Veggie of the Week - The Food Less Traveled
sponsored by Coleman Farms
They say that the average American meal has travelled over fifteen hundred miles before it gets eaten. Not really the meal, of course, but its ingredients. Since California is a huge net exporter of produce, the figure may be somewhat lower here than the US average, but a look through your supermarket will reveal a lot of stuff - fruit, fish, produce and particularly processed goods - that has done a lot of miles (and when shopping today I noticed hothouse tomatoes imported from British Columbia, in mid-Summer. Why do I suspect subsidies?). This is particularly true in the off season, when it's not uncommon to find fruit from Chile, six thousand plus miles, and from New Zealand, some thousands of miles farther still. Favoring foreign cheese and wine (or beer) nudges the fooodometer up more, how far depending on your rate of consumption.
Why is this interesting? There are obvious ecological and economic implications (and these are not always separate). You might wonder, for instance, whether flying green beans from Columbia to Columbus in Winter is an ecologically sound use of jet fuel. There are also questions about the economic and social impacts in the growing area. The requirement to transport foodstuffs is a result of specialization in the growing area (and, funnily enough, of diversification - of the diet - in the consuming area). The standard economic view of specialization is that it leads to increased efficiency; but, as with any kind of specialization, it's possible to overdo it, leading, in this case, to adverse social, environmental, and economic consequences. All of this is laid out in a number of today's linked web pages.
Moving food within the US presents similar problems. Take iceberg lettuce as an example. It's hard to think of a more ordinary piece of produce, found year around from Maine to the Mexican border. Before you pick one from a local supermarket, it's likely to have travelled at least four hundred miles, from the Salinas (Summer) or Imperial (Winter) valley to a distribution point in the greater LA area and then to Santa Barbara. It's grown as a monocrop (specialization, remember?) in vast fields that harbor nary another living thing and that produce, apart from the lettuce, a fair amount of runoff carrying excess nitrates from the fertilizer and other chemicals resulting from pest control.
The obvious advantage of buying local is freshness. You can find lettuce (and other produce) at the Santa Barbara market that's travelled as little as ten miles (and as little as one, at Goleta, Calle Real). Apart from saving fuel, it will be half a day out of the field, instead of four days to a week, so it will taste better and keep better.
And while much is made by retailers of diversity and the notion that the customer benefits from having plums or asparagus, say, available all the time, there is much to be said for seasonality. Late Spring and Summer brings a succession of bounties - gluts of strawberries, followed by nectarines, peaches, squash, tomatoes, apples.... - a rich diversity which is anticipated and, being short-lived, not regretted. While this time of year tests the cook in one way - how many ways can I get away with offering zucchini? - the relatively restricted variety of the rest of the year offers another test - what can I do with the few local ingredients I'm lucky to find?
Finally, there's the farmer. Someone grows the well-travelled produce, all right, but you don't know who. You can't talk to Mr. Dole and you're unlikely to meet Mr. Tanimura & Antle, so you can't ask them how they grow their lettuce or cauliflowers or broccoli. If you're interested in this, then the best way is to know the farmer. This is particularly true if you want to buy organic. The USDA "Organic" standards currently in force were established in consultation with large growers and retailers (see WholeFoods' brochure), and they show it. These standards allow the use of 'input' (fertilizers and -icides) that would not be allowed by an honest farmer raising produce to the old common-sense organic standard, and were drawn up to favor large-scale monoculture. As a result, the only way to be sure what your farmer is doing is to get to know him, and ask. Apart from growing information, you might come away with a new product, new recipes, or a new joke.
Other foody distances
We suggest entertaining a bit of skepticism when considering some of the links given above. It's clearly not (it could be, but not necessarily) 51,000 miles from South Africa to the UK, as one link has it. That's just a typo, but some of our authors are a bit zealous, and as always with zealots, there's a tendency to substitute enthusiasm for accuracy.
Take the the notion expressed on at least one page that farmers who wholesale are necessarily ripped off. It's true that the wheat farmer gets a tiny fraction of the price of a loaf of bread for the wheat that goes into it. But he also contributes a tiny fraction of the work and capital. To say he's getting ripped off overlooks the expense of milling, running a bakery, and, most of all getting the bread through a retailer, with the attendant costs of distribution, store overhead, and waste. You might as well wonder why your car cost twenty dollars a pound and the steelmaker only gets about fifty cents.