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Local food for thought: an interview with Brian Halweil

Eating locally, or how to reduce the risk of E. Coli and improve the taste of your food, according to the author of “Eat Here” Brian Halweil.

Do you look at the stickers on your apples- whether they say Chile or a farm near you? Do you regularly buy papayas when it’s snowing outside?

Brian Halweil, author of Eat Here, talked to us about the growing trend to eat local, its nutrition and safety benefits and how anyone can play their part (without giving up coffee).

faircompanies: Why are more and more starting to eat locally?

Brian Halweil: This local food movement has really exploded in America, whether you measure it in the terms of farmer’s markets or member shipping groups like Slow Food, or the number of supermarkets that are starting to carve out a section for local food. And I think it’s growing so rapidly because it just appeals to people on so many levels. It saves a tremendous amount of oil in food shipping. It’s a great way to prevent sprawl because it gives more value to farmland.

It’s a great way to keep money in your local economy. And it even appeals to people who have concerns about food safety and homeland security. Which is kind of ironic, but the department of homeland security in the United States likes the idea of local food because the less long distance food shipping, the less vulnerable our country is to any sort of disruptions; the transportation system, to a spike in oil prices and to any sort if accident or malicious attack on our food.

And we’ve had a couple of large food scares in this country recently, a big recall of spinach that was contaminated with E. Coli, and also a big meat product recall. Tens of millions of pounds of meat had to be recalled again because of the E. Coli and other food borne illnesses. And, the reality is that those recalls were directly caused by the fact that our food system is so concentrated and so long distanced, that there’s just a handful of farms and factories that are producing a majority of the food.

And it’s not to say that your small local farm is going to be immune to those sorts of food safety problems. But, the problem is not likely to spread to, you now, half the country and affect tens of millions of people. If a problem arises locally, you’ll be able to deal with it and it won’t affect the entire country. So, there’s good reason to believe that eating local is really the safer option.

Why did you decide to write a book on the local food movement?

I work for the Worldwatch Institute and we are an environmental research group and we sort of track trends. One trend that I noticed, everywhere you looked, people are getting more and more interested in where their food was coming from.

And this included chefs in big urban areas who knew that eating local was the best way to get fresh wholesome ingredients.

Parents of kids around the world who were becoming fed up with what their kids were being served in school; farmers who saw selling food locally as a way to connect with their customers and hold on to their income; and even big agri-business companies who wanted to build some allegiance to local communities as a way to impress their customers.

So, wherever I looked in the United States or Spain, or Australia, people are more and more interested in buying local. And what I began to realize was that food was a perfect way to get people interested in what’s happening in their environment.

I mean, first you wonder why an environmental group would be interested in eating local, well food is our most intimate connection to the landscape around us, and it was a perfect way to get people interested in not only in how we’re raising food but how agriculture impacts the environment.

What does eating local imply?

The powerful thing about eating local is that it’s kind of a vague idea. For some people it means eating out of their garden, buying food from their neighbours, people down the road.

For other people it might just be buying food grown in their country. And I think in general the idea behind eating local is just beginning to wonder where your food comes from and ask questions about how it’s raised and who raised it, and what impact it had on the landscape.

Because, that’s what really makes it a powerful choice instead of all this anonymous food we have in the supermarket that’s shipped from far away, and even if you wanted to ask someone what’s in it or how it was produced they wouldn’t be able to tell you.

By buying locally, from the person who grew it, from someone who knew the person who grew it, you have all this sort of control and power over that food. You have some influence over how it’s raised, over how it gets to you, over how it impacts the local economy and the landscape.

So, anyone can really get involved in eating local. It doesn’t have to be a complete local, it doesn’t have to be a complete shift in your diet. I wouldn’t want to completely get rid of food trade and exotic flavours.

I mean, certain amounts of food trade has always been natural, it’s been going on for a very long time. It’s the reason we have fusion cuisine. And growing up in New York City it’s the reason I could’ve eaten everything from Cantonese food, to Russian food, to Ethiopian food, to Tex-Mex food.

But the bottom line is, shipping food around the planet gobbles enormous amounts of energy, is very wasteful of all sorts of resources and removes us, sort of, physically and psychologically from the source of our food.

And so eating local is about cutting out that wasteful food shipping and not completely giving up getting coffee or tea from the tropics, but at least buying locally what could be readily produced locally.

Does that include eating seasonally?

Yeah, eating seasonally is almost the same idea as eating locally because by definition, if you’re eating what’s growing in your area it’s going to be what’s in season. At the same time, we’ve kind of abandoned all sorts of simple technologies that allow us to extend the season.

Things like greenhouses, like hot walls, like cold frames, like certain crop varieties that we know keep well in the field, and could be stored for longer. There are all sorts of varieties of apples, for instance, that have kind of fallen by the wayside, but they ripen at different times of the year, they store very well.

But they weren’t as beautiful or they didn’t have some other characteristics that we’ve liked, so we kind of abandoned them. But if we were really interested in being able to produce apples for a bigger chunk of the year, we would get back to that sort of diversity.

