Devin Ellsworth

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Stop Eating Rice

Ok you don’t have to stop eating rice, but I did want to get your attention.  I will explain toward the end why I say this, but let us begin by revisiting a common topic on this blog; local food.  There is so much to be said about local food.  It is such a buzz word these days.  Everyone is talking about it.  I get a lot of questions at work all of a sudden, about who sources our products.  About local honey or produce specifically.  People are becoming more aware, which is good.  However I think people, while having good intentions, still are unsure of what they are really becoming aware of.

As I mentioned in an earlier post this year, local food is important, but it cannot be the only answer.  It is not a silver bullet, and cannot be decreed as a mantra.  “I try to eat only local.”  This is an increasingly common statement these days, but it must be fully evaluated.  With books such as “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver, where she and her family attempted to eat as locally as possible for a year, largely growing everything they ate, people seem to think that this is the goal. It is certainly true, that if we all sourced our own food entirely, we could come to a more sustainable system.  No question.  And it stands to reason that by this logic, any attempt to eat more locally sourced food will at some consistent rate, reduce our impact and increase our sustainability.

What people may or may not realize are the sacrifices that must be made if we eat only locally.  If you live in warm climates with better growing seasons, like Kingsolver in her book, then the sacrifices are smaller, but still apparent.  If you live in the bitter cold of the Northeast or the Midwest, the sacrifices only increase.  Let’s look at a few.  For example, if you live anywhere in the continental United States, get ready to stop eating bananas, mangoes, pineapples, coconuts, papayas, and the like.  Living in Massachusetts, there is no such thing as a local banana.  So that’s gone.  Same with a local orange.  Doesn’t exist.

Surely those are big sacrifices, but they are also a bit obvious.  Produce is easy to determine where it was grown, and it is kind of the poster child for local food.  Whole products, like produce and meat, are easy enough to imagine whether or not they are local.  But what about a product that derives from whole produce?  These days everyone loves to cook with extra virgin olive oil (or EVOO as the pretentious snoots call it, myself included).  But if you eat locally say goodbye to your precious olive oil.  Most olives are grown in the Mediterranean region.  There is no local olive oil in the northern United States.

A huge example that many people do not consider is rice.  Rice is such a basic staple, and while people will avoid buying out of season produce in the winter (shipped from California or Mexico usually), they will blindly grab for a bag of rice, probably grown in either China or India.  It is true that rice is grown in the US, and globally we produce about 12%.  However, much of that rice is grown for use in alcohol or processed goods.  And of the states that do produce rice, all are in the South.  So again, if you live in Boston, say goodbye to rice.

I do not wish to imply that eating locally is a futile pursuit.  It certainly has many benefits, and by all means, I encourage all to eat as locally as they can.  In the summer, I try to get all my produce from farmer’s markets or a CSA.  But again, while it is part of the puzzle, and will help us to be more sustainable, I do not see an entirely local food system ever returning to the United States.  I do not ever see Americans giving up bananas or olive oil, and certainly not rice.  So while an effort to eat more locally is still admirable and helpful, I advise you to think twice about how strictly to keep to this ideal.  Maybe buying that out of season produce is still better than substituting those calories for a processed good or an animal product that has a larger negative impact.  Eat locally wherever possible, but use other rubrics in combination when choosing what to eat.


Leave a Comment!

Hey Dev — Have you ever been to Burlington, VT? We were up there last spring and I absolutely LOVED it, and I think you would too (it reminded me a lot of Berkeley). One of the things that impressed me the most was that almost every restaurant we went to boasted local food — for example a pizza place that gets all of its produce and meats from local farms, amazing Vermont cheeses, and of course, a good portion of the beer was from small local breweries. Everything tasted fresh as well, a nice change from some of the unripe produce we get here (don’t get a California girl started about the horror of buying avocados in Boston). It would be interesting to be up there in the winter and see how the food options changed depending on the season. Anyway, if you ever have the chance, definitely check out Burlington… and I’ll have several restaurant recommendations!

