Sunday, April 4, 2010

Locavore: is local agriculture feasible?

Right off the bat, I have to say that I approached Sarah Elton's new book, Locavore: from farmers' fields to rooftop gardens--how Canadians are changing the way we eat, with some reservations.

I know Elton and frequently enjoy her writing and CBC Radio broadcasts about food. But I have an uncomfortable relationship with the local food movement. There's a lot to admire about the locavores—their commitment and attention to food, their enthusiasm (even if sometimes bordering on zealotry), the way they innovate and change urban landscapes.

At the same time, it's frequently an elitist movement. Most working-class people can't get to the farmers' markets, often held during working hours. I love my vegetable garden, but only can tend a plot of its size because I work from home and can go weeding when cubicle farmers are taking a smoke or coffee break. Local organic food also tends to cost more. It's usually worth it for the quality, but that quality is all too often a luxury that many cannot afford.

What sets Elton's book apart is that she is clearly aware of all this. She's also frustrated with some of the more ridiculous approaches, such as the 100-Mile Diet (which is a fantastic read, if not a feasible lifestyle choice for those of us who have long, dark winters).

Is Locavore worth reading?
After a didactic opening, Elton plays to her strength with good storytelling. The book is essentially a travelogue, one of the most popular and successful genres in post-millennial publishing. She mucks about on farms in New Brunswick, Ontario, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. She relates real stories about real people and real communities. They're communities that have seen their agricultural markets change and disappear. More importantly, she introduces us to the visionary people who have seen ways to adapt to new realities without abandoning their agrarian roots.

The book is well researched and surprisingly positive. It moves at a steady pace, and it's plain that the author had an editor who was good at keeping the narrative unmuddled by essays. There were, as I recall, only three points during which Elton slipped into essayist mode, and they're well spaced and worthwhile.

Is industrial agriculture sustainable?
There are two fundamental questions the book needs to answer. The first is posed on page 74:
What's more pertinent to the discussion is whether industrial agriculture is sustainable. The larger question the food miles debate demands of us is whether a global, industrial agricultural system is the best way to feed the planet. Can humanity continue to farm this way into the future, extracting the same yields without destroying the integrity of the environment?
It's a great question, but one which anyone picking up the book has probably already answered for themselves. "I'd hazard a no," Elton writes. She provides a quick summary of the problems with the industrial food system, but not a thorough investigation of them. To be fair, that's not the purpose of the book. Many, many books could be, and have been, written on industrial agriculture, food quality and quantity, and the environment. This book is about an alternative system.

Is local agriculture feasible?
This is the real question. Can we grow food closer to the markets? It's not a food miles question, and Elton provides a good discussion of why the issue is more complex than simple food miles. She points out that local food can be worse for the environment in some circumstances. She also, quite fairly, points out that there are things we simply cannot grow where we live, things which, like chocolate, some people just won't give up.

The book succeeds because it presents examples of how we can produce food differently. She explores local farmer's cooperatives that bypass the supermarket system and how these have helped farmers change the way they think about crops. She talks about heirloom crops that can bring flavour, texture and variety back to our tables while using fewer chemicals. She discusses the benefits and potentially huge environmental costs of greenhousing. The book shines because it's a travelogue of fresh agricultural ideas.

Ultimately, however, there are big questions that remain unanswered.

The big one for me is one Elton herself raises: Urban agriculture is great, but how can you get enough calorie crops in a place like Toronto?

The local food opportunities suggested seem to all focus on market gardening: growing high-profit crops like salad greens, rather than staple foods such as grains. It's the one question that nagged at me as I finished the book on a flight back from New York earlier this month.

And it's a question I look forward to asking Elton when she joins me and other environmental journalists at the pub on Tuesday night.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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