Eat Your View

So which side of 14th Street should we shop on? The south side, where Whole Foods has planted the flag of industrial organic food, or across the street at the Union Square farmer’s market? The last time I was in that neighborhood, I stopped by the meat counter at Whole Foods and was delighted to see they’re now carrying grass-finished beef, the only kind I buy. It’s one of the most sustainably grown foods you can eat. But I was dismayed to discover that the grass-finished beef at Whole Foods had traveled all the way from New Zealand.

I walked across the street to the farmer’s market and found two stalls offering grass-finished beef from the Hudson Valley. Oddly enough, the New York State beef, which had traveled less than 90 miles from pasture to market, cost more than the New Zealand beef that had come half way around the world. (I’m guessing that Whole Foods buys so much of this type of beef from New Zealand — where it is the rule, not the exception — that it gets a deal; also, the cost of processing local, artisanal meats in an era when the Department of Agriculture won’t support small slaughterhouses adds about a dollar a pound.) In this case, buying local means paying more. Is it worth it?

In this case, and in many others where we get to choose between a local product and a faraway organic one, the answer is yes. I hasten to add “for me.” How you choose to vote with your fork depends on what values matter to you most. In general, if what you care most about is avoiding pesticides in your diet, and keeping pesticides out of the environment, then the choice is clear: you want to buy organic whenever possible. Simple enough. But there are other issues to weigh, and depending on your priorities, these may be just as important as the pesticide issue.

Also, it’s important to realize that the choice is not necessarily either/or — local food is very often organic in all but name (and often even in name), and even Whole Foods occasionally carries local food (but not often enough — more on that later). It’s also not a choice between the Alimentary Good and the Alimentary Evil. Both choices are good ones — we’re lucky to have them — and both represent a better agriculture and demonstrably better food. So no need to agonize about the question, or to demonize Big Organic.

That said, here are my top three arguments for buying local:

  1. The food is generally fresher, and in produce, fresher means tastier and more nutritious. The longer produce spends in a truck, the more tired it gets; many of its nutrients — vitamins, anti-oxidents, phytochemicals of all kinds — deteriorate over time. Typically the produce in the farmer’s market has been picked that morning or the day before. All things being equal, any organic produce is often tastier and more nutritious than conventional produce, but after it’s sat on a truck for five days, it may be inferior to that fresh conventionally grown carrot.
  2. Local food generally leaves a much lighter environmental footprint. The average fruit or vegetable on an American plate has traveled 1500 miles from the farm, and a lot of diesel fuel has been burned to get it there. Local food has much lower energy costs, and as the era of cheap energy draws to a close, eating local will be more important than ever. Before you buy the Prius, start shopping at your farmer’s market.
  3. To buy local is an act of conservation — of the land, of agriculture and of the local economy, all of which are threatened by the globalization of food. Anyone who prizes agricultural landscapes, and worries about sprawl destroying them, should buy local whenever possible. It will do more to defend agricultural landscapes than writing checks to conservation organizations and land trusts does. To buy grass-finished beef from the Hudson Valley or New England is to help protect that beautiful quilted landscape of green pastures tucked into forests and stitched with stone walls. That landscape was created not by the Hudson School painters, but by farmers and their animals and, in turn, by the eaters of those animals. The very best way to defend it is not to have the land trust mow the place to keep it looking the way it should (as is happening in many places), but to keep alive the food chain that created it in the first place. Otherwise the landscape will revert to second-growth forest or housing developments.

The Europeans have a bumper sticker that makes this point in three short words: Eat your view! If you want to preserve those views, then eat from the food chain that created them.

There are others good arguments for buying local whenever you can (please share yours with me), and I’ll address them in future posts. I also plan to offer a list of resources for buying local, as several readers have asked. Stay tuned, and eat your view.