regional agriculture is clever. Of course there are cultural reasons for wanting and adoring local food; your cuisine is part of your roots, even if your roots feed many trees, as they do here. Seasonality gives us reasons to celebrate what winter asparagus and spring apples cannot.

But philosophical factors aside, wouldn’t you prefer to eat food that came from, say, your state, or one nearby? Or at least from within our national borders? Food you can touch, grown at farms you can visit? If our auto industry can have a renaissance, why can’t our fruit-and-vegetable production?

We’ve seen that nothing is guaranteed: not energy, not water, not the financial system, not even the climate. Our food supply isn’t guaranteed either (remember 2008?), but it’s more likely to provide us with security if we focus more on regional agriculture and less on trade. For the new farm bill to serve us, it must address the issue of encouraging more farmers to produce more staples.