Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why Local? Why indeed.



A recent article in the Toronto Star brought to my attention a book called The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet. This book was written by a couple of academics, Pierre Desrochers, an associate geography professor at the University of Toronto, and his wife, Hiroko Shimizu, a policy analyst. In an interview with the Star they were asked what prompted them to take on this subject. This was Desrochers’ answer,

We attended a talk where a speaker described Japanese people as the most parasitic on earth because they import more food than anyone else per capita. My wife, born and raised in Tokyo, pointed out that the Japanese contribute a lot in terms of technology but don’t have enough room to grow food. Historically they have gone through periods of starvation and malnourishment. So what’s wrong with specializing in other stuff and importing food from countries with plenty of agricultural land? She prompted me to write a policy paper that turned into the book.
So the book was prompted by a perceived slight against someone’s country of origin? My first red flag; they have an axe to grind.

In any event, I am not going to go in to great detail about this because another blogger, Lenore Newman, did an excellent job of rebutting this book in her blog Sand and Feathers. I’m not one of those people who like to negatively review a book for which I have only read cursory parts (I do intend to read it in its entirety); so I will let Lenore’s words (and expertise) do the work for me. 

However, in the reviews, interviews, and the articles that I have read regarding this book, the concept of food is approached from the abstract notion that it is simply fuel; mere calories to prevent humans from dying of hunger. Strictly speaking, this is correct; however, food is so much more than this. Now, I don’t want to delve too deeply into touchy-feely ideas of food. This is the part of the Desrochers/Shimizu argument that I do actually concur with (along with Lenore Newman): don’t go local just because it ‘feels right’. Don’t try to take all we have learned about agriculture and all the amazing innovation we have developed to make our food more efficient and throw it all away to ‘go back to the land’. I agree that this neo-luddite approach to local food is unfounded and as Lenore Newman argues, does more harm than good for local food movements.

Nevertheless, what I will address (and admittedly there is some mention of it in their book) is the social and cultural element of food production. That is to say, there is an intrinsic value in people working together within a network toward some beneficial goal for the community (often called social capital). The strength of the network, the commonality of its goals, and to some extent, the comfort of being within one’s one community has a value. Social capital can lead to an actual economic output and is a means to strengthen the very democratic process. I believe that local food production creates just this sort of social capital. 

Then there is the real crux of the matter. Academics argue policy, but ask someone who actually knows a thing or two about food, say a chef for example. This leads to the oft overlooked issue of flavour. My mother-in-law grows tomatoes in her garden from some old seed source. I’m not sure what species they are, but these tomatoes will knock your socks off. The grocery store tomatoes are bred for resilience in travel. They have no flavour (and there have been studies to prove they have less nutrients as well). Why, oh why, would you want to eat a sub-par tomato when you can have a sublime tomato? The Locavore’s Dilemma attempts to sell us the idea that globalized food production gives consumers more choice, but does it really? It gives us more of the same. 

This leads me to another book I’m currently working my way through; The Oysters of Locmariaquer, which was written by Eleanor Clark in 1964. It is a quiet, unassuming text that describes a now extinct way of life in the Northwest Coast of France for which a very unique species of oyster lurks in the estuaries called a Belon. This oyster had been carefully cultivated since the nineteenth century (and eaten wild since Roman times). Interestingly this book proves some of “The Locavore’s Dilemma” arguments and also counters them. The special ‘flat oyster’ that was so carefully cultivated in this region is now extinct (at least commercially). It was decimated by parasites in the 1970’s and now pacific oysters, imported from Japan take their place. The parasites, it might be argued, were a result of  foreign oysters (both Pacific and Portuguese) that were starting to be introduced in the region during the late 1960’s. The foreign species grow faster and travel better. They are also more resistant to disease then the delicate Belons. It could be suggested, that in an effort to go global, the local industry was destroyed. Or to counter that, the attempt to keep these unique oysters local made them vulnerable. As the Locavore's Dilemma argued, they put all their food eggs in one regional basket, thus elevating this risk. Either way, a gastronomic tragedy. (These things can go both ways; there are apparently a sub-species of the Belons that were introduced off the coast of Maine in the 1970's - a real American delicacy.)

