Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Complete Meal Equation

Writer and longtime local food advocate, James E. McWilliams recently provided a counter point to the local food philosophy, in the New York Times op-ed "Food That Travels Well." Spurred by a New Zealand study, McWilliams calls into question whether reducing food miles is better for the environment. We are asked to consider the full equation of the food system, such as planting, fertilization, and harvesting techniques as well as storage, and packaging, when calculating the environmental cost of food production, not just the fossil fuel consumed and emissions from transport.

McWilliams’ demonstrates a grounding point. Holding an extreme position on eating locally can be counter productive to ensuring a sustainable and healthy food culture. McWilliams article promotes an ecological "harm reduction" model. But even with harm reduction, the overall goal to ultimately stop the destructive behavior by making the problem manageable. While it may not be possible to grow local produce for Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert, there are still ways to provide food to the city that can reduce ecological harm.

McWillams' illustrates this point by looking to the example of raising grass fed livestock versus livestock raised on feed, a more costly and damaging practice. It is a valuable point that McWilliams' makes. We need to know where our food is coming from and the practices of the farmers producing our food. We need to be familiar with our communities food system. This is the same message coming from authors such Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver. As McWilliams wisely points out, wherever you are, you need to know your geographical advantages. In the San Francisco Bay Area the advantages are great. We have little excuse for not supporting our local farmers and ranchers.

I do believe however that McWilliams’ statement "...consumers living in developed nations will...always demand choices beyond what the season has to offer" is a bogus one. This is where perhaps my thinking is less flexible. I think that if consumers realize there is true harm inherent in their behavior they will no more demand out of season long traveled food than they would demand that we continue to spray DDT because it allows them certain fruit. The question for me is, how much harm has to occur before we are willing to make changes?

So I say please do continue to consider food miles but also consider the feasible changes that can be made in the food system of your own community...in your own home.