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October 23, 2008

Don't Blame the Locavores
Locavores aren't really the problem. It's true that they come from California and that - hoo, boy - is it a pleasure eating all year round there. But even Michael Pollan emphasizes seasonality as a major component of eating locally - he doesn't expect everyone to stop eating fruits and vegetables in the dead of winter. And let's give him a break - he did live (and garden) for many years outside of New Haven, so he knows of Northeastern winters.

But Ezra is right that Locavorism, for all its many and varied benefits, isn't the basis for a national food policy (it simply doesn't scale) and isn't by itself a cure for the massive carbon footprint of the food industry. Which is why Pollan never mentions the L-word in his NYT manifesto (in fact, as he himself points out in a Q&A on the NYT website, Pollan barely uses the word "organic"). At least in this case, Pollan is not trying to find a way to get everyone to eat food produced within 100 miles of their home year round. He is indeed trying to eliminate the industry's dependence on fossil fuel - which he says right up front by observing that "when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases."

That's why he talks at length about "resolarizing" agriculture, i.e. "we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine." Most of his manifesto describes how agriculture can be reformed to reduce the use of petrochemical-based pesticides as well as the overuse of heavy machinery on the farm. Now, he also refers to reregionalization, which I suppose is a backdoor attempt to let the camel's nose under the tent (mixing metaphors is fun!) But his main point on encouraging local food production is really about decentralizing the food production system. He advocates eliminating the enormous centralized food processing centers that dot the country and not just the cross-country transportation of the end product. Does it mean allowing New Jersey to be more competitive with California as a supplier to New York? Yes. Does it also mean banning California produce from New York supermarkets? I think not.

And while we're on the subject of the Pollan Plan - let's talk about subsidies. Polllan (and many others) want to dismantle the monoculture subsidy system where corn, soy and wheat are kings and fruits and vegetables are "specialty crops". But I think we can all agree that farm subsidies are and will continue to be crucial - it's a matter of reprioritizing. Which is what Pollan argues for as well.

The greatest danger to reforming food policy is that the whole enterprise will be dismissed as being run by extremists from California (or, even worse, Vermont). Which is why it's so important that a guy like Michael Pollan was allowed to take over the New York Times Magazine for a week. And why it's so important to distinguish the Locavore ideal (which most Americans can only assymptotically approach) from the practical implications of eliminating big agriculture's addiction to oil (which we as a country have to do).

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Blogger charliereece said...

Knowing Pollan's locavore schtick, it seems a bit of a stretch to say that he mostly raised reregionalization as a way to break up the centralization of the food production system. That said, you're certainly right about not blaming the locavores. Hell, I try to be one myself -- or at least my lovely wife tries to make me one!

Blogger tlaskawy said...

Well, that's the camel's nose argument - that he's trying somewhat to disguise his locavorean program. And that's Ezra Klein beef - that he ends up going into contortions to do it. But I still think his reregionalization isn't backed into, but is a fundamental element in weaning us off of a fossil-fuel driven food system.

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