We're an ordinary family, complete with picky eaters, budget concerns, and time management issues. But to prove that "eating local" works - even for busy families in cooler climates - we're trading Chick-Fil-A and goldfish crackers for grassfed meat and local produce. Join our adventure in learning to eat (sort of) sustainably for the summer!

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Tale of Two Pollans

One of the first things I did when I decided to look into eating locally was order a some books from the library.  Somebody there has been buying up a storm in the "sustainablility" section of the catalog, because I ended up with a thigh-high stack of books on eating locally, cooking seasonally, and shopping consciously.  I've been chipping away at the stack for several weeks now, and it occurred to me today that there are pretty much two reasons why people choose to eat locally - one that's all soft and fuzzy and cuddly, and one that's all cold hard numbers and dire warnings.  The funny thing is, you can illustrate these two different points of view pretty handily with books by the same author.

Second Nature by Michael Pollan was published almost a decade ago, and it chronicles the author's experiences as a home gardener both as a child and an adult. It's a humorous approach to the subject, complete with woodchucks that end up being firebombed and "natural" gardens that end up as weed-infested as you would expect.  I listened to the audiobook of this while I was walking, so I'm sure I missed some of the details and nuances of it.  But it was, to my ears, quite bucolic and picturesque and attractive - gardening as a hobby, a vocation, an interest.  Readers are invited to laugh along with the author at his early attempts at gardening, maybe learning a bit about the subject and its history along the way.  It's not designed to convince you of anything, except perhaps that it would have been nice if I'd gotten some photographs to go along with the audio, because I'd really like to see Pollan's gardens after hearing about them for 8 or 10 hours.

This is the book that probably typifies the "fuzzy" reason for eating locally - subtly supporting a general desire to do the least harm for the environment while supporting local businesses and eating really, really well.  People in this camp are liable to speak of the benefits of local produce - how it can be raised for taste rather than transportability; how it is picked at the peak of freshness rather than chemically ripened; how you can trust its safety because you can talk to the farmer who grew it, and maybe even stop in to visit the farm where it was grown.  They like supporting small farmers, enjoy the atmosphere of a farmers' market, and enjoy trying new varieties of foods.

The other reason people may choose to eat locally is their overall disgust with how the current food system is run.  Dirty, unhealthy meat raised in inhumane conditions; vegetables robbed of their nutrients by the long, pollution-producing trip from field to table; small farmers run out of business by evil agribusiness conglomerates.  The world is going to hell on a road paved with government-subsidized corn and soybeans.

Nothing typifies this more than another of Pollan's books, The Omnivore's Dilemma, which I was greatly relieved to find had no photographs to illustrate the text.  The author does extensive research into what, exactly, it takes to grow food "conventionally;" that is, on factory farms using all the wonders that chemistry has to offer.  Manure-filled feedlots, pesticide-laced groundwater, organic produce that is shipped across the country in pollution-spewing trucks - it's all there in lurid detail.  He visits farms where grain is raised for feedlots, and he spends time on farms that are set up using more sustainable modes of farming.  He's not squeamish about shoveling manure, or gutting organic chickens, or hunting wild pigs.  He hits conventional farming pretty hard, with a seemingly endless parade of appalling facts and figures about the amount of energy it takes to raise our food like commodities.  But he doesn't hold back on the "greener" farms, either, discussing the drawbacks to their approaches, and the difficulties involved in running them on a larger scale.  It's a book that's filled with facts and figures and persuasion, even though the author doesn't pretend to have all the answers.

The two books might as well be a cuddly blogger and a strident vegan, one calmly reassuring you of why eating local is the right thing to do while the other yells about all the reasons the current system is the worst thing we could possibly be doing.  In reality, both are probably right - it is fun to shop at farmers' markets, supporting local farmers and getting the tastiest tomatoes.  And conventional farming is anything but sustainable, with negative consequences that are downright frightening when you think about them.  If you think about them.

And that's the point, really, to both of the books - most of us don't think about the consequences of the choices we make at the grocery store, butcher shop, or farmers' market.  When was the last time you contemplated the ecological ramifications of corn-fed beef before you pulled into a drive-thru and ordered a burger?  Do you really know which is better for the planet, conventionally-grown tomatoes from the farm down the street or organic tomatoes trucked in from California?  Were the workers who picked your grapes exposed to pesticides that will hurt their health, and is there any of that residue showing up in your fruit salad?  Do you even care?

I didn't, or at least not enough to change my habits, but I'm starting to come around.  I agree with the older book - gardening is fun and rewarding, and is something that almost anyone can do and enjoy.  And I agree with many of Pollan's points in Dilemma, although I wish he'd found a less dry way and more concise way to present them.  Conventional farming can be disgusting and brutal and unnecessary.  There are other, gentler ways to raise animals and produce, ways that can be expanded to serve a much larger portion of the population.  Whether these practices are sufficient to produce enough food for the entire country - or the entire world - remains to be seen, but there certainly is no harm in trying.

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