Backlash grows as 'locavores' gain ground
By Monica Eng
Farm names have become delicious descriptors on high-end restaurant menus across the country, and farmers markets have doubled in the past 15 years. The local food movement has clearly hit full bloom.
But along with it, a locavore backlash also has blossomed over the past few years. This has led some to rethink their assumptions, clarify the reasons behind locavorism or simply stand firm in their preference for buying from farmers they can look in the eyes.
In mid-2008, not long after the Oxford English Dictionary named "locavore" the 2007 word of the year, "Freakonomics" co-author Stephen J. Dubner blogged about his family's lousy and expensive homemade orange sherbet. He wrote about it to demonstrate the inefficiencies and low quality that can result from small-scale local production as opposed to leaving it to the large-scale professionals.
University of Texas historian James McWilliams offered similar critiques on a New York Times blog and later released "Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Eat Truly Responsibly." In it he argued that local food is elitist, expensive, unrealistic for certain growing regions and not always a good way to reduce carbon footprints or build communities.
To Corby Kummer, senior editor of The Atlantic magazine, these arguments miss the point of why he cares about eating locally.
"I care most about supporting people I know, keeping land undeveloped and letting young people — including urban kids who might otherwise never know — learn about farming through groups like (Boston's) Food Project," said Kummer, the author of "The Pleasures of Slow Food."
"I go out of my way to meet people who raise food near me, and I'll pay a bit more to support locally owned businesses in my part of Boston, because I know and care about them and want them to stay there."
Rob Gardner, a Chicago-based locavore and editor-at-large for thelocalbeet.com, believes some critics have created an extreme caricature of the locavore as someone who prohibits the consumption of any nonlocal food to suit their arguments.
"I don't think anyone is advocating such extremism," said Gardner, who still drinks coffee, eats citrus and uses olive oil and spices despite his Midwestern residence. "It's just not realistic. At thelocalbeet.com we advocate a modest approach, eating food when it comes into season and when you have an opportunity, to do something like choose Michigan apples over Washington apples."
One of the most compelling arguments against locavorism comes from the camp that pits — fairly or not — local farmers who use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers against organic farmers.
"Local chemical farming contaminates local communities," said author Maria Rodale, whose new book "Organic Manifesto" advocates nonchemical farming everywhere. "It's just as bad as buying it from other countries; you're just saving the shipping cost, which is by no means the biggest carbon cost of the food."
Gardner mostly agrees with Rodale but said that it's only by supporting local farmers that you can develop the kind of rapport and influence that encourages more sustainable farming.
"Buying local can eventually bring in better farming practices to those areas," he said. "Not to mention fresher, tastier, healthier food."
The ideal is to find sustainably farmed local produce from farmers with whom buyers can develop a dialogue and relationship. And with the continuing proliferation of American farmers markets, it is becoming more possible all the time.