Advocates of eating locally grown food argue that you can save the world by buying tomatoes from a local garden, cage-free eggs from a nearby farm, and locally baked bread. The eat-local movement has been very popular in Europe for some time. Locavores – as these eaters are also called – are gaining strength in the United States. In Korea, with the sintobulli movement and now the campaign against the free-trade agreement, the eat-local movement has always had a strong following.
But can eating local really save the world? Eating local definitely helps small farmers and redirects agriculture toward a smaller and more sustainable future. It dramatically cuts the “food miles” that our fruits and vegetables travel to get to our table and thus reduces our energy use. And it restores flavor to our meals.
Every decade or so, consumers come up with a new way to use their wallets and stomachs to change the world. Vegetarians and their diet for a small planet urged Americans to eat lower down on the food chain to make more food available for the world’s hungry. Organic food proponents, riding the crest of the environmental movement, targeted the chemicals that we ingest and that have compromised the fertility of our soil and the purity of our water. More recently, in the age of globalization, fair-trade activists have pushed consumers to pay more for coffee, bananas, and a host of other foods so that the growers in Ecuador, Kenya, and elsewhere get a fair wage.
Today, the cutting edge is eating local. In the United States, for instance, farmers markets can be found in the unlikeliest places, like the parking lots of malls and the downtowns of huge cities. Community supported agriculture (CSAs) connects small farms directly to nearby consumers. Upscale restaurants feature menus of local produce. The food service company Bon Appetit, which caters to college kids and corporate cafeterias, has run a yearly Eat Local Challenge in which all the ingredients are sourced within 150 miles of their kitchens.
Eating local can make middle-class consumers feel better about their bodies, themselves, perhaps even their country.
But how does eating local help the more than 70% of the world’s poor who live in rural areas and whose livelihoods are increasingly tied to the global market? Do Koreans who buy local rice take the money out of the hands of poorer rice farmers in southeast Asia? What about Americans who avoid buying Mexican tomatoes in favor of the local variety? As the eat-local movement comes into its own, it must grapple with these larger questions of global equity or else slip into a form of epicurean isolationism.
Eating local can indeed have a positive global impact. Right now, the greatest threat to farmers around the world is heavily subsidized industrial agriculture, most of it here in the United States and Europe. Our cheap food, made all the more competitive by lopsided free trade agreements like NAFTA, drives farmers in the global south out of business. Our scientific advances to grow even more food only compound the problem. So, anything we can do on our end to undermine industrial agriculture helps us and helps the poor farmers of the world.
Eating local is not a commandment. It would be ridiculous to try to grow bananas in New York or coffee in Seoul. But agricultural trade should be fair. We in the north should pay more, not less, for the food that we import from the south, and thereby help bridge the growing economic divide between the global haves and have-nots.
And, finally, we should be modest. Lifestyles don’t change the world. We need to supplement our purchasing decisions with activism to end U.S. subsidies of corporate agriculture in the annual farm bill. We should rally against free trade agreements that drive farmers off their land, into overcrowded cities, or into exile. We must treat with great skepticism “quick fixes” like genetic engineering and cloning that promise cornucopia without addressing fundamental inequities in the distribution of food and wealth.
Eating local makes a lot of sense. It tastes great and is less polluting. But we mustn’t keep our heads down in our plates of local salad greens and lose sight of the wide world around us.
Munhwa Ilbo, January 24, 2007