Embracing the Complexities of the Food System

My undergraduate experience was, for the most part, predictably conventional. In four years of college, I, like so many, learned a lot about myself, made a few bad decisions, experienced the woeful pangs of unrequited love, and had sobering revelations about the world’s injustices and the naïveté to think I could singlehandedly sow the seeds of change.

My ideological charge became food issues when, as a sophomore, I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. This young author’s exposé of the environmental, social, and public health-related problems caused by the industrialized meat industry forced animal flesh from my diet and thrust a heightened critical consciousness onto my worldview.

You can imagine my surprise, and consequent dismay, when I learned the school I attended – one that extols the virtues of progressivism, environmental leadership, and global thinking – purchases virtually all of the meat it serves in its dining halls from factory farms, the corporate machines that in so many ways contradict the institution’s values.

The result was two years of attempted reform – not less meat, but better, more “sustainable” meat – and personal philosophical grappling with such issues as food waste, worker equity, food security, and localvorism. As with any systemically ingrained issue – be it fossil fuel addiction, loss of biodiversity, or climate change – there is incalculable complexity, inescapable hypocrisy, and intractability. And so I began to appreciate with regard to food.

By way of illustration, let’s examine the notion of “local.” The localvore movement is predicated on the idea that locally grown food is better than its conventional counterpart insofar as it requires less energy to transport, is fresher and more nutritious, and preserves genetic diversity, among other advantages.

Enter the inconvenient and inevitable complications:

  • In Vermont, local farmers can often derive greater profit from exporting their products out of state than selling them in-state, so it’s not necessarily in their financial interest to engage exclusively, or even primarily, with local markets and consumers.

  • Local food is often, although not always, more expensive, a reality that precludes many households with modest incomes from affording it despite its availability. (NOFA-VT published a report 2010 about this very issue.)

  • The ability of a region to feed itself (i.e., avoid importing food) is complicated by such considerations as acres of tillable land, population size, and dietary preference.

  • Produce and meat can be more expensive to produce in a state like Vermont because of the cost of land, the scale of production, and the need for seasonal protection, among other factors.

This list of examples, far from exhaustive, is not meant to cast doubt on the virtues of “local” or to discourage those virtues’ propagation. Instead, it is meant to encourage a more nuanced approach when thinking about food.

This past fall the High Meadows board hosted a conversation about these very complexities. The most illuminating moment for me was someone's suggestion that proximity between farm and plate, or "localness," may not be the most productive way to think about sustainability in the food system.

Indeed, the Real Food Challenge, a national initiative working to change the way universities purchase food, defines food as “real” when it is community-based, fairly traded, ecologically sound, or humanely raised. That geographic locality is missing from RFC’s metrics is not a negative statement, I don’t believe, about the utility of measuring the distance food travels before it reaches the end user. On the contrary, its absence strikes me simply as an act of diversification.

This particular individual’s observation was but one insight that emerged on that evening in early autumn. Moving forward, we’ll do well to continue thinking critically and holistically about the food system on a local, regional, national, and international scale. Doing so will ensure progress toward the more just, secure, and resilient agricultural future that we so desire.

Stu Fram
January 2014