Eating Locally, and other Victimless Crimes — A Response to Budiansky’s “Locavore Math”

A lettuce farm in... well, does it matter? // ecoliblog.com

In an editorial appearing in yesterday’s New York Times, Stephen Budiansky drew a good deal of attention from the web’s food writers for dressing down locavore-types who, when making food purchases, blindly favor the apparent geographic origin of the food above all other factors. That “food miles” are only one small part of the sustainability equation is and always has been a fair point. A lot more goes into “sustainability” than simple geography. Budiansky instead craves what he calls efficiency: we can’t all feed ourselves, but we all have to be fed, so we should grow our food where it is best grown, in warm climates, instead of where it might inefficiently be grown, like snowy New Hampshire.

Unfortunately, he does not follow through with a very meaningful argument, and in fact appears to rail against invisible enemies he conjures up, like oranges and bananas overwintered in do-gooder New England hothouses. There are some instances of inefficiencies like these in real life (like eating meat, a subject he avoids), but in attacking the perceived misconceptions of one movement (that local is always better), he does nothing to convince us that this “forced” alien produce is actually a legitimate threat, or that, in slavishly purchasing it, local food lovers are contributing to the downfall of proper social advancement. Nevertheless, he slashes at these evil entities in order to buttress a dangerous prescription: when it comes to our food system, we knuckleheads should all calm down and realize that “non-locavores” are actually doing just great.

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380 Million Eggs

What your typical chicken egg factory farm looks like. // teach.lanecc.edu

A chicken egg factory farm in Galt, Iowa made news yesterday by issuing a recall for some 228 million eggs which had been linked to an eight-state salmonella outbreak. The recall was been issued in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, California, Colorado, Nebraska, Illinois, and Missouri; affected brands were  Lucerne, Albertson, Mountain Dairy, Ralph’s, Boomsma’s, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Farm Fresh (ha!), Shoreland, Lund, Dutch Farms and Kemps.

Then, this morning, nine more states were added to the recall, bringing the total recall to 380,000,000 eggs. 380 million eggs. That is a staggering number — not of eggs to recall, but of eggs in general. 380 million eggs! That is more eggs than there are people in this country. Imagine what they would look like in a room. It’s almost impossible.

The scary part of the story is that, relatively speaking, that’s not even that many eggs. Think of it this way: there are approximately 6,593,587 people living in Massachusetts, and the egg production period in question spans approximately 90 days. If each resident of Massachusetts consumed one egg per day over that period, the total number of eggs consumed —  593,422,830 — would dwarf the number of eggs recalled. One egg per day. That’s not that crazy. There are obviously plenty of people in the state who, for various reasons, do not eat eggs. However, there are also plenty of people who eat a lot, especially when you consider foods produced using eggs — baked goods, salad dressings, whatever. 380 million eggs over a 90 day period feeds each resident of Massachusetts with, give or take, an egg every other day. Chump change.

Can you produce that many eggs in this country without resorting to the sorts of factories that Wright County Egg is known for (see the bottom of this article for information on the owner’s numerous previous health and human rights violations)? Or are these sporadic outbreaks — and these clearly depraved conditions — simply the price that society has to pay in order to give Americans as many eggs as we are accustomed to wanting?

It’s possible — even probable — that they only way to give us a limiteless supply of eggs is to create massive, dirty, horrific factory operations. Once we begin to build out this equation though, and add in the costs which have heretofore gone unnoticed by the country — most notably the pollution and environmental damage caused by the factories and the farms needed to produce the feed for the factories — we may decide that it’s worthwhile to trade a few eggs now for a little more security for ourselves and for future generations. It’s probably worth it. There are other things to eat.

Local Food Fight

Pesticide Spraying

This is someone's local food. Who can be faulted for pointing that out?

Helene York, the progressive and highly-visible Director of Strategic Initiatives for Bon Appetit Management Company, penned a brief editorial for the Atlantic today about the far-from-satisfactory — and still seemingly contradictory — notion of “local” wholesale produce. She targets wholesale food suppliers who have adopted locavore vogue without really changing their practices at all:

A big part of my summer has been spent talking to these produce suppliers—22 around the country. Most of them really, really don’t get it. They have put a halo on the nearby farmers they’ve always bought from and declared victory. I’ll admit that most of their designated sources are local to the chefs they are marketing to, but one example—”the country’s largest grower of cabbage, with operations in four states, and nine semi-trailers to deliver fresh to your door” —clearly demonstrates the disconnect between their definition of farm-to-fork food and ours.

