Monday, August 4, 2008

Local matters now more than ever

I just read this piece in the Mail Tribune (a paper out of southern Oregon) about how farmer's markets are suffering because of higher fuel prices. It's an interesting read, and makes mention of our own Dane County market, but what struck me the most was the final quote in the article, attributed to one NYC vendor: "Local soon will not be that important."

My knee-jerk reaction to such a notion is "YOU'RE WRONG! TAKE IT BACK RIGHT NOW!" But then, I'm trying to put my petulance aside and really look at the issue. The conclusion I've come to, though, is the same--local does matter, now more than ever, and it is precisely because of the skyrocketing cost of fuel (and environmental concerns, and the so-called obesity epidemic, etc. etc.).

The contention of the article is that higher oil costs, and the associated greater cost of supplies for smaller farmers, is forcing them to raise their prices. Large chain grocery stores, however, can better absorb the cost increases without passing it on to customers quite as much. Evidence points to this being the case, so I'm not arguing against this point.

It shouldn't be like that, though. Food grown and prepared locally tends to be fresher, tastier, and more sustainably grown. Plus, you're truly supporting family farmers instead of giant corporate operations. As a nation, we pay a lot of lip service to these family farmers and how important they are to our way of life, but we don't seem to do much to actually support them.

And since locally produced food has to travel a lot less to reach our tables, it should logically follow that it be somewhat cheaper. So then, why isn't it?

Farm subsidies might have something to do with it. Most of the money and benefits of these subsidies goes toward the big operations, most of whom don't really need the help. Originally enacted to help struggling family farmers during the Depression, the subsidies now primarily game the system in favor of large agribusinesses and Fortune 500 companies. That's certainly no good. The trick, of course, is that many of the arguments against the subsidy system stem from a belief that the free market will right all wrongs. What's left out, however, is the effect it has on local farmers in various, less developed countries around the world.

It's a fine balance. On the one hand, we want to make sure that people all over the world have reliable and affordable access to healthy food. Looking at the current state of world food prices (crazy high), it's easy to see how one might jump to the conclusion that the best remedy for the problem is to make it easier to import produce from abroad at cheaper prices. I won't argue that that's completely wrong, especially considering the poor environmental conditions of certain parts of the world (both man-made and as a result of natural disasters). It's important to have a global system of food production and distribution to aid people and places that are, for one reason or another, unable to support themselves at any given time.

But shouldn't our main focus be on making sure that most places can, in fact, support their local populations? It's the old adage: don't give away fish, teach them how to do the fishing. Easing farm subsidies shouldn't mean glutting foreign markets with goods and essentially forcing local, smaller producers out of the game. This seems especially important now with the cost of fuel growing ever-higher. Food security should take just as much precedence as energy security, in that perhaps we ought to be focusing on making sure populations have access to more domestically, locally produced goods. This reduces the cost of transporting the food, the risk of accidentally importing a piggybacking pest, and increases the likelihood that people will be able to sustain themselves in the event of catastrophes elsewhere in the world.

If we subsidize anyone, shouldn't it be the local, smaller farmers and producers? After all, they tend to be the ones at the forefront of innovative and more earth-friendly growing techniques. And shouldn't they be allowed to grow crops based on both the demands of their local markets and the capabilities of their local environments? This would have the positive effect of providing affordable, nutritional, and more sustainably grown food--and of helping to empower local communities who would be able to take a larger stake in their own well-being.

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