Critics of local food miss the point

A few months ago, you may remember, there was a big kerfuffle in the press: it seems organic (i.e. grown without synthetic pesticides) vegetables are not, in fact, better for you. Oprah fell off her vegan diet and gained the weight back — apparently starving yourself cannot last.

And today, in the annals of bad science and bad journalism, this nugget: eating local is not necessarily better for the environment, in terms of greenhouse gases emitted by transportation as opposed to actual greenhouse heating. Well thanks, National Post, but you completely missed the point.

Eating local is about knowing, really knowing, what goes into your food — investing in your food supply and your community from the beginning. The local farmers, markets, processors and restaurants all benefit from reducing middlemen, lowering transportation costs and building a relationship with consumers — so that the price of a monoculture crop doesn’t plummet due to good weather somewhere else.

The strong community that comes from investing financial resources is another benefit, in that it encourages responsible management of the land that you live near. No more wasting prime crop land on animals, or throwing resources after keeping water out of a floodplain. Encroaching townships are held back, and vertical development is encouraged, keeping the food close and, in the process, building a more sustainable city.

The food you receive isn’t laced with the next worst chemical (i.e. BPA in canned goods except Eden brand). It saves you money and trouble. Yes, you have to pay a bit for a freezer to keep it cold, the jars and shelf space to store it, or even a premium to the (springing-up) greenhouses built to provide the ridiculous satisfaction of fresh farm tomatoes in January — and that may, in fact, produce more carbon dioxide than shipping it by barge across the ocean (though more and more, it’s shipped by plane).

For a small amount of work in August and September, or even better from spring to fall, you can eat cheaply and well for the winter. For a few dollars more on your grocery bill, you can know that if there’s a drought in Argentina, neither you nor the Argentinians will be deprived of food. You will have savings and gains, and they will directly affect your stomach and your wallet. And perhaps, if this isn’t asking too much, your whole town or city, even your whole watershed, even the watershed in Argentina where less demand could equal fewer pesticides used.

This doesn’t mean buying land and having a garden, just think twice about that fresh vegetable! Buy your citrus fruit in season, and enjoy good strawberries in the summer. Everyone knows the winter ones are no good anyway.

And really, in the wake of ClimateGate and birthers and all of the other nonsense being put forward as plausible fact today, are we to trust others, particularly mass media conglomerates, to tell us what to eat?

What to eat, the most basic animal decision, is painfully easy. If someone has the energy to pay attention to their body, the time to spend 10 minutes preparing a meal instead of 30 seconds, and the money to pay for at least medium-quality food (and my income is under the poverty line), they can eat like a king. The problem, in the first place, is that we started listening to marketing about this or that, why we should eschew the food directly in front of us to purchase something better.

Maybe it is better — I don’t care. My senses tell me that a garden tomato is 100 times better than one picked green in South America, shipped for weeks and sprayed with ethylene to turn red, because it was picked too green to ripen on its own. When I bite that sour tomato, I wonder why anyone would prefer it to a jar of summer-made tomato sauce, given the weight of social good behind a single jar, and the weight of environmental good to my own city and my own body just from knowing where my food comes from, and why.

Tessa Vanderhart is a former editor of the Manitoban, and currently interim program director at UMFM.