Law For Food: The law affects what you eat. What you buy to eat affects the law.

Local v. Flavorful

Ed Levine at Serious Eats expresses an inevitable sentiment. What if local isn’t tastier? Are politically-minded foodies supposed to give up on great food in favor of things grown in the 25 miles around them?

The answer of course, like the answer to most things once one becomes a grown-up, is “maybe.” Local eating is a choice that has ethical and economic consequences, and being aware of those consequences is the first step. But flavor is an important — nay, essential — component of eating, and when the cherries which grow in New York are wanting in sweetness, and the cherries which grow in Washington are perfect, locavore principles take a back seat. What to do?

As I see it, the reasons to eat locally, and the issues surrounding that decision, are as follows:

  1. Treatment of workers / environmental impact / treatment of animals: it is easier to verify that local farms share these values.
  2. Transport costs: given that these are highly subsidized costs (e.g., creation and maintenance of roads; military protection of shipping lanes; occasional wars in oil-producing countries) some of the total costs of transport are not passed on to the consumer, but should be considered anyway.
  3. Freshness and healthiness of food: technologies such as Controlled-Atmosphere Packaging may rob a food of its nutrients.
  4. Structural risks of food-borne illness: insofar as buying local can mean buying directly from the producer, the risk of cross-contamination of goods from several producers is diminished.
  5. Support of local food production structures: continued participation in nationwide, industrialized food production tends to encourage an industry which is structurally unable, by and large, to promote accountability, support to producers, a living wage to laborers, and sustainable agriculture.
  6. Investment in local industry: keeping one’s purchasing dollars local may mean a healthier local economy.
  7. Investment in future quality goods: even if a local producer is not producing foods as toothsome as those produced distantly, closing the feedback gap between producer and consumer makes producers better able to improve quality products over time.

To be sure, some or indeed all of these issues may be negated in an individual purchase. Ed may be comfortable buying cherries from a farm or co-operative in Washington because he knows the reputation of the farm, i.e., people he trusts assure him that they pay a living wage, employ sustainable growing techniques, and ship the cherries in a way that minimally affects their freshness or nutritional value. Accordingly, his decision to buy Washington cherries may indeed be ethically supportable on balance. But these are important considerations, and I think that the presumption ought to be for local goods.

On my final point: at one of the food shops where I worked, we would sometimes replace a product which we knew to be at its production-quality zenith in favor of an inferior product which we believed had the potential to be even better than the original product, because doing so supports the continued perfection of the industry.

A producer who is at the top of her game will be able to find other buyers, particularly in the artisanal food market, where demand often grows to the limits of supply (see, e.g., the Anchor Steam Brewing Co. chapters in Small Giants by Bo Burlingham). Supporting the next great producer, when done in such a way as to improve that producer’s product, raises the average quality of goods available to the market.

Washington cherries aren’t going anywhere: they are well-known for being delicious. Given the other issues in favor of eating locally, however, if a continual investment in local cherry growing over the course of two or three growing cycles could vitalize local cherry production, then perhaps it is worthwhile in the long term to eat substandard local cherries now, as long as one is taking all the necessary steps to improve local production in the future.

The other thing I wanted to talk about in relation to this is the idea that one should buy foods not native to where one is. It is an unnatural, but sadly widespread, presumption that there should be a constant supply of foods regardless of season, climate, or geography. This promotes a monoculture of foods which don’t spoil and transport easily in opposition to foods which are full of flavor but delicate. There’s a lot of agriculture within a few hours’ drive of New York City, and I would be willing to bet that there’s something locally produced — maybe not a cherry, but something — which is tiny and delicious in many of the same ways that a cherry is, and that is seasonally and geographically appropriate. Adapting old recipes to local produce is a grand old American tradition, after all.


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