I just got back from France, and the subject of local eating has been on my mind lately as I drove through long stretches of countryside. There it seems that every area has its own specialty (near St. Etienne where I was there are Le Puy Lentils, Verbena liquor, quenelles- a puffed dumpling- just to name a few) or delicacy that is made exactly as it was in pre-industrial times.
And yet they have moved into industrial times. I was marveling to my husband at how good the French are at industrializing their traditional products for the modern market without losing any of the traditional character. This of course does not help small producers, such as our friends who run Maison Colombier Pear Liquor (an amazing product- http://www.poire-colombier.com). We recently visited them and heard about the constant challenges of adapting to a regulatory system that privileges large manufacturers. But from the point of view of the consumer, moving to large manufacturers doesn’t mean the loss of traditional regional products. High quality regional products are easily available all over France at the regular grocery store, and at affordable prices. Because tastes for these products have been maintained through the generations, even most processed food (frozen foods, packaged foods, etc) in France answers the demand for reasonably high quality, traditional-tasting foods.
Last night I also happened to come across this article about the question of whether US cities would be able to realistically sustain themselves through local eating.
The article refers to new research that says that it would be possible to sustain some cities through proper cultivation of the surrounding 100 miles of agricultural land. Unsurprisingly, cities in California are mentioned as good candidates for sustaining urban areas by using land within 100 miles. This is of course because California has an excellent climate for cultivation. If one has the misfortune of being conscripted into an exclusively local eating regimen in Chicago rather than Fresno, the outlook is notably more bleak. California also happens to be one of the only areas in the country where farm land is used for producing table food, as opposed to commodity crops. The critic mentioned in the article claims that the research is flawed since it looks only at the ability of the land to produce calories, and not the varied foods that people actually buy. And Americans are not accustomed to eating seasonally, which is indeed true. They are used to a huge variety all year, the argument goes. This is partly, as mentioned in the article, because we have been spoiled with access (though high environmental cost) to food produced in the southern hemisphere, or at the very least in regions far south of where we are located.
But I would argue that one of the problems is quite the opposite of Americans being spoiled. In fact, they have become accustomed to inferior products. The idea that food imported from far increases year round variety is true to some extent, but it ignores all the variety and taste that is lost by relying exclusively on a few varietals that can survive long distances, which are almost always harvested before ripe.
American manufacturers want to convince us that variety looks like this:
I have been a strong supporter of local food, but my personal opinion is that the goal should not be to reject the industrial food system, pretend like it’s still the 19th century, or to obsessively reduce our diet to that which is produced within 100 miles. Rather, it should seek to 1) to create a food market that is conducive to devoting more farmland to fresh food needs rather than to producing the raw materials for unhealthy processed food 2) preserve regional heritage and at the same time create a national market for regional goods 3) preserve the variety and taste of produce 4) lead American consumers toward a taste for better food, thereby creating demand for such goods from manufacturers.
Finally, I wish the Farm Bill would become a bigger discussion in the United States. It has a great impact on our agricultural system, our food, and our health, and it is almost never discussed. Low interest on the part of the public is not good for improving policy. LET’S DISCUSS THE FARM BILL!!!!
A couple articles to get you started: