I have this book called "Food Markets of the World" by Nelli Sheffer and Mimi Sheraton. It is primarily a coffee table photography book, with vibrant photos of everyday food markets around Asia, Europe, Latin American, The Middle East, Africa, and the United States. This book reminds me the main fact that James McWilliams forgets in his latest NYT post, that the people of the world get most of their food from local sources. With over 1/3 of the world's population employed in agriculture, and upwards of 70% in many parts of India, Asia, and Africa, much of the world is involved in what McWilliams calls an 'elitist' movement of local food production and consumption. Although the average morsel of food in the U.S. may travel 1,500 miles, that is not the case in the rest of the world. If McWilliams is just talking about the United States, he should say that, instead of painting a highly inaccurate global picture. The majority of the world's population either grow their own food (subsistence style), grow food for commercial markets, or consume food that others nearby have grown for them.
Farmers markets and local food movements are nothing new. In fact, if you traveled the world, in big cities and small, you would find that most of the fresh fruits, vegetables, spices, grains, and seafood are sold in food markets that are composed of many small vendors- essentially farmers markets (or some vendors are middleman, but they are small-scale nonetheless). Most food consumed is local due to lack of distribution infrastructure, refrigeration, and other storage and processing technology. If McWilliams did his homework, he would know this. But, as he states several times in his opinion piece below, all his ideas are theoretical notions- "Of course, this is only a possibility. I have no numbers to draw on." Scientists are rarely given primo media space to talk about their unsupported notions. Why then does the New York Times give McWilliams space for several fluff pieces that lack quantifiable data? I guess controversy sells more newspapers and when papers get desperate, they turn to weak forms of intellectualism.
Here is the guest post below by McWilliams and my commentary side-by-side in bold.
by James McWilliams
A Guest Post
In my last post on this topic, I suggested that local food systems are not necessarily environmentally sound food systems.
“The burden exclusively hits the ‘traditionally marginalized’ people whose primary concerns in life do not involve securing heirloom tomatoes cultivated within a 100-mile radius of their domains.” So, are you saying that poor people should have to eat poor-quality, obesity-causing, cheap food that poisons & maims farmworkers & meatpackers, or destroys the economic viability of small-scale farmers around the world? That is very presumptuous of you. Perhaps you should ask these so-called "traditionally marginalized" people if that is the kind of food they want to eat.
I also suggested that, if this were true, then we’d have to
entertain the possibility that the community cohesion that develops
around shared pride in sustainable food production is similarly
suspect. What in the heck is "community cohesion that develops around shared pride in sustainable food production"? Do Walmart Supercenters and Cash n' Carry marts engender a stronger community cohesion or shared pride? How about McDonald's or corner liquor stores?
Of course, this is only a possibility. I have no numbers to draw on. Oftentimes, we have strong evidence that a farm is well deserving of a sustainable gold star. Many small farmers who practice an impressive level of transparency alleviate any lurking concerns about unsavory practices. In so doing, they ostensibly lay the basis for community development around shared pride in local ecological sustainability. It’s not always this way, but it’s likely quite common. "Sustainable gold star"? Are you kidding me? This is starting to remind me of a paper I graded in an undergraduate class. Also, the words "possibility", "ostensibly", and "likely" all indicate a notion. In this case, these are notions not supported by numbers, which McWilliams readily admits to.
Such success, however, only raises another problem for the proposition that local food fosters a tighter community. Sustainably produced local food is not accessible by all. In general, only the elite few with the time and material resources to capitalize on such environmental munificence have the time and money to benefit from transparently sustainable farms. As a result, the preconditions are inadvertently established for something that generally tends not to bind diverse communities into a cozy whole, but to fragment them: exclusivity. A college education is not accessible by all, not even a decent K-12 education. A continuous sidewalk is not accessible to all, nor a nice, safe bike path in which to exercise. Some of us will always be stuck as renters while others buy houses. Do these things mean we should not make colleges better, public schools better, bike paths more plentiful, or improve the way houses are built? Obviously not, just as accessibility is no reason to not improve the way food is produced. And guess what, most people working on improving the sustainability of food are also working on projects and policy to address the accessibility issues of price, distribution, unfair playing field, etc. It is true that it helps to have money to buy higher-quality food and time to prepare, but as Sam Fromartz points out in his blog post, data shows that income is one of the least significant factors in determining whether people buy organic food. A community food assessment that I was involved in demonstrated that ethnically and economically diverse people in the Salinas Valley, many of them mothers of young children, were highly interested in local, organic produce and willing to pay more for it. Although this is just one case, other food assessments around the U.S. have shown similar results. Does this prove that poor people will pay more for sustainably-produced, local foods, not necessarily. Actual purchasing data is better in telling you what people actually do, rather than what they tell you they would like to do. It does point to the need for more research. Maybe McWilliams could admit to that.
