by Matt Lardie
Here’s a dinner table topic: local is not always sustainable, and sustainable is not always local. Discuss.
Oddly enough, that realization came to me while reading Amazon.com reviews for a cookbook I was considering purchasing—not buying locally, I know, I know, but the more I thought about it, the more it started to make sense. See, I tend to divide the “buy local” group into two camps: those that make an earnest effort to keep their dollars in their community, and those that treat “buy local” as less of a lifestyle and more of a religion. I’m guessing you can tell which group I favor.
Personally, I fall in the earnest local spender group—I do my best to patronize farmers’ markets, local restaurants, and independent businesses. I’m not perfect, however, and the occasional trip to Home Depot, ground beef from Kroger, and oil change at Wal-Mart is part of my life. Do I feel guilty about it? Sure. Should I feel guilty about it? Probably not.
Let’s do a case study—which option is better: buying organic produce trucked in from California at a chain grocery store or buying conventional produce at my locally-owned supermarket? I can keep my dollars in the community, keep my neighbors employed, and also support a system that relies heavily on industrial chemicals to grow my food, or I can choose produce that has not had as negative an impact on the environment yet left a large carbon footprint in getting to my dinner table.
The simple fact of the matter is that we live in an increasingly global society, a trend that is about as likely to reverse as Sarah Palin is to become a vegetarian. Who are we to deny communities in emerging markets the opportunity to sell their wares across the globe and improve their standard of living? Those handmade baskets from Ghana you purchased, the ones from a rural cooperative? They were still flown here on a plane. Does that mean you shouldn’t have bought them? That those women don’t deserve access to American consumers?
Bringing the focus back to food, I’d also like to pose the fact that just because something is grown here in North Carolina does not mean that it is sustainable. Smithfield pork—need I say more? Tobacco, poultry, peaches—all local commodities that traditionally involve high off-farm inputs. On the other hand, that pound of coffee you purchased at your local co-op probably helped support rural communities across Latin America and Africa, was most-likely organic and shade-grown, and very likely had little negative impact on its environment. Unfortunately, it had to be flown here.
Back and forth, back and forth. My point is not to answer the question, but to start the discussion. That second group I mentioned, the Church of Buy Local, often gives very little wiggle-room for compromise. They preach and they harangue and they very often judge, but I’m here to say that life is about compromise, that you can buy local, regional, and international, and still be sustainable. As global citizens, we have just as much responsibility to participate in the worldwide market as we do in our local communities, and while our dollars often have a bigger impact locally, they are still important to millions of struggling workers in emerging markets across the world. As Americans, we are fortunate enough to have a myriad of options for any one thing that we might want to buy, and as long as you remember that local is not always sustainable, and sustainable is not always local, I’m confident that you will find that middle ground upon which we all should be standing.
Matt Lardie loves food. He loves to grow it, cook it, eat it, and learn about it. You can find his musings on the local food scene, agriculture policy, and his culinary adventures on his blog, Green Eats.
by Matt Lardie