This is a great discussion with many great points being made. I will attempt to summarize my feelings.

I think you make some valid points, Zack, about the increased ability to grow a wider range of crops with aquaponics and greenhouses. This is certainly encouraging and helps one envision a more sustainable food system. However, I am left with a few concerns. First off, you talk of analogues to products we currently enjoy and the idea of people’s palates changing. Maybe I am being cynical but at least in my opinion, I feel it is realistic, to say that I just don’t see people giving up these products. Sure our palates adapted to include the new exotic items, but it is sooooo much easier to give a new product to someone than it is to take it away. I do not realistically see demand waning for bananas or olive oil or rice. Likewise, I don’t see people at the grocery store saying “oh paw paws, they taste essentially the same, sounds good.”

Again maybe it is cynicism, but working at a grocery store you would be surprised at how little people know about their food and honestly how little they care. It is utterly shocking on a daily basis to hear the things people complain about and the complete ignorance to the very basics of food that people show. Imagining these people shifting to wild rice instead of white rice is hard to believe. People shop primarily on price, even at Trader Joe’s, and of course taste.

I think your point may be more that people will be forced to switch to alternatives, as you close your argument with a reference to increased fuel costs making the transportation of food no longer cost-effective. This may be more likely, however I think this is important to address as well because it raises a couple issues. Let me first posit an idea and maybe you or anyone can respond:

There are certainly many benefits to local food beyond sustainability, but that seems to be the biggest call to action, so I posit this scenario; if we can get to a point globally where our transportation infrastructure is completely sustainable (the picture of this being hypothetically that we generate all our energy demands from wind, solar, and other renewable sources, and run electric cars, ships, trains, trucks, etc) does that not make local food less important? Then is there really anything wrong with buying bananas or pineapples?

That brings up my second point about the sustainability issue of local food. As found in a research paper and I believe talked about in this blog, looking at an individual piece of food, on average, the transportation of that product throughout its life-cycle, amounts to just 11% of its GHG impact. I am not shrugging off 11% as meaningless. However, what this does mean is that it is not the whole picture. The vast majority of emissions come from producing that food, be it machinery on the farm, fertilizer use, animal byproducts, or simply what type of food it is (meat, produce, etc).

I think my overwhelming point is that in my opinion, local food is getting too much attention when we should be talking about the types of food we consume, and more specifically the way in which that food is produced. I think I’d rather have people buying organic rice from India, than conventionally grown wild rice from MN, that uses pesticides and fertilizers.

Switching gears and talking about everyone growing their own food, it is true that in cities that is not feasible. I was speaking more romantically, if you will, conceiving a perfect world; “If we all just grew our own food, we’d be more sustainable.” Practically speaking, the way we live today this is simply not possible. It also raises a good question, which I don’t think anyone has a truly good answer for, but I will propose it nonetheless. What is the geographical limit of “local” food? At what point is something no longer local?

I have said a lot so I will wait for responses before I write more, but thank you all for the comments, I am enjoying this fruitful exchange of ideas.

Yes, I was talking of a shift in pallet out of necessity, rather than only choice. The local/organic/slow foods movements are largely fueled and participated in by those with the means to choose, which I would doubt is the majority of people in this country. But, on the other hand, the adoption of the alternative foods movements, as I see it, has largely been driven by a handful of charismatic, hip thinkers such as Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin. If one of these types of figures were to glamorize the eschewing of any faraway grown food and even make it hip to explore the wealth of overlooked native foods, I would think the movements would follow behind them.

And really, I think the reason more people don’t think about the native foods and even many of the exotic foods that can be grown close by, is out of habit of eating the familiar and a general lack of knowledge about what’s possible.

As an example: I had never heard of wild ramps until about a year ago. They look odd and it is not clear by looking at them what parts of them are edible and how they should be prepared. But, after reading their description as having a flavor like garlic and onion combined and learning how they can be used, I bought a bunch and will get them again when they are in season this spring.