Patricia Allen, of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California-Santa Cruz, has pondered this problem extensively. She shows that when efforts to attain community food security (for the poor) are entrusted to local food suppliers, the results are not always the strengthening of community bonds, but rather their fraying. Allen bravely questions the entire premise that communities “will make better decisions about food systems,” noting how it all depends on the shaky premise that there’s “fluid cooperation among groups with quite different interests.” Then conversely, do non local food suppliers such as Cargill, ADM, IBP, etc. help poor communities attain better food security? I think McWilliams is actually misinterpreting what Allen is trying to say, which is merely that we should not assume that local food systems will improve food access. We actually have to test the impacts of these projects and tweak them if they are not meeting food security goals. She is not saying to abandon these efforts nor is she saying that global agribusiness is going to feed us all equitably.
Think about it: if there’s one thing you do not see at the farmers’ market, it’s socio-economic diversity (although there is evidence that markets are becoming more ethnically diverse). Localizing the food supply, in other words, automatically means that a small group of people will have exclusive influence over what the rest of the community has access to. Such power can alienate and even anger “the community.” “[T]he presumption that everyone can participate is a magician’s illusion,” writes Allen. First off, you cannot see socio-economic diversity. You may be able to see diversity of skin tones or diversity of fashion sense, but you cannot see the salaries that people make as if they were printed on their foreheads. Honestly, has McWilliams strolled the 4,685 plus farmers markets of this country or the hundreds of thousands around the world? Obviously not. Would he tell the Guatemalan lady who shops daily at the central open-air market that she is 'elitist' because she shops there (she has to shop daily because she does not own a refrigerator). How about the Oakland man who picks up some peaches and other fresh morsels at his little one-block farmers market because there are no grocery stores for miles around him, only liquor stores, and he is hungry for something juicy that doesn't get him drunk at the same time? McWilliams goes on to talk about how localizing the food system means that a small group of people will have undue control over what the rest of us get to eat. You could say the same exact thing about the CEOs of ADM, Monsanto, Smithfield, or the USDA for that matter. Since we don't all grow our own food, there will always be a smaller number of people that decide what to grow and how to market and distribute that food. I am certainly angry that I can't buy corn seed free of GMO contamination. I am angry that I can only get CAFO-raised pork in my local grocery stores. I am angry that some companies are trying to pressure states not to allow dairies to inform their own customers whether or not they use growth-promoting hormones in their herd. The big agribusiness companies are alienating and angering many in our collective human community, in addition to poisoning, maiming, and killing some of us. Is that a better alternative, I ask?
What often follows, as a result, are local food systems in which a self-elected cohort of decision makers promotes a subjective vision of what a healthy, virtuous, and environmentally sound diet should look like. The rest just get what they’re given, stay away, or resist in ways that undermine the process of community development. Again, Allen says, “The evidence is that localism is anything but liberatory for those traditionally marginalized.” Culinary localism can thus backfire on the full community it’s supposed to improve. How does 2-5% of our total food sales dictate what the rest of us are eating? McWilliams is blowing up the impact of local, sustainable food well beyond where it is at or probably ever will be. The fact is that McDonalds, KFC, Subway, and 7-Elevens are not going anywhere. Remember, Walmart leads in retail grocery sales. So for all of you scared about eating a juicy local peach or a vine-ripened sweet tomato or a dry-aged grassfed beef steak, you can resist! Just hop in your SUV, turn on a DVD for the kiddies, and drive 10 miles to your nearest Walmart Supercenter where you can get everything you need for pennies that come from all over the world! You love the people of the world and are giving them jobs, so feel good about yourself (pat, pat).
A couple of other considerations underscore this argument. When the infrastructure of food production and distribution shrinks to accommodate members of a local population, when middlemen are axed from the supply chain, certain kinds of jobs disappear. Perhaps it goes without saying that these jobs are not employment opportunities that the privileged clientèle of the farmers’ markets are going to miss. Instead, the burden exclusively hits the “traditionally marginalized” people whose primary concerns in life do not involve securing heirloom tomatoes cultivated within a 100-mile radius of their domains. This reminds me of the first law of thermodynamics in which mass cannot be created or destroyed, just rearranged in space. When a distribution job is lost in California because people in Massachusetts are now preferring local produce in the summertime, a job is probably created in Massachusetts. If a new small-scale abattoir opens in Virginia, it doesn't mean a job is subtracted at the Smithfield plant in Tarheel, North Carolina. It probably means a job for somebody who needs one in Virginia is now opened up and it might be a better, more humane position than any at Smithfield. Small businesses create more employment than all the big guys put together. That is now why many city and county economic development departments are now focusing their attention on assisting and incubating small businesses instead of attracting the big, outside employer. The infrastructure is not shrinking and nor disappearing, rather it is fragmenting into smaller pieces. Truly, the biggest threat to our collective food processing & distribution infrastructure is the consolidation via mergers, buy-outs, & forced closures orchestrated by big agribusiness. Just look at the loss of small and medium-scale abattoirs across this country as proof.
Again, Allen has something insightful to say on this:
I participated in a conference session in which the leaders of a food security project were proud of its success in reducing imports of food from outside the locality. They were uninterested, however, in the negative effect this localization might have on those who had depended on the previous arrangements. This is one interesting anecdote, but probably no more than that.
A final paradox: in a sense, any community with an activist base seeking to localize the food supply is also a community that’s undermining diversity. Although we rarely consider the market influences that make community diversification possible, a moment’s reflection reveals a strong tie between cultural diversity and market access. Critics of globalization argue (often with ample evidence) that global forces undermine the world’s range of indigenous cultures — wiping out vernacular habits, wisdom, and languages. They overlook, however, how the material manifestations of diversity are brought to us by globalization. Wait a minute- by buying a grassfed steak from my neighbor versus one from a soy & corn-fed cow in the Brazilian Amazon I am now "undermining diversity"? But what if that neighbor was a Mexican immigrant who was from a longstanding cattle ranching family and was trying to make a go of it in this country? What if the grain-fed cow was being produced by an American company using American GMO technology and had also simultaneously led to the deforestation of indigenous Amazonian lands? Are you saying that the global food supply is supporting happy, well-paid, healthy farmers of all ethnicities around the world and that if we buy food grown in this land that we are xenophobes? Wow, this argument is a stretch of the imagination....
Localization, by contrast, specifies what is and is not acceptable within an arbitrary bougndary. In this sense, it delimits diversity. Anyone who doubts this claim should imagine what the culinary map of New York City would look like without open access to globally far-flung producers. It’s only because globally sourced distributors are able to provide specialized ingredients that Harlem, Chinatown, and Little Italy are such vibrant emblems of urban, culinary, and cultural diversity. This argument completely belittles and overlooks the efforts of countless immigrant and farmers of color in the U.S. that work their butts off around the country providing unique foods from their home countries. At my nearest farmers market, one Mexican immigrant farmer is tirelessly growing quiletes and other greens that provide a cultural link to people's homelands and keep the culinary traditions alive. These greens don't have to come from thousands of miles away, nor do they have to be doused in chemicals to support cultural diversity. In fact, these niche crops are providing the economic ladder for many of these farmers to finally realize net profits and be viable.
The cultural elitism that tinges culinary localism is by no means inherent. Still, it’s hard to say that it’s not there. And however ingrained it may be, such exclusivity is hardly a precondition for community cohesion. Theoretically, this persistent exclusivity could change, but for now it seems as if the locavore movement might very well be alienating many American consumers who might otherwise be willing to think about, and act upon, the agricultural problems that weigh so heavily upon us. Considering the locavore and sustainable food movement is growing and getting more media attention, I would gather that instead of just alienating as you say, it is in fact attracting more and more Americans. Americans are not going to be attracted to a movement that puts more money in the hands of multinational businesses or that support unsavory labor and environmental practices in far off places that cannot be seen or heard. The locavore movement is just one slice of the sustainable food pie, just one tool in the box. How about talking about that full pie or that full box instead of arguing over a few crumbs?In any case, it’s just a thought. A thought that you might want to keep to yourself until you have formulated a stronger argument and built a case for yourself based on evidence, not anecdote.