So, the idea of eating seasonally can be changed depending on how we grow things. And it involves sort of re-learning on how to raise things and how to cook things. If on the one hand farmers have to be growing a greater variety of crops so that they have food for more of the season, at the same time people like you and me, chefs, home cooks, have to learn how to cook with what’s available.

And very few of us can, very few of us preserve. And it’s not really about going back to that entirely, but it’s about being more creative with what’s available. Let’s say in winter, rather than just imagining we’re going to have strawberries or tomatoes the entire year.

Does eating locally automatically equate to eating healthier?

Well, it’s funny, intuitively you’d think if something is harvested just a few hours before you’re eating it, it’s not being shipped a long distance, it’s not being stored for long periods of time, it was harvested at the height of its ripeness because it didn’t have to be harvested early so that it can endure long distance shipping, intuitively local food, it has got to be healthier, it’s got to have more nutrients. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of evidence of that. I mean, the studies just haven’t been done.

There’s some evidence that certain nutrients do break down over the long-term. And we do know that if you harvest something early so that it can endure a long distance shipping experience, that it’s not going to have the full compliment of nutrients that it might have had before. What we do know is that it tastes a lot better.

That’s been proven in all sorts of taste surveys, when you have people taste a given produce from a farmer’s market versus the same produce form a supermarket, invariably people choose the produce from the farmer’s market.

I mean, there are other reasons though, why it might impact our health. First, because if you’re not shipping something long distance you don’t have to fumigate it and preserve it and shrink wrap it and do all of other sorts of things to it that long distance food often has to endure. So, for that reason, it might be healthier.

Eating local is probably the easiest way to cut out all sorts of process and packaged food from your diet, because you are going to be eating lots more of unprocessed, raw, wholesome food that you’re cooking yourself. So indirectly, eating local ends up meaning that you have a much healthier diet, although, we can’t really say that local food by definition is more nutritious.

How about the buying organic versus buying locally debate?

A lot of people say, “Ok, if I have the choice of buying organic or buying local, which should I choose?” And, the interesting thing is you talk to a lot of organic farmers and people in the organic food business and they often say choose local, which surprises you.

But, it’s because they argue that if you don’t support your local farmer than you risk losing that farmer. You risk that farmer going out of business, and then you never have the opportunity to convince him to go organic. There’s a very close relationship between local and organic.

If you go to a typical farmer’s market in the United States there’s a very high number of organic farmers, and that’s no coincidence. It’s because people who are interested in buying local or also interested in asking all sorts of questions about how the food is grown.

And farmers are interacting face to face with their customers, if they hear that people are concern about hormones in their milk, or antibiotics being fed to their chickens, or vegetables that are being sprayed with pesticides, they’re more likely to change their practices because they know that they have customers who are willing to buy that stuff if they change their practices.

So there’s a really close relationship between eating local and eating organic. If you’re eating local, you’re eating from your own landscape, you’re not going to want the farmer and the food producers in your area to be polluting that landscape.

Are there any studies that demonstrated that local farmers used less pesticides?

I mean there’s a lot of evidence that small farmers are more efficient with everything that they use from fuel to seeds to pesticides and fertilizers. Because they’re dealing on a smaller scale, they don’t have to be as blunt with how they use all their implements. And they could give more care to every square inch of soil.

On a larger scale, the farmer often has to just choose ‘one size fits all’ type of technique. So we know that small farmers are more efficient in a lot of ways, but I don’t think, you know, as the rule of thumb, initially have an inclination to be organic.

Though it’s easier to farm organically on the small scale because organic farming involves knowing your environment a little better, knowing what pests are doing, knowing what conditions your soils in and giving it that sort of intimate attention.

Do enough people utilize the greenhouse method?

It’s just a technology that’s kind of fallen by the wayside and it’s pretty inexpensive to put a greenhouse together and it’s becoming more and more popular. But, not as many farms do it and I think that farmers don’t necessarily believe that they can find the market for this produce in the off season.

So, just like certain food fall out of vogue, the idea of trying to raise salad greens has fallen out of vogue in the winter, it’s fallen out of vogue, partly because it’s so inexpensive to ship those greens in for the rest of the year.

What are some challenges local food has to face?

I mean, the big challenge that local food faces is that it’s still the alternative system. The long distance food system which is dependent on very cheap energy and all sorts of other costs that aren’t really paid, that the environment bears, is still the dominant food system.

The amount of food that we ship around the globe is astonishing, and it continues to increase very rapidly, just because it’s the easier way of doing things. And to the extent that we can ship salad all around the country or all around the world, farmers everywhere have less incentive to grow salad for their local community.

But I think all sorts of things are beginning to happen. Whether it’s a rise in the price of oil, whether it’s more and more food safety crises, whether it’s more people just wanting to buy fresh food from someone in their community, all these factors are beginning to chip away at the long distance food chain. And they’re making the long distance food chain less and less reliable.