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Liberated from gruel and mush

The locavores championing seasonal food fail to see how food innovations have made us happier and healthier.

Various Authors

Topics Politics

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Perhaps the most ludicrous claim made by some ‘locavores’ – activists who argue that food produced near final consumers is superior in a myriad of ways to distant imports – is that the globalised food-supply chain is guilty of crimes against seasonality. Limiting our intake of fresh produce to whatever can be obtained locally at certain times of the year (and preserving the surplus for the remainder), we are told, will not only help atone for agri-business’ fossil fuel-driven ways and constrain us to live within regional ecological limits, but it will also make fresh local food more enjoyable when it is available. As one locavore puts it, ‘deprivation leads to greater appreciation’.

The emphasis on local seasonality by food activists, however, is problematic on several counts. For instance, why do militant locavores limit themselves to local seasonality when they could further insist on truly ‘native’ produce and livestock? Seen in this light, North American agriculture should be essentially limited to turkeys, farmed salmon and a few other fish and shellfish, sunflowers, blueberries, cranberries, Jerusalem artichokes and some varieties of squashes. (Though the really hardcore North American locavore could go even further by reverting to problematic native crops such as sumpweed, goosefoot, knotweed, maygrass and little barley that were replaced about one thousand years ago by Mexican imports such as corn and beans.)

Basic logic aside, limiting our food intake to local productions is a one-way ticket to chronic famines and malnutrition. Having in most cases no direct experience with massive crop failures, locavores typically ignore the historical and contemporary toll taken by factors ranging from droughts, floods, heavy rains and frost to hail, windstorms, earthquakes and tsunamis, to say nothing of insect pests, rodents, soil erosion and plant and animal diseases. Yet, the historical evidence on the issue is unequivocal. It was only the development of cost-effective long-distance transportation (primarily the railroad and the steamship) that finally eradicated famines through the large-scale movement of foodstuff from regions that had experienced good harvests to those that had struggled with mediocre ones.

Chronic malnutrition was another recurring feature of past local foodsheds. For instance, most Western Medieval European peasants constantly struggled with deficient calorie and protein intakes and were also often short on lipids (fats), calcium and vitamins A, C, and D. The standard fare of an eighteenth-century German rural labourer was ‘gruel and mush’, a soupy combination of grains and lentils. Until the mid-1800s, most Europeans remained in a chronic state of undernourishment while only the upper class could expect a daily intake of white bread and meat. Of course, peasants the world over always supplemented their crops and livestock with undomesticated local plants and animals. Some of these could be highly sought after (say, migrating birds and fishes or wild berries), but they typically displayed a few flaws when compared to cultivated varieties, such as lower yields and nutritional value, less interesting taste and reliability, and greater difficulty to harvest, store and preserve. ‘Famine foods’ were known throughout the world and comprised a range of grasses, leaves, bark, clay and dirt – typically consumed in the form of cake, paste, soup or ashes – to say nothing of leather and human flesh. Ironically, at the instigation of ‘locavore heroes’ such as the Danish chef René Redzepi, some famine foods of old, such as seaweed and birch sap, are now at the heart of an alleged ‘culinary revolution’. In a world that truly embraced locavorism, they would quickly be downgraded from ‘curiously authentic’ fares to necessities when the regular food ran low.

Far from celebrating seasonality, our ancestors did their best to escape it by any means possible. At first, only very wealthy individuals could afford to build, staff and maintain heated greenhouses. One of the most famous was Dunmore Park in Scotland where producing a single pineapple in the late eighteenth century was as costly as buying a new coach – about £1,900 in today’s money! In later decades, the rise of an increasingly wealthy urban middle class resulted in ever more significant local attempts to defy seasonality. Perhaps the most celebrated past ‘urban farmers’ were the Parisian maraîchers who, through the use of about one sixth of the city’s area, supporting technologies (greenhouses, cloches and cold frames) and very long hours, grew more than 100,000 tons of produce annually in the late nineteenth century. As two Parisian producers observed in 1845, far from adapting to seasonality, it was their profession’s ability to defeat it – which truly began with their ability to grow green asparagus all year round in the 1820s – that significantly enhanced its prestige among the rest of the population. The greatest ambition of all maraîchers, they wrote, was to find ways to be the first to deliver a specific produce to the market in any given year. Unlike today’s locavores, these producers also did their best to export their crops to distant urban markets such as London.

With each significant advance in transportation and food-preservation technologies, however, urban food-production in advanced economies was progressively relegated to more rural areas. This process was further driven by other factors, such as increases in urban land values that mandated their conversion to more profitable activities; better economic opportunities for urban and peri-urban agricultural workers; the advent of the automobile, which drastically curtailed the local availability of urban horse manure; and diseases that could be traced back to or affected urban livestock.

Probably the most underappreciated benefit of the global food-supply chain and its defeat of local seasonality is the role it played in transforming human bodies. In the words of Nobel laureate economist Robert W Fogel and his collaborators, ‘in most if not quite all parts of the world, the size shape, and longevity of the human body have changed more substantially, and much more rapidly, during the past three centuries than over many previous millennia’. Not only do most humans now live significantly longer and healthier lives than their ancestors, but social inequalities have also been radically reduced in the process. For instance, some American data suggest that the average consumption of protein, vitamins, and minerals is now virtually identical among poor and upper middle-class children, in both cases being comparably excessive and well above recommended norms for most children. (In other words, too many kids eat too much.)

Of course, nutrition alone does not explain all positive trends and advances in sanitation (from improved water supplies to sewage systems), medicine (from antibiotics and disinfectants to hand washing and sterilisation in hospitals), and food preservation technologies (especially refrigeration, but also packaging) obviously played their part. Yet, many infectious diseases that plagued previous generations, especially those afflicting children, were made worse by deficiencies in calories, protein, minerals and vitamins. Furthermore, none of the technological advances that made current living standards possible would have taken place in the absence of long-distance trade and urbanisation, which liberated countless bright and entrepreneurial minds from the drudgery of subsistence farming.

Human beings are the only species that colonised most of our planet’s ecosystems without first undergoing significant physiological changes. We achieved this not by learning to live within the limits of various local environments, but by profoundly transforming them and by addressing their deficiencies through long-distance trade. The locavore’s desire to live according to local seasonality is a regressive delusion held by people who take the benefits of our globalised food-supply chain for granted without understanding that there can be no substitute for it. The bottom line is that while our minds might care where our food comes from, our bodies really don’t, and will not reward us for providing them a less-nutritious diet.

Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu are the authors of The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet, published by PublicAffairs. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

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Topics Politics

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