Is Eating Local More Important than Buying Organic?
Inspired by a book on ethical farming, Mama Greenest wonders which is better: Eating local food, or buying organic (if you can’t do both)?
A friend just gave me The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball, and for two days I haven’t been able to put it down. Kimball is a gifted writer, and her story is deliciously romantic. A self-proclaimed hedonist from the East Village, Kimball fell in love with Mark, a highly principled, old-fashioned young farmer, subsequently leaving her modern life as a freelance travel writer to start an organic farm near Lake Champlain with him. The book recounts their first year on Essex Farm, transforming the run-down property into a year-round, “whole diet” CSA that provides over a hundred members with fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, beef, pork, chicken, maple syrup, grains, beans, flours, and herbs.
There are so many aspects of her story worthy of discussion, but it’s the food part that has gotten me thinking, namely about the place where sustainability and personal ethics intersect. At the beginning of the book, Kimball makes brief mention of the fact she was a longtime vegetarian when she met Mark; by the middle, she’s singing the praises of scrapple and slaughtering cows. The book is full of detailed descriptions of the food they eat and how they prepare it — pigeon breasts wrapped in bacon, broiled heart, fried bull testicles. (Of course they eat “normal” things, too: nettle soup, buttery potatoes, lots of pie.) As a vegan, most of what they eat is way outside my comfort zone, and the sections describing the slaughter of an animal, however humanely, made me sad. But the fact that they raise or grow everything that they eat, waste next to nothing, and provide access to the same for their community, is just so right on to me. It’s a lifestyle of true sustainability for which I have the utmost respect.
Of course, it is possible to be a local whole foods vegan — it’s just really hard in regions where snow covers the ground for months at a time. Post-veganism — the unofficial movement of many young new farmers and agricultural activists — argues that it’s better to eat a chicken or drink cow’s milk that came from your backyard (or your neighbor’s) than to consume processed soy products from genetically modified crops in, say, Brazil. And this argument makes a lot of sense to me from a sustainability perspective. Also, from a health perspective as whole foods are superior to processed foods (though there is a strong argument to be made that dairy, meat, and eggs are not good for us no matter where they come from). But post-veganism doesn’t speak to the ethical quandary posed by eating animals for some people.
At one point, Kimball recalls a lengthy discussion had with Mark about whether it was better to by local food that was not organic, or organic food that was not local. Unfortunately, she never discloses the conclusion they came to (perhaps because they never came to one). I’d guess that local won, although it is likely that Mark would argue one should never have to choose between the two, and that’s why they do what they do. For omnivores, the “right” answer seems abundantly clear: Make a bid for sustainability, eat non-factory farmed, locally raised meat and dairy. But what about those of us who are locally inclined, but animal-averse? At this point in time, should the virtues of sustainability trump all?
What do you think? Is local more important than organic? Any vegetarians or vegans out there have anything to say about the efficacy of the “whole diet” model?