Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Think globally, eat locally

In my past lives I have worked for grass roots nonprofit organizations dedicated to developing local sustainable food systems and for the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture which was committed to revitalizing local agriculture. My experiences convinced me that strategies designed to reestablish local food production must be top-down/rural-urban affairs.

It is also important to understand what is realistically achievable and manage expectations. Having said that there is clearly much that can be done to regain meaningful measures of control over the means for meeting this very basic need. (GW)

The promise and limits of local food

By Brian Donahue
Boston Globe
August 26, 2009

EATING LOCAL is all the rage. As someone who dropped out to become a community farmer in the 1970s, and still farms, I am delighted. As someone who later dropped back into academia to become an environmental historian, I have my doubts about how much we can grow in New England. Watching some of my best students head down the same path, I feel I owe their parents an explanation.

The idea that we should grow all our own food locally is easy to dismiss. By 1800, with barely a million people, New England was already importing grain. More and more arrived from the Midwest in the following decades to help feed booming mill cities, even as three-quarters of New England was rapidly cleared for meat, milk, and wool. Local farmland was pressed past the ecological limit, and by the end of the 19th century much of it was returning to forest.

Today New England’s population approaches 15 million, while only 7 percent of our land remains in agriculture. To come even close to feeding ourselves we would have to cut down a large part of our recovered forest - not something we want to repeat. But there are still good reasons to move toward more local food production. We need to determine which crops to grow here. What were we growing a century ago, when New England was already an urban, industrial society?

On that question, history is more encouraging. New England farming did not collapse when the railroad delivered a flood of cheap grain from the Midwest in the middle of the 19th century. Dairy farmers let millions of acres of degraded pasture grow up to pines not because they went broke, but because they were feeding Midwestern grain to their cows to increase the flow of milk. Local poultry production took off. New England apples held their own, and intensive market gardening boomed around the region’s cities. New England food production actually peaked just after 1900, even as the forest was returning.

This sensible regional food system was destroyed by the 20th-century rise of cheap oil. Industrial agriculture brings not only grain and meat, but milk, fruits, and vegetables from distant feedlots and fields, by methods that are at best unpalatable. Presuming a post-oil future, the agriculture that flourished here before the age of oil provides both inspiration and warning. The revival of intensive local production of fruits and vegetables in urban and suburban areas is well underway; that doesn’t require much acreage. But we can’t subsist entirely on parsnips and kale. What about animal products, and grain?

Good pasture management eluded our forebears, who fell into grain addiction. We need to put our dairy production, along with whatever beef and lamb we grow, back onto a foundation of local grass. That is what ruminants should mainly eat (for their health and ours), and that is what best suits our soil and climate. We can produce all our own milk, butter, and cheese in New England again, sustainably, with only a modest reduction in forest - if we can master productive rotational grazing.

But New England will still need to import grain, both for our own consumption and for feed. Even “pastured’’ chickens and pigs mostly eat corn. And it makes good sense to import grain, along with vegetable oil, and the bulk of our meat. Grain ships at very low cost, so we don’t need to grow much here. Given our large urban population and limited acreage, sustainable farming and eating in New England will always require sustainable farming in the Midwest.

We need a targeted expansion in local production of foods that really belong in New England, tied to reforms throughout our global agricultural system - and certainly, some reduction of meat in our diets. This would bless us with healthier food, an attractive landscape, and opportunities for people to become more engaged with how their food is grown. Yes, we can shrink our carbon footprint, too, if we farm with that in mind. But in the end those connections, not some chimera of local self-sufficiency, are the real benefits of local farming.

Brian Donahue, an associate professor of American environmental studies at Brandeis University, is the author of “Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms and Forest in New England.’’


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