Today’s mounting social and ecological crises demand responses that are broad, deep, and strategic. Given the widespread destruction wrought by globalisation, it seems clear that the most powerful solutions will involve a fundamental change in direction — towards localising rather than globalising economic activity. In fact, ‘going local’ may be the single most effective thing we can do.
Localisation would not only entail far less social and environmental upheaval, it would actually be far less costly to implement. In fact, every step towards the local, whether at the policy level or in our communities, would bring with it a whole cascade of benefits. Localisation is essentially a process of de-centralisation — shifting economic activity into the hands of millions of small- and medium-sized businesses instead of concentrating it in fewer and fewer mega-corporations.
Localisation doesn’t mean that every community would be entirely self-reliant; it simply means striking a balance between trade and local production by diversifying economic activity and shortening the distance between producers and consumers wherever possible. Since food is something everyone, everywhere, needs every day, a shift from global food to local food would have the greatest impact of all.
When I lived in Paris in the 1970s, it was a city full of character and life. Each quarter had its own colourful market, selling wonderful fruits, all kinds of vegetables, meats, superb cheeses and wine. All of that diversity originated at no great distance: most of it came from different regions of France, if not from the immediate surroundings of Paris. Today it can be difficult to find garlic in Paris that has not travelled from China. In the supermarkets, grapes from Chile and wine from California are increasingly commonplace. The diversity of French foods is in decline, and those that are available are becoming more and more costly.
I also lived for several years in rural Spain. In the little villages of Southern Andalucia in the 1980s, almost all the food in the shops came from the villages themselves or the immediate region: goat’s cheeses, olives and olive oil, grapes, fresh and dried figs, wine and many different kinds of meat. Today when I go back I find almost nothing that has been produced locally. The olives may have been grown in the surrounding region, but they have travelled to the metropolis to be packaged in plastic and then sent back again. Virtually everything sold is vacuum-sealed in layers of plastic. Even cheese rinds are now made of plastic.
In line with these trends, in 1996 Britain imported more than 114,000 metric tons of milk. Was this because British dairy farmers did not produce enough milk for the nation’s consumers? No, since the UK exported almost the same amount of milk that year, 119,000 tons.* Apples are flown 14,000 miles from New Zealand and green beans flown 4,000 miles from Kenya. We might wonder how these can possibly compete with local apples and beans — surely food produced locally should be cheaper? But it isn’t. Instead, generally speaking, fresh local food is vastly more expensive than food from faraway. The main reason for this is government investments and subsidies.
The 100 Mile Diet (…that’s 160 km)
How far does your food travel to get to your plate? A new movement in the US takes a look at this very question. An average American meal contains an assortment of foods that have travelled an average of 2,000 miles (3,218 km) to get from farm to fork. Estimates suggest it could be even further for Australians.
For those concerned about energy conservation, greenhouse gases, and oil dependence, the types of food we choose to eat are as important as the types of cars we choose to drive (or avoid). Industrial agriculture and long-distance food transportation generate a large portion of all climate destabilising greenhouse gases in Australia. Given this fact, buying food that is locally or regionally grown can dramatically reduce energy consumption and greenhouse pollution.
The local food movement has received a recent boost with the new trend of the ‘100 mile diet’, the brainchild of Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon. ‘We’re the kind of people that ride our bikes everywhere, so we wondered why we were going to all this effort when our food was flying around the world,’ says Smith. The diet trend, which requires participants to only eat foods grown within a 100 mile radius (160 kms), is catching on across North America and now in Australia as well. Philadelphia journalist Elisa Ludwig took up the 100 mile diet for 12 days to learn more about the foods she eats. ‘If eating local is a moral imperative, then every meal is an opportunity to do the right thing,’ says Ludwig, who kept a daily journal of the experience.
Read more about the 100 mile diet at <a href="http://www.100milediet.org”>www.100milediet.org
Governments, using taxpayer’s money, fund the motorways, high-speed rail links, tunnels, bridges and communications satellites that make the supermarkets’ global trade possible. This money also subsidises the aviation fuel and energy production on which supermarkets depend. And it helps fund the research geared towards biotechnology, mechanisation and intensive chemical use. Local traders, small-scale farmers, retailers and manufacturers pay the price through their taxes and also through being forced out of business.
