I was reading through Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu's provocative book The Locavore's Dilemma (I highly recommend it to readers interested in giving their critical thinking skills a workout) when I stumbled onto a fascinating question. I'm paraphrasing:
If we decide to embrace locavorism across the country, how many millions of acres of forest and wildlife habitat should we therefore sacrifice to do so?
I never really thought about this aspect of the local food debate, but this is a serious paradox. It's a terrible conundrum for locavores who also care about the environment.
Here's why: You don't want to use land that just happens to be located within 100 miles (or whatever arbitrary distance you choose) of a given major population center. You want to use the most productive and most efficient land you can for farming. By using the most productive farmland available, almost regardless of where it is, you'll be able to use less land per unit of food.
Think back to 200 years ago. Back then, we pretty much didn't have a transportation infrastructure to transport anything... anywhere. It's quite striking to read how it could take weeks, even months, to get from, say, Boston to Philadelphia--a drive that you can do today in a matter of hours. And in wintertime, forget about it. (Read, for example David McCollough's excellent biography of John Adams, or his recent book 1776, for striking anecdotes on how impossibly time-consuming travel was in the early days of the USA).
In those days, by definition, all food had to be local. That's why we essentially clear-cut all of North America, denuding it of trees, habitat, whatever. Habitat didn't matter to anyone back then, simply because people needed to use all land--even the most rocky, unfit, and poorest quality land--to feed themselves. And keep in mind: in 1800 we had a measly population of just 5.3 million, 1/58th of our current population of 309 million!
Whether we liked it or not, we were all locavores back then. Every community needed to grow whatever it could to survive.
Enter our transportation system, which started initially with the use of waterways and canal systems, and then with the dramatic expansion of railroads. In a matter of just a few decades, you could begin to get food not just locally, but from practically anywhere across the east, south and midwest regions of the continent. Suddenly, that crappy, rocky soil in Vermont, with its short growing season and unpredictable early and late frosts, just wasn't worth plowing any more.
This is why, when you drive across Vermont, New Hampshire, and Upstate New York, you see a tremendous amount of forest. Everywhere. That's land that long ago was completely stripped of trees to be farmed, but has since fully returned to basic forest habitat. Yes, of course, there is also some agriculture in these regions, but it's centered mostly around foods that these regions produce best (to give a few examples, apples, dairy and sweet corn among many others). There's no longer any necessity for each of these regions to grow everything they eat, and that's why they no longer use all the available land to do so.
Instead, we can use far more productive farmland in the midwest, in California--or in other places all over the world--to grow far more food with far less land.
So what's important to you? Locavorism? Or prudent, efficient land use? Are you willing to sacrifice forest and habitat in order that you and others can eat local?
Readers, please share your thoughts!
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