When I was a child, in the late 50s and 60s, there was widespread famine in India, Africa, and Asia, and serious hunger in the eastern US and Mexico. This wasn't like today, when famines are caused by religious and political upheaval, and climate issues.
These famines were caused because the world was not growing enough food. We couldn't feed ourselves. My childhood was spent anticipating a Malthusian nightmare where the population outstripped the food supply.
Of course, it didn't happen. And it didn't happen because of Norman Borlaug who engineered high-yield grains and introduced modern agriculture to those parts of the world that were in deep trouble. At the same time, to oversimplify, large areas of US and Canadian farmland were being converted to other uses, industrial, recreational, and domestic, because of those same food production innovations. It's why there is no farmland within spitting distance of most major metro areas anymore. Cheap fuel and government subsidized highways and shipping completed the equation. All over the world, the middle classes eat food grown far away, by someone else.
Enter the local food movement. I spent the afternoon at the Family Farmed Expo, talking to exhibitors and listening to panels discuss buying local, knowing your farmer, preserving food yourself and organic farming.
The overwhelmingly young, white, middle-class, educated crowd were sincere and enthusiastic, and I think misguided.
There are six and a half million people along the Wisconsin-Illinois-Michigan shoreline. Do we really want "local" farms (and I use the term loosely, as did the Expo, with exhibitors from as far as southern Indiana). Do we have that farm capacity, or do we want to? I wonder if it is better to let land go back to its ur-natural state, than to a pre-industrial local subsistence model.
Food preservation, also, struck me as naive in its economy of scale. Is it really better for a million local households to each have a dehydrator ($80) and a couple of freezers ($200 to $350 each), and a pressure canner ($200 to $600), and a vacuum sealer ($150)? One panelist had all of these so that her children can only eat fruit "in season" because they've frozen strawberries themselves (purchased at considerable expense from a "local" grower at a Farmers Market). Left out of the calculation were the south Asian factories where all that stuff is being made so that well-off midwestern housewives can go back to the land.
I would like to posit that a better direction for our political energies is toward a sustainable agriculture, both organic and chemical, some local, some distance, with carbon neutral shipping and real pricing, and the rethinking of tax subsidies to support the farmer and not the chemical multinationals. We need to insist on labeling that allows us to know what goes into our food. We need to make more food ourselves, whether from locally milled flour, or wheat shipped in from India. We need to spend the few extra pennies it costs to support what Michael Pollan calls "industrial organic" that uses economies of scale intelligently to replenish and nurture the land.
It's a worthy effort, and I'll support these vendors when I can. I grow a garden, and I do a lot of preserving (without all the expensive equipment). But what I took away from the Expo was a desire to worry less about where my food comes from, and more about how it was grown.
For a fantastic conversation about this issue, visit MyFolia, where I posted the same essay to my journal.
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