“Plenty” is a book I’ve been meaning to read since I was too cheap to buy the hardcover. Its about a couple who decide that, for one year, they will only consume food grown (GROWN. Not processed.) within 100 miles of their Vancouver apartment. I read the book on my recent sojourn through Ithaca, NY, one of the most wonderful hippie-dippie food towns in the world. Every weekend through summer and fall there is a bustling food market wherein all of the vendors have to come from 30 miles or less.
I really enjoyed Plenty, and I think the most potent argument in favor of local eating is the community that the couple (Alyssa and James) discover in their year of local eating. I also agree with the critique of the food system that spurred their year of eating locally: they argued the people have become divorced from the means of production (which is pretty inalienable, if you ask me, since I can buy mangoes 12 months out of the year and they don’t exactly thrive in my climate). They argue that eating locally reinforces communities and helps even the most hardened urbanite reconnect with the surroundings – which is inalienably true, given the hoops the two of them have to go through to secure local wheat and other products. And they argue that eating locally helps retain the diversity of foods available, rather than hasten the constriction of the food supply of recent decades (there are 500 varieties of apple, but how many different types have you eaten?). But they also do the 100 mile diet as a critique of a food system that is carbon-hungry and unsustainanble (the Vancouver couple buys apples from New Zealand, while apples from Washington state are shipped to Albany, New York). I agree with their critique in theory, but as they point out in the book, the global food exchange isn’t all that carbon-intensive. So much food is produced so unsustainably (carbon-based fertilizer, inefficient tractors and other farm machinery, and monoculture that exhausts soil and allows erosion, for starters) that the act of shipping a tomato halfway around the world still only accounts for 6% of its carbon footprint.
In 2008 I read an article from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (ra ra alma mater!) that corroborated this statistic, and concluded that there is really no ecological reason for eating locally, although there are certainly social and economic reasons to do so. This is something that the authors never address, which I thought was kind of a cop-out. They clearly establish many good reasons for eating locally, but they never pause to consider why it is that anyone bothers to ship apples across the world in the first place. Clearly, for most people, the cost isn’t as high as they think it is. The thing that really got me, though, is that the authors never consider how their carbon footprint, and their foodprint, changed under the 100 mile regime. I would argue that it was probably more carbon-intensive to drive forty or fifty miles to get nuts and cheese as it was to go to the local mega mart, which have the benefit of supply chain analysis and logistics and whatever else. I had a similar critique of Michael Pollan’s book “Omnivore’ Dilemma” when he writes about Joel Salatin’s farm, and the customers who drive hours to pick up a chicken. Just FedEx it, for christ’s sake.
There is plenty about the pattern of Western food consumption to be alarmed by, and certainly a greater focus on eating healthy, local food (no sugar, chocolate, or coffee to be had in Vancouver) is ultimately better for you and for your community. But is it better for the planet? Some acknowledgment that it is probably not would have been nice.