Why I support local, seasonal eating - for now
Thanksgiving might very well be America's favorite holiday. It comes at a time when the weather is getting colder and we, in the more northern parts of the country at least, look forward to gathering and cuddling together in our snug, warm homes (even if we are occasionally distracted by wondering how to improve efficiency and reduce our heating bills and CO2 emissions). It is a holiday free from the frenzy of gift-giving, and we are neither measured, nor measure others, by the bounty or price of the gifts that are given.
We don't even have to do think much about what to serve: the menu (often the hardest part of planning celebrations) is largely pre-set.
But one of the lessons of Thanksgiving's feast that is often lost on all of us grateful holiday gluttons, is that it reflects the once essential trait of eating locally and seasonally.
Of course we all know this, but eating local and seasonal foods on Thanksgiving seems more charming than inevitable, as it was 400 years ago. Ideally this year at least, our Thanksgiving menu will remind us of the blessings, and the challenges, of a global food market.
Let me go on the record as being an agnostic about the ultimate value of local, seasonal eating. I am not convinced that eating pumpkins in the fall in Baltimore is inherently more ethical or environmentally sound than eating bananas - if we can control for several factors. We are a global community, and my purchases of certain foods can mean the difference between financial security and poverty for some family I will never meet and some community I will never visit. Many foods that will never grow in Baltimore are not only healthy and good for but also are aesthetically pleasing and might be an essential part of our diets. Simpler living - which I highly advocate - does not always mean only local living.
However, at the same time, I need to be sure that the production and harvesting of these foods are done in sustainable ways - that woodlands, hillsides and tropical forests have not been denuded for my indulgent gastronomic choices; that the workers are not exploited; that fertilizers and pesticides are not wastefully, inappropriately and unhealthily used (if at all); and that fossil fuels are not expended spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. If, and I would like to think when, we can be assured that food is produced, processed and transported sustainably and equitably, we would then not be constrained by the location of its growth. That is, if - and hopefully when - food can move as carbon-neutrally and as sustainably 3,000 miles as it does 50 miles, then all food can be considered local.
This is what we are seeking when we talk about fair trade coffee. That we carve out this special niche of foreign food is motivated mostly by our addiction to caffeine, and our equally laudable desire to consume it without guilt. Likewise our desire for sugar, chocolate, tea and other exotic staple foods that we would be most unhappy without. Can we not extend the same criteria which allow us to get our morning rush and our endorphine pleasures to other sorts of commodities?
To be sure, in the absence of these guarantees of ethical, sustainable food production and distribution, local, seasonal eating becomes an ethical imperative. And today, since such assurances are not given and transportation is largely based on fossil fuel, and wasteful production contributes tragically to increased greenhouse gas emissions, eating closer to home is the ethical thing to do. But hopefully we can right these wrongs, and thus local eating might best be seen as a transitional behavior, and not an absolute one.