Some people might argue that there is nothing wrong with such developments — that they are a sign of progress and the emergence of a global, cosmopolitan society based on the principle of choice. However, the diversity of choice available to consumers is an illusion. Pressure from supermarkets and government subsidies forces producers to grow monocultures of standardised crops to suit the globalised marketplace. For instance, the National Fruit Collection in the UK contains over 2,300 varieties of apples. Today, only two varieties dominate UK orchards. We see the same trend amongst all fruits, vegetables, grains and even meat and dairy products. This loss of agricultural diversity is a direct result of the move towards the production of monoculture.
Biological diversity and cultural diversity are also under threat from the monoculture. In study after study, it has been shown that large farms growing single crops are bereft of the variety of wildlife species that live in great numbers on small organic farms that grow a diverse range of crops. Food is also closely linked to cultural identity. As the global consumer culture steamrolls across the planet, amalgamating diverse cultures into one big Coke-swilling, McDonald’s-munching ‘global village’,’ we lose the varied and vivid tapestry of cultures that once inhabited this planet. The consequences of undermining cultural integrity are severe, not least of which are increased ethnic violence and terrorism.
In this age of impending oil shortages and global climate change, it is sheer madness to waste fossil fuels transporting food needlessly around the planet. In recent years, it has been calculated that transport for the UK food market accounts for 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted each year. Besides creating pollution, the transportation of food in ships, airplanes and trucks, damages roads, intensifies congestion and, worse, causes accidents. Research conducted in 2005, estimated that the government could save 2.1 billion pounds in costs associated with environmental damage, congestion and infrastructure if the food economy were more localised. That is a significant savings for the taxpayer.
Citizen groups around the world are beginning to realise that it is this highly centralised and subsidised economic system that is the prime culprit behind many international food crises: food shortages in developing countries, GM contamination and diseases like BSE, salmonella and avian flu. Increasingly, grassroots movements are pressing for major policy changes at national and international levels in order to bring the global financial markets under control. They are also working, against the economic odds, to strengthen local economies.
An Apple a Day…
Walking through the fields around my house in South Devon, I often come across long forgotten apple trees. They are the gnarled remnants of a rich agricultural history, when productive orchards dotted the country, bearing apples with names you rarely see in the supermarkets. Grenadier, Keswick Codlin, Margil, Cox’s Orange Pippin. In the autumn, these lone trees drop their fruit. Apples scatter on the ground, harvested only by the occasional passer-by like me. The bulk of the crop lies rotting in the barren fields — just one more reminder of the madness of the global economy.
In 2004, over 630,000 tonnes of apples were consumed in the UK. Of these an estimated 80 per cent were imported. Supermarkets want apples that travel and store well. They require apples that are uniform in shape and colour, free from the lumps and bumps typical of an organic, heirloom variety. France, New Zealand and South Africa supplied two-thirds of these imports, with the United States following a close fourth. This means that, from tree to mouth, some apples travelled around 20,000 kilometres.
Meanwhile, since 1970, about two-thirds of apple orchards in the UK have been torn out. The land has been converted to production eligible for subsidies: wheat, meat, milk. Most remaining orchards are managed intensively and produce only a few types of apple.
Fortunately, people are rediscovering our disappearing apple heritage. Several organisations now promote local varieties of apples and provide information on where to buy them and how to grow them. A national Apple Day is celebrated in towns and villages around the country every year in October. Reviving local production of heirloom varieties is good for the ecosystem: traditionally managed orchards support twice the number of birds and a greater range of species than intensively managed ones. Buying local apples is good for the local economy. And, it turns out, eating them is good for our health.
Recent research has shown that old varieties of fruits and vegetables contain significantly higher levels of salvestrols — a potent cancer-fighting compound — than modern hybrids. So enjoy a local apple a day and revive the local economy, protect the environment and…keep the doctor away.
Published in Kindred, Issue 20, Dec 06
Philip Bicknell. US Apple Exports to UK Timed for December. USDA FAS Worldwide. December 2005. www.fas.usda.gov/info/fasworldwide/2005/12-2005/UKApples.htm
Apple Day, Community Orchards. Commonground. http://www.commonground.org.uk/appleday/a-corc.html
The Pear Essentials and How Green are our Apples. Sustain, September 18, 2006. http://www.sustainweb.org/page.php?id=147
Loise Atkinson, You’re Eating the Wrong Fruit and Veg. Daily Mail. 10 July 2006 www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/health/dietfitness.html?in_article_id=393956&in_page_id=1798