Science, Tech & Environment

Local eating in a global world

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There are a lot of buzzwords that come up during conversations about eating responsibly: organic, local, heirloom. Those terms are typically associated with food that is good -- both for us and the earth.

But how far does local or organic get us in terms of building a globally sustainable food system?

James McWilliams is associate professor of history at Texas State University and author of "Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly."

In the book and recently on "The Takeaway," McWilliams asserted that there is a "creeping fundamentalism" about the eating local movement.

"I certainly support the local food movement and I certainly support the organic movement, and I just think that they're just part of the answer rather than THE answer.

"There's room for more voices in this debate, and achieving sustainable agriculture is really going to require a more global perspective in many cases, and also a portfolio approach," said McWilliams.

Victor Davis Hanson, a former California raisin farmer and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, agrees with McWilliams.

"One thing about local food ... we can talk about tomatoes, but that's not the end of the story," said Hanson. You can't have local grapes or local nectarines or local plumbs because they won't grow in a greenhouse. It's also a question of choice. If somebody is living in Michigan or in Wisconsin, in January they're not going to be able to have fresh grapes or fresh plumb.

"So if people believe in localism -- and I agree that the goals are noble -- then they have to realize that they're going to have to curtail their choices a bit. They're going to have to say, 'for ideological reasons, or environmental reasons, or labor reasons ... I choose not to have a fresh plum sent in from Chile or I do not want grapes from Mexico.'"

Davis adds that there's a romanticizing of farming that is contributing to the eating local and organic foods movement, but that farming has changed so drastically that those notions no longer apply.

Hanson believes that the romanticizing also keeps us from the real issue: "If we get pulled into the romantic vision of the local system, what we forget is that we can have a much greater impact on the environment -- we can lower the carbon footprint of our diet -- by eating the right kinds of foods rather than necessarily worrying about where the food came from.

"If the average meat eater gave up meat once a week, that would be the equivalent of eating all of your food local."

"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.

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