5 Ridiculous Myths People Use to Trash Local Food -- And Why They're Wrong
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For an American who has never traveled outside the country -- or perhaps has traveled but not to agricultural areas, observing both peasant subsistence agriculture and industrial agriculture -- Sexton's argument might seem logical. But his argument ignores the vast expanses of land planted with entirely unnecessary crops for feeding the world: cotton, sugarcane, palm oil, soybeans, corn, rubber, tobacco, and fast growing trees like eucalyptus for paper production, to name a few. No doubt we need some cotton, sugar, and corn, etc. But the amount of land under these crops, which are then used to produce biofuels, processed foods, factory-farmed meat, paper, clothing, and industrial inputs, is immense, wasteful, and largely (although not entirely) unnecessary.
Prior to the European conquest of the Americas, sugar was reserved for the very wealthy. By the height of the Industrial Revolution, sugar made up a significant percent of calories in the British diet. And it is hardly controversial to note that Americans eat an unhealthy amount of sugar in their diets today. Palm oil, which is now found in 50 percent of processed foods and other items like cleaning products in the United States, was once a local, traditional West African food. Today, palm oil production is ravaging the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia and expanding to other areas like Papua New Guinea and Latin America.
Both of these crops, as well as corn, soy and jatropha are also grown for biofuels, which do not feed people. Neither does paper, which we in the United States use as a cheap renewable resource, unaware of enormous areas covered in fast growing trees that are often quite disruptive to the ecosystem around them in order to meet our needs. And grain-fed meat, as pointed out so many years ago by Frances Moore Lappe in Diet for a Small Planet, is a wasteful use of calories compared to feeding grain directly to people. If we care about feeding the world while using fewer resources, switching to pasture-raised meat -- and less of it per person in the developed world -- is a must. Doing so would likely improve our health as a nation at the same time.
There is much more to say in response to Sexton's claims. As productivity doubled during the 20th century, it did so based on the nonrenewable resources of oil and natural gas. These agricultural methods are, thus, not sustainable. That means they cannot be continued indefinitely into the future even without considering an expanding global population. We in the United States and other wealthy countries must find a new way to feed ourselves no matter what. The "gains" of the 20th century are temporary, and defending them by attacking local food will not create the needed oil or freeze the clock on the climate crisis in order to continue growing food like we do now.
To understand how to feed a growing world population, we must travel outside our bubble, into the Global South, to see how the areas of the world where the population is growing the fastest live. Here, where the people that writers like Sexton worry about feeding, live, the economics and efficiency of local, organic food are completely different from how they are in the United States. These people who live in adobe huts, grow their food with manual or animal labor, saved seeds, few inputs, and often no irrigation, are not endangering our ability to support our global population with the Earth's resources. Those who bathe and do laundry in the local stream, who store dried grains and beans because they lack refrigerators, and who never go shopping as a leisure activity as we do in the United States will not make or break the planet's ability to provide enough food, fuel, and fiber for human needs. It's we in the United States and other developed countries who will do so.