Industrial models for sustainable food?

Edible San Francisco last week ran an article arguing in favor of eating sustainable pork from the Midwest, rather than pigs raised locally in California ("The Sustainable Pork Smackdown: Midwest vs. Bay Area Five reasons to think hard about that pork on your fork. [part 1]," by Samin Nosrat). Citing improved texture and flavor, and greener, more efficient production, the article lays out some compelling reasons to rethink the mantra that local is always better. Clearly, there are still some kinks to work out in the effort to localize food production in the US, given a large territory with densely populated urban areas dispersed unevenly with regard to the agricultural productivity of the land. Sprawling metropolises have been made possible in inhospitable climates by the history of expanded transportation infrastructure, such as railroads and refrigerated trucks, making possible in turn the massive industrial food system we have today. From the Southwestern desert to the long winters of the Northeast, many major metropolitan areas of the US probably can't sustain themselves on food grown within a 100 mile radius.

But back to pork. The core of Nosrat's argument centers on the particular food system that produces smallscale organical pork. According to Paul Willis of Niman Ranch, for instance, it doesn't make sense to transport large amounts of grain from the Midwest to California, when you can ship less weight in the final meat product in the other direction. In addition, Midwestern sustainable pork benefits from a better developed agricultural infrastructure -- there are more slaughterhouses adapted to humane killing, and an entirely industry for using pig by-products efficiently -- from hides to manure. Finally, Nosrat contends that the quality and flavor of California-raised pork suffers from an "inconsistent diet," compared to pigs fed the corn and soybeans so endemic now to the Midwest.

There are some merits to challenging the local-at-all-costs directive that has become a prominent feature of the sustainable food movement -- while in California, we might be able to eat good food grown locally most of the year, many parts of the country would require a large population shift to eat that way in all seasons. Moreover, the Slow Food movement has advocated the value of local foodways -- the idea that some foods are local specialties and should be enjoyed even if exported, from single-origin chocolates to Parmigiano-Reggiano. Furthermore, in the long run, the issue of emissions and carbon footprints must be solved through alternative energy sources, not only by reducing travel and transit.

But when I hear efficiency emphasized as a key organizing principle in food production, I can't help but be reminded of the logic of mass production and industrialization. The Midwestern hog industry is efficient precisely because it has been developed according to industrial principles -- centralize, standardize, rationalize. Corn and soybeans have been streamlined and modified to produce the most bang for the least fertilizer, and genetically homogenized to minimize diversity. I appreciate the value of using all parts of a slaughtered animal, but I'm skeptical of the idea that pigs can't be raised to taste good under other conditions. When I belonged to a