Friday, November 4, 2011

Local Food As Insurance

In today's New York Times, food writer Mark Bittman discusses the benefits of locally- and regionally-grown food. He writes about similar issues often, but today's column hones in on the policies that create more incentives for growing commodities (wheat, corn, soy) that we export, feed to livestock, or feed to automobiles than incentives for growing fruits and vegetables, for which we are a net importer. He quite rightly points out that our current agricultural system, requiring massive transport costs to bring "fresh" fruits and vegetables to our supermarkets without regard for seasonality, depends on a continuation of cheap fossil fuels. 

He writes, "We’ve seen that nothing is guaranteed: not energy, not water, not the financial system, not even the climate. Our food supply isn’t guaranteed either (remember 2008?), but it’s more likely to provide us with security if we focus more on regional agriculture and less on trade." 

As it happens, there is a living, breathing example of what happens to a food system dependent on imports and fossil fuels when those things disappear. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did Cuba's food economy, which had relied heavily on sugar exports to nations behind the Iron Curtain, and imports of staple grains, tractors, and petroleum-based fertilizers and fuels. With no fuel coming in and no lucrative markets for its sugar, Cuba's food production was forced to become small, labor-intensive, and local. Human labor replaced tractors and small urban gardens and farms replaced sugar plantations almost overnight. You can read about it here, here, and here

Obviously, there are many criticisms that can be made of Cuba and it's Soviet-era economy is not one that is widely shared by nations today. But the lessons learned by Cuban citizens when they needed to take food matters into their own hands are valuable for us all. There are good reasons to build (or rebuild) local and regional food economies, and Cuba has shown the world that it is possible. Just some food for thought. 

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