The Downside of Eating Too Locally
"we should continue developing local food systems — in both urban and rural areas. But we also need to build strategic partnerships between affluent urban consumers and rural producers in environmentally sensitive, low-income areas"
BERKELEY, Calif. — TO appreciate the depth of our national political divide, look no further than our Thanksgiving tables. The organic turkeys and farmers’ market produce of coastal urbanites face off against the frozen Butterballs and rich gravies of our rural interior, each side equally contemptuous of the other. Or so it might seem.
But as climate change begins to take its toll on farm country, this geopolitics of “alternative" and “traditional" food is changing. These days, the call to change our food system is coming straight from the heart of red-state America.
I realized this when I went home to Montana to research a book about Timeless Seeds, an organic lentil and heritage grain business that weathered the devastating drought 0f 2012. I interviewed people like Jerry Habets, a barley grower in Conrad, Mont. Three dry years at the turn of the millennium left him desperately searching for answers. Bankrupt, divorced and about to lose his family’s 87-year-old homestead, Mr. Habets tried the Bible. Then he went to a psychic. And then he went organic. That improved his soil so it could store more water.
Tuna McAlpine, a rancher down the road in Valier, made the same decision 10 years earlier, when he stopped using chemicals and converted to a grass-fed livestock system. A libertarian who is concerned that the Republican Party has gotten too soft on guns, he doesn’t want anybody infringing on his constitutional rights. Not the government — and not Monsanto. “I’m a stubborn Scotsman," he explains.
Mr. Habets and Mr. McAlpine are part of a powerful rising tide of the movement to change our nation’s system of growing food: family farmers in the heartland who are determined to get out of the commodity trap.
Central Montana is not the type of place you might expect sustainable food to blossom. It’s heavily Republican. It’s hundreds of miles from the closest major metropolitan area. Frequent droughts and early impacts of climate change make it a tough place to farm, and struggling rural economies make it a tough place to earn a living.
And yet, if you look closer, there’s a host of reasons sustainable food has taken root here in central Montana. Many farmers are the third or fourth generation on their land, and they’d like to leave it in good shape for their kids. Having grappled with the industrial agriculture model for decades, they understand its problems better than most of us. Indeed, their communities have been fighting corporate power since their grandparents formed cooperative wheat pools back in the 1920s.
For the food movement to have a serious impact on the issues that matter — climate change, the average American diet, rural development — these heartland communities need to be involved. The good news is, in several pockets of farm country, they already are.
There are dozens of efforts happening across the farm belt, from the antibiotic-free Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative in Missouri to David Brandt’s soil-building cover crops in Carroll, Ohio.
But just as these rural efforts started gaining steam, an unfortunate thing happened to the urban food movement: It went local. Hyperlocal. Ironically, conscientious consumers who ought to be the staunchest allies of these farmers are taking pledges not to buy from them, and to eat only food produced within 100 miles of home.
By all means, we should continue developing local food systems — in both urban and rural areas. But we also need to build strategic partnerships between affluent urban consumers and rural producers in environmentally sensitive, low-income areas. We’re used to this fair-trade paradigm for tropical commodities like bananas and coffee. It’s time to apply it to rural America, too.
Even if you live hundreds of miles away from Montana, eating organic lentils grown there helps farmers responsibly steward their land.
Eating food that is grown responsibly — no matter where it is grown — is a smart strategy for combating climate change. Transportation to the final point of sale accounts for only about 4 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the average American diet.
The bigger problem is the way we produce that food, particularly the fossil-fuel-intensive manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer. Since lentils can pull nitrogen from the air and work with bacteria to convert it into fertilizer, organic farmers rotate lentils and other legumes into their fields, planting them between cycles of other crops, as a substitute for industrially produced nitrogen.
The next step in overhauling our food system is large-scale change in the American heartland. Farmers like Mr. Habets and Mr. McAlpine are up to it. We should all support them.
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November 29th, 2014