Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Kiwi Debate - Food Culture and Sustainable Ag

Critics of local eating often argue that food is most sustainable when it is produced in an appropriate climate. Thus a kiwi grown in New Zealand is better than one grown in a heated greenhouse in Boston, even accounting for transportation. Well they have the argument half right - growing what makes sense for one's climate is indeed more sustainable. But what such critics do with this intuitive wisdom can be astounding. Twisting the argument to support the conventional food system, with its focus on efficiency and maximum production of a single crop, critics often argue that diverse local agriculture systems won't be able to feed us all. Of course,the fact is that just such diverse farms managed the job from the dawn of agriculture up to World War II. Specialized growing of crops for export markets is a fairly recent phenomenon. The range of critics, from technology writers in the New York Times, to historians at Harvard University, can only indicate that a sensitive nerve has been touched. After all, we all like to eat right?

The debate is a serious one. The world's population is at an unprecedented size and concerns over the correct way to bring dinner (and breakfast, and lunch, and several snacks) to our table are worth taking seriously. At the risk of stating the obvious,the whole point of the local eating movement is a re-conceptualization of one's diet to include the ecology and climate you live in. The goal is not to grow kiwi out of season at great expense and effort, but to reconnect with what is in season now, here. Barbara Kingsolver has written most eloquently on this point in her memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

What we are really debating is what we should be eating. And there lies the rub. Because eating local means accepting limits, and American culture has us believe that there is no limit. If you want it, get it. The slow food, local food and grow-your-own food movements suggests that there are realities and responsibilities to eating, that our choices must be shaped by our physical context. They ask that we eat the way much of the rest of the world eats - regionally, authentically, handmade - and that better taste be our reward.

The question of limits in the American diet goes beyond just the provenance of our food. As this article in EcoSalon suggests,eating local and/or sustainably will require major changes in our food culture. For example, average calories consumed per day in the U.S. in 2008 (per person) totaled a whopping 3,750. That's 1.5 times more than the most generous recommended daily allowance! Moving the debate on agriculture systems forward will require an honest accounting of our food culture expectations, and excesses.