Jun 23, 2008
’Buy Local’ is More Than Just a Marketing Gimmick

If you’re older than 50, you probably remember when “buy local” might have been a slogan you used if you were involved in a boycott of bananas, oranges and iceberg lettuce.

Not that many years ago, most food was produced locally and consumed locally, and for us Northerners, that meant canning, pickling, fermenting, freezing, drying, root cellaring and in other ways preparing produce from the heavy summer production season to carry into the no-production winter season. We envied those from warmer climes who could eat fresh more of the year while we had to shift to stored and preserved produce.

I’m not so old that I remember the invention of canning (that was 1790), and I never had to eat much dried or salt-cured food, but I do recall preservation methods changing and shifting from canning to freezing, and then the explosion in the fresh produce department as transportation and global trading began to do away with seasonality. That began only about 25 years ago.

At our house, we still can and pickle and spice and freeze and dry and ferment and cold store. We shop for bargains and buy in quantity on sale or in season. We’re wary of high-priced convenience foods, buy stuff whole rather than cut, and we grow a lot of our own produce. For me, big changes in my garden are shifting to more romaine lettuce and eating less black-seeded Simpson, switching to sweeter sweet corn and more butternut squash. Oh, and I added okra and purple potatoes.

The protesters these days who are indignantly standing up against transported food in favor of “buying local” are merely showing their age, which is young.

Coincidentally, the “buy local” movement began to gather steam at about the same time we became so acutely aware of global warming and before oil began its steep price climb. But these two oil-related forces are now acting together and will, I think, transform our eating habits in the direction that the buy-local advocates want. There will be winners and losers as that happens, and it’s hard to know how it will all sort out.

Certainly, it is nice to see the resurgence in fruit and vegetable production in the eastern United States, as growers there hustle to feed the urban population that grew up at their doorstep and often paved over their land. There’s a lot of transportation cost margin that can accrue to them instead of going to those profiting from $120-a-barrel oil.

On the other hand, there are tremendous climatic advantages to growing winter vegetables in California and apples and cherries in Washington and Oregon. It is not by accident that these dry-climate Western states were able to grow their industries to the dominance they have. They have comparative advantage.

Americans in the East are going to have difficulty sorting out what makes the most sense for them. Are they going to buy local, adjusting once again to the frustrations of seasonal production so they can reduce their carbon footprint? Are they going to buy organic, when organic production of some fruits and vegetables in the humid, disease- and insect-ridden East is so difficult? Organic production is relatively much simpler in the arid regions of the American West, Mexico and South America. It will be difficult for Eastern consumers to have both local and organic, especially for fruit.

Where do free and global trade stand in this whole process? Except for the cost of fuel, there is nothing more countercyclically ideal than the marriages of convenience between North and South America, Europe and Africa, Asia and Oceania. If we want free trade, and we seem to, then we have to take the things produced by those south of us. Usually, that means agricultural products – not only the tropical fruits we have historically imported but also the off-season temperate fruits and vegetables with which they compete with northern producers if they enter processing markets.

In many ways, the “buy local” movement pits fresh against processed and stored, and that’s significant for apples, cherries, berries and vegetables like asparagus that go both ways.

But the spoiler in the trade game isn’t isolationism, it’s oil. Certainly, the cost of Chilean cherries is greatly increased by 35 days in a diesel-guzzling freighter – even as the quality problems of aging during storage and transport have been largely overcome.

In the final analysis, I’m convinced that “buy local” will win significant victories because it’s so logical. But it also appears that $3.75 gasoline has finally turned Americans’ attention to the problems of energy and our lack of a coherent energy conservation and development policy.

While some will never be happy until we suck the oil out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, more and more people seem convinced that the Age of Oil is passing away. Why not face it now, since we need to face it sometime?

Capturing energy is not as simple as sticking a straw in the sands of the Middle East, but energy is not rare, either.

I will be happier when we quit fighting with people who don’t like us to get stuff that ultimately hurts us. Instead, let’s turn our ingenuity to using more technology, more nuclear energy and more captured sun energy – present in forests, in crops, in wind, in falling water, in wave motion. Let’s make more things electric and power fewer things with that nasty, polluting, noisy internal combustion engine.

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