Hey, yes, this is true. Those suppliers really don’t care, and they don’t care that they don’t care. They’re businessmen, the whole lot of them, and this is what we should expect, because neither the market — average Americans — nor the overseers (the federal government) really see the food system as all that broken. York’s facts are straight, but her focus — let’s pump up local co-ops to compete with these Agri-Business rascals! — is a depressing nod to the reality that we’re not close to fingering the real enemy here, which is the sad, slow, federal government, and its inability to protect Americans who don’t yet know that there’s a problem.

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A. Russo & Son’s: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugli

Fruit at Russo's Market in Watertown

A small selection of the myriad fruits and vegetables available for unnervingly low prices at Russo's.

 

Located on an unassuming stretch of road in nearby (but sometimes inconvenient) Watertown, A. Russo & Sons Marketplace is the Boston area’s de facto hidden foodie market that no one knows about that everyone knows about. It’s hip, but also cramped enough to discourage the patronage of shoppers who aren’t interested in bumping elbows with a woman loading a few matnakash into her cart, or a husband-and-wife duo fumbling with armfuls of carrots and banana flowers. Russo’s is an enormous produce market sidled up against a diverse takeout restaurant bordered by a moat of potted flowers, and it’s all very, very cheap. It’s a great place for a family to go to stretch each dollar they spend on food. Not coincidentally, it’s also a great place to go to contemplate your creeping feeling of unease over the system which produces that food: why, exactly, are we able to purchase a pound of fruit from Jamaica for less than it costs us to ride the bus to get here? 

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AquAdvantage® Salmon, Or The Modern Prometheus

Comparison of AquAdvantage Salmon and "Conventional" Salmon

Like it or not, the revolution will be grilled. And canned. And possibly eaten raw. // AquaBounty

Per a recently article in the New York Times, a Waltham, MA-based company called AquaBounty is nearing FDA approval for a product of theirs that has been over a decade in the making: a breed of Atlantic Salmon which has been engineered, using genes from the Chinook Salmon and ocean pout, to grow twice as fast as normal Atlantic salmon on the exact same diet. Unless an unforeseen hitch delays or aborts the approval process, the AquAdvantage® Salmon is slated to become the country’s first genetically-engineered animal approved and produced for human consumption. To be fair, we have long “guided” nature to our advantage, and already directly and indirectly eat lots and lots of genetically modified plants. This salmon thing is different, though. Once these genes go through the wringer, whatever comes out will be moving. It will, on some level, think breathe and feel. It will bleed when you cut it. We will have created an animal. What does this mean for us?

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Bacteria in Reusable Bags: The Hidden Dangers of Hidden Dangers

Reusable Bag

Factory meats in reusable bags: making you violently ill and tragically ironic, all at the same time. // flickr/sagamiono

From the L.A. Times Health Blog late last week comes word of an interesting little study done in Arizona and California of the cleanliness of reusable shopping bags. The study points out that while the bags have become gradually more and more popular, washing them has not; this can be a problem if bacteria are allowed to enter them and then subsequently fluourish in warm environments (i.e. your kitchen, the trunk of your car, etc). As it turns out, that’s a pretty common occurence:  the study found coliform bacteria in 51% of the bags they tested, which were selected randomly from shoppers; 12% of bags contained E. coli. Not good. Reusable bags are supposed to be saving us. Where are we going wrong?

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A Response: Kraft Foods and Community Gardens

Triscuit Urban Farming -- Somerville, MA

A Triscuit rep and town officials posing at a Somerville farm groundbreaking. How turned off should we be by this? (Associated Press)

 

Earlier this month, Kristi Ceccarossi of the excellent Boston Localvores crew penned an article for online op-ed syndicate OtherWords about a recently-built community garden in Somerville whose construction was financed by Kraft Foods (you can read her article here). Kraft, under their Triscuit brand, sponsored the garden as part of its Home Farming Initiative, in which it is directly sponsoring the building of 50+ community gardens across the country. Kraft is also putting packets of herb seeds in select boxes of Triscuits, with instructions for consumers on how to plant and grow them. Ceccarossi’s piece frames this initiative as an opportunistic corporate ploy to take advantage of our noble grassroots movement toward sustainable agricultural systems. Is this a productive way of looking at Kraft’s involvement, and if so, to what extent should we be concerned by it? The role of corporations in our agricultural future is a subject worthy of considerable and serious public debate, but I think that Ceccarossi — who takes an aggressively staunch anti-corporate stance — is off the mark with this one. 

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