Now there is nothing terribly unique in a biological sense about the oysters that are cultivated in the estuaries of Brittany. Eleanor Clark describes these oysters as the most delicious on earth. Oysters, she suggested are all the same thing. What makes one better than another is the place in which they grow; their terroir.
Terroir. Now, that is an interesting word. It is the concept that a specific place imparts a specific quality to the things that are grown there or produced there. Proper Parma prosciutto would not taste the same in any other mountain air than that which it is typically hung in. Many of the most famous locally baked breads be they from San Francisco or Paris, have the same man-made ingredients and recipes, but the yeast that inhabits the starters are unique to the area. Cows eat a certain type of grass that requires a certain type of mineral from a certain type of glacier and then you have a unique flavoured milk that goes into a unique flavoured cheese. These are the kinds of things that chefs revere. Some of these food stuffs travel well, say like Paremsan cheese or cured ham from Spain. I have no problem with the globalization of prepared foods such as these. The careful and traditional means in creating these wonders are rarely tampered with, so economies of scale do not get out of control, thus quality stays high. I couldn’t live without Parmegiano Reggiano, Pugliese chillies, or Sicilian sardines. However, much of the fresh produce that you can grow or acquire from your own local terroir will always taste better, fresher and sweeter. I can attest to this from my own experience and my empirical approach to cooking. Locally grown, fresh asparagus is a different (and exceedingly superior) vegetable than out-of-season imported stuff. This is simply a fact. Why would a consumer want any less?

So what’s my point? Anthony John, an organic farmer here in Southern Ontario, was asked what he thinks about global food production, i.e. if everyone farmed organically like him, there wouldn’t be enough food to feed everyone. Anthony’s reply: I’m just one part of a larger system. In other words, he’s not advocating that everyone goes local and organic. He’s saying that it needs to be an important part of the system. The problem with Desrochers and Shimizu’s book is they assume that us locavores have an ‘all or nothing’ approach. This is simply not true. I just think we need a better relationship with our food; a relationship that is not so dysfunctional that we end up with obese, diabetic people who don’t know how to cook. We need to understand and be in touch with our local food production like the oyster farmers of Brittany in the 1960’s. Take a cue from our kids. When they help in the garden, they are more likely to eat their veggies. Food that is shipped cheaply to your super-sized grocery store has less value to a consumer and is more likely to end up in the trash bin at the end of the day. When food is cheap - we waste it. Locavores value their food. The policy discussion around food doesn't seem to bring this issue in focus - what is the perceived value of food? To many consumers, it is endless, easily accessible and cheap - the only work required: toss it in your shopping cart. We would buy less if we wasted less.  Food is precious. When we don't have a proper relationship with it, we lose sight of this. Of all the things to consider, perhaps, that’s the most important of all.

Post Script:

After re-reading this post, it got me thinking about the 'value' of food and I remembered a story that Thomas Keller recounts in his French Laundry cookbook. This tidily sums up what I'm trying to express about how we value food. Thomas Keller:

One day, I asked my rabbit purveyor to show me how to kill, skin and eviscerate a rabbit. I had never done this, and I figured if I was going to cook rabbit, I should know it from its live state through the slaughtering, skinning and butchering, and then the cooking. The guy showed up with twelve live rabbits. He hit one over the head with a club, knocked it out, slit its throat, pinned it to a board, skinned it---the whole bit. Then he left.


....I clutched the first rabbit. I had a hard time killing it. It screamed. Rabbits scream and this one screamed loudly. Then it broke its leg trying to get away. It was terrible.


The next ten rabbits didn't scream and I was quick with the kill, but that first screaming rabbit not only gave me a lesson in butchering, it also taught me about waste. Because killing those rabbits had been such an awful experience, I would not squander them. It's very easy to go to a grocery store and buy meat, then accidentally overcook it and throw it away. A cook sauteing a rabbit loin, who (distractedly) took that loin a little too far, doesn't hesitate, just dumps it in the garbage and fires another. Would that cook, I wonder, have let his attention stray from that loin had he killed the rabbit himself. No. Should a cook squander anything, ever?


It was a simple lesson.

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