Our obsession with local food: nostalgia or necessity?

On CBC Radio’s the Current this morning, there was some discussion about whether or not today’s interest in resurrecting the family farm was merely nostalgia for a romanticized notion of the past or whether ditching the industrial farm was a real and sustainable plan for the future of our food system. Of course, I am inclined to believe the latter, but I do think this other point of view deserves some serious consideration. Is industrialization of the food system, agribusiness and 1000 plus acre farms truly the way to feed us all? Or are these things killing community, nature and gastronomy?

A recent article out of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania has found that most of the Green House Gas emissions associated with the industrial food system are made during the production of our food (including in producing fertilizer) rather than in the transportation of it. While at first I understood this to mean that the whole notion of food miles was perhaps misguided, after some thought, I believe that this research further supports the return to the family farm. Or, perhaps in today’s terms, the small-scale organic farm.

If GHGs are created in the production phase, then the least harmful foods would be foods that are the least produced. That is, foods that require the least intervention before they end up on your plate. So, organic small-scale farming might actually be the best in terms of GHGs because 1) there is no petrochemical fertilizer used 2) the food tends to be sold locally, by the farmer so there would be no large-scale industrial style cleaning of the produce and then refrigeration of the produce before it is sold. Michael Pollen writes about the immense kilowatts required to wash and refrigerate the baby greens that are grown in California and New Mexico before being shipped across North America all year-round.

Of course, a more rigorous analysis of the various factors would be required to be more conclusive in the analysis, but this is how I interpret the study at 3rd blush.

On a personal note, I made the most fabulous locavore dinner last night. Grilled local asparagus, eggplant and red pepper (from a greenhouse) and haloumi cheese with a crusty loaf and Ontario strawberry cake for dessert. Herbs from my garden. Wow. Of course, the olive oil was from Portugal — but I’m not against global trade!