Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Eat Here review

Brian Halwell's Eat Here is an economically elegant argument on why we need to eat more locally produced foods. Unlike other polemical works on this type of topic, Halwell provides us with not only a summation of the issues and problems surrounding food and the food industry, but also a summation of simple solutions.

There is a definite slant to it all. The book is published by the Worldwatch Institute, an organization and magazine that focuses on the environment and social justice, and the author is a senior researcher for the institute. Halwell also avowed his membership to a Slow Food chapter within the book. Despite this bias, or perhaps because of it, Halwell presents a surprisingly reasonable case on behalf of eating local foods.

Halwell highlights the numerous, widespread problems surrounding corporate-raised, nonlocal food. There is the enormous amount of fuel consumption involved in transporting produce across states. This has come about due to cheap oil prices and government trade incentives and subsidies further lowering the cost of gasoline. The result of this, alongside highly efficient industrial food production, is that the price of food commodities (yes, commodities) on the global market is artificially low. How can the Oklahoman garlic farmer compete with the Chinese farmer who grows the same type of garlic under a weaker currency, thus allowing for "cheaper" heads of garlic?

Safety standards by the USDA have little power of enforcement beyond censure and reluctant recalls in light of food outbreaks with little fear of penalty. The Food Safety and Inspection Service, an arm of the USDA, works with food processing plants to detect sources of contamination and formulates a plan of prevention. These are voluntarily followed and the plants are infrequently inspected due to shortage of inspectors and funding for inspection and testing. These concerns are further compounded by the centralization and internal expansion of food processing plants whereby one weak spot along the line can result in a few tons of ground meat being contaminated with E. coli or bushels of spinach being cleaned with sewage water.

The current business model for industrial farmers is akin to that of indentured servants where farmers often have little choice but to buy seed, fertilizer, pesticide, and equipment from different sources that are often owned by one major conglomerate. There are also the high suicide rates among farming families, children abandoning the family farm in favor of better employment elsewhere, decreasing financial returns for each successively larger harvest.

Thankfully, as often as Halwell puts a central problem under the spotlight, he also presents individuals and organizations who are working on solutions. One privately owned fast-food chain based in Oregon and Washington called Burgerville uses local ingredients for all its franchises. Halwell notes the need for farmers to group together their selling power and diversify their partnerships in order to compete with corporations.

For us, Halwell points to several steps we can take to become more involved with local food. We can visit farms near us to learn more about what is grown there. Granted, this may not be entirely possible for anyone who lives in the middle of an urban area. But that doesn't mean we can't find a farmer's market or produce grown from converted lots and rooftops. With a little knowledge and help from experienced growers and farmers, we can even harvest our own vegetables and herbs in our backyard or in pots. For the more ambitious of us, we can join food policy councils (or start one) and lobby for greater use of local food in our schools and businesses. Our concept of and relationship to "local food" does not have to remain confined to farms and ranches.

Next on the "To Read" List:
  • The United States of Arugula by David Kamp (review in process)
  • The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Today's Supplements:

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