Do We Really Need a Few Billion Locavores?

Updated Aug 11, 2009

I have a confession to make. I stole the title above from Stephen J. Dubner’s piece of the same name, in which he argues that the odd tasting orange sorbet he makes with $12 worth of ingredients is a complete waste of time.

Dubner argues that there are huge economic inefficiencies in making and growing your own food, and you’ll never get the variety of things you get at the supermarket.

True. My own $130 tomatoes, if they ripen, will be proof of that.

But still, better to work two jobs and leave the farming to someone who does it smarter (and uses poisons to ensure yield). No? Well…

This whole thing got me thinking of my Italian neighbors. Every one of them grows the bulk of their own food. Friend Enrico tends a huge garden, and has an olive grove from which he makes lots of some of Tuscany’s best olive oil. He also has a full time job, not to mention friends who’d like some of that oil and are willing to work for it.

Then I think of my many years of travel to Europe. I remember the awe that filled me when the train would stop at a small village station and I’d see a vegetable garden to the left of the water fountain being watered by the stationmaster. Minutes after the train departed, I’d see rows of wine grapes, trellised artistically so alternating rows of tomatoes and beans could also take advantage of sun, soil, and support.

Good food was everywhere, crammed into the tiniest of spaces. It was exciting to see.

The value of that food people were producing on every little wedge of land certainly does not fall below the perceived value of the work used to produce it. In my village, corn becomes polenta. People shrug when you tell them the pittance you’ve paid for a half kilo of industrial ground corn at the supermarket, then go back to making food that tastes good.

It’s not about the cost. The goodness is in the flavor, valued above all.

And variety? There is more variety in the lost art of cooking with seasonally available ingredients than there is in making the same food no matter where the mercury sits in the thermometer—as we are encouraged to do in the US by supermarkets and their unchanging display of the same foods grown all around the globe and shipped here.

And let me tell you, there is far more variety of protein in an Italian store.

Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local.” Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

See, what’s wrong with this is that when I eye the “poultry” section of my local supermarket I see bagged and once-frozen chicken. Maybe some ground turkey or frozen “game hen”. Variety? Hmmm. The display of Styrofoam trays in which bits of bird marinate in their own drippings for days and even weeks doesn’t exactly induce me to buy.

In Italy I can get Guinea Foul, pigeon, pheasant and sometimes duck. I can also get the butcher’s own chicken. I buy the legs. I season them and roast them in the oven. The fat melts like butter, the skin browns and crisps like thin parchment. My mouth waters when I think of it, yet I know I can’t reproduce that here in California, where the bagged chickens coming from heaven knows where have a flesh like a rubber duck that’ll be spongy until the point at which it burns in the oven.

There’s that spiritual value, too; the fact that when I’m done eating my eyes can roll back into my head and I can look to the heavens and thank God for the wonders I’ve consumed—(or at least thank the chicken for giving its life for me.)

I’d work for that feeling. What about you?

Read: Do We Really Need a Few Billion Locavores?