As to the point that transportation energy is one of the lower shares of energy input to produce a given food and, hence, that alternative energy could diminish local food’s importance, I think you are partly right. Your energy figure may be true on the average, but with the seasonal fluctuations in local availability of any food and the wide range of production methods and accompanying range of energy needs, I find it hard to believe that this figure applies at all times, in all places, and to all foods.

But that aside, I personally feel that the reduced energy part of the local foods is both the weakest argument for it and least important result of it. I feel there is much more power and benefit to be gained in the triangle of connections made between producer, consumer, and the land. First hand knowledge of how your food is produced and who produces it is a very powerful thing, something that cannot be replicated when food is brought in from locations the average consumer will never visit. I contend that when people see and feel those connections, they are much more likely to care about the plight of the local farming community and the land that produces their food and be much less okay with social and environmental threats to them. This is why I participate and believe in the local foods movement and as more people experience these connections I think it will become the guiding force of the movement.

Many commenters here have mentioned that it is impossible to satisfy food demands locally in large cities. I think that is false and I point to a couple of examples. First, the city of Detroit is in the process of converting vast swaths of its blighted land into urban farms. Many have already been completed, but the largest, still in the planning phase, is this one http://www.hantzfarmsdetroit.com/ Large sections of abandoned houses and other buildings exist in pretty much every major US city; a new concept of what a city is and how it is configured could arise. Add to that the diminishing value of suburbs as fuel prices rise, and suddenly even greater tracts of land close to cities could become available. Second, you can produce quite a lot of food in a very small space. Growing Power in Milwaukee grows 1 million pounds of food per year on 3 acres of greenhouse space. They have recently gotten approval to build a five story vertical farm http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/11/vertical-farms-realized-growing-power-launches-5-story-expansion/ and there are many more concepts for even more ambitious projects around the world, such as the ones listed in this article, though none yet have come to fruition http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/04/vertical-diagonal-farm-in-new-york.php

I don’t agree with your statement that if everyone grew their own food, a la Kingsolver, it would be sustainable. What about the high-density downtowns of major cities? I can’t think of a way to grow your own in those scenarios.

Of course, your point is not that, but of the limitations of local food.

Putting it all under glass still couldn’t be done in a hyperlocal manner, though, due to the cost of urban real estate. But it’s a good idea anyway.

I must disagree with your premise for three major reasons. Firstly, Aquaponics and other greenhouse techniques make virtually any food possible in cold or arid or other harsh climates. I have seen bananas fruiting in winter in the Como Zoo Conservatory in St. Paul. Tilapia, a favorite aquaponics fish native to South America, Africa, and other tropical areas, is as we speak being raised in Milwaukee on a commercial scale. The examples go on and on and these systems can be scaled to commercial size and provide the same amount of food per acre or more, than conventional methods.

Secondly, for many of the foods people like to import, there are domestic analogues that could be used instead. Pap Paws taste like banana custard and can be used in place of foreign bananas. White Rice could be given up for wild rice, which grows in northern Minnesota. Kentucky Coffee Tree seeds can take the place of tropical grown coffee and are non-caffeinated. I know of no domestic substitute for olive oil, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were one.

And that brings me to my third point: people’s pallets can change. Until advanced refrigeration and modern transportation, many of the exotic foods people are now accustomed to were simply not available to the masses. People committed enough to local foods can do without anything that cannot be grown locally, and those that are unwilling to change will soon be made to through raising fuel and fertilizer prices.

I was mostly being a bit snarky, but I am glad to read this information. Alaska actually has one of the stronger buy local/eat local movements I’ve seen. Lots of hunters share meat, fruits and vegetables grow fast and gigantic in size, and are marked in local markets with an “Alaska Grown” sticker.

In the rural area in which I now live, I hope to see an increase in greenhouse growing and aquaponics. In the meanwhile, I’ll continue to enjoy my locally grown potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower with my salmon, halibut and moose meat.

Yum!

My problem is that here in Alaska, our diets would be very, very very restrictive. Lots of veggies, but not much else.