Over the past decade a powerful group of writers has revolutionized how we contemplate food. In essence, they’ve taught us the importance of eating local.
In response, an equally powerful group of consumers has echoed the “Eat Local” mantra with lockstep loyalty, marching off to buy homegrown produce at farmers markets, insisting that grocery chains support “their” local farmers, and even grazing a backyard hen or two in a nod to the old “back to the land” ethos.
The ultimate message behind this fervent quest to leave the culinary grid is that the food revolution must be decentralized. “Locavores,” as the movement’s acolytes are known, seek to build food systems that are diffuse, attuned to indigenous habits and, most important, small.
A small, fragmented food system keeps the consumer on the move. A dreamscape of the locavore future in Austin would have one buying produce from Carol and Larry at Boggy Creek Farm, scoring a freshly killed bird from that big French guy who raises “wild” game on the outskirts of town, getting some Texas chardonnay from a Hill Country vintner, and picking up some goat cheese, candles, and a copy of Edible Austin at the downtown farmers market. All of this would be accomplished, of course, on a bike, without plastic.
OK, I’m exaggerating (barely). But I do so because I think the locavore movement, for all its benefits, has gone too far—not quite to the point of self-parody, but certainly to the point of counter-productivity. And hence my concern: There’s too much at stake for the 21st century’s most powerful food reform movement to be counter-productive.
Our planet’s on the verge of a genuine food crisis. Global population is expected to rise from 6.9 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050; food production must increase 70 percent to meet this demand; the vast majority of calories will be required by the world’s poorest; and there’s very little arable land left to expand agriculturally. In a word: frightening.
But back in locavore land we’re told that decentralizing the food system is the way to go. Advocates typically tout the environmental benefits that ensue from supporting regional “foodsheds.” Numerous studies, however, cast doubt on this claim. A Lincoln University report, published in 2006, demonstrated that it was four times more energy efficient for a London resident to purchase New Zealand lamb rather than local lamb. Last month, Harvard professor Edward Glaeser wrote an article called “The Locavore’s Dilemma,” in which he argued that urban farms displaced people and, in so doing, increased the need for consumers to drive to buy food. “Shipping food,” he concluded, “is less energy intensive than moving people.”
If it sounds like I’m pushing the status quo here, hold onto your feedbag. The core problem with the western food system isn’t with producers. It’s with consumers. And consumers aren’t eating too much imported food. We’re eating too many animals. If you, as a conscientious consumer, are truly serious about food sustainability, here’s one thing that you can do, right now, for free, without corporate interference, and with almost certain improvement to your health: You can adopt a plant-based diet.
The logic for doing so couldn’t be more convincing. Take any serious problem marring our current food system—fertilizers, subsidies, GM corn and soy, antibiotics, overuse of pesticides, growth hormones, animal cruelty etc.—and you’ll find at its root the production of animal-based products. A 2011 article published in Environmental Science and Technology showed that eliminating red meat and dairy consumption just once a week would reduce carbon emissions more than eating all one’s food locally. The lesson here should be clear enough: It’s not where our food is grown that ultimately matters when it comes to allocating precious resources to feed the world a just diet; it’s what we’re eating that truly counts.
Charismatic writers persuasively argue that we can effectively replace factory-farmed meat with viable alternatives: free-range this, cage-free that, locally-raised this, cruelty-free that. But these alternatives will only have a limited impact in a world of nine billion. Grass-fed cows produce more methane than corn-fed cows; free-range animals require extensive land to graze; every animal, no matter how it’s raised, imperfectly converts plant food into edible flesh; and every animal, no matter how it’s raised, ends up as a carcass that must be disposed. In the end, these “alternatives” would only replace old meat-based problems with new ones.
Bottom line: The most realistic, humane, ecological, and cost-effective way to feed an expanding population is through globally linked, medium-to-large-scale farms growing a wide diversity of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Producers, big or small, local or international, will move in this direction only if consumers lead them to it. It’s for this reason that the most empowering decision you can make as a socially conscious consumer of food isn’t necessarily to eat locally, but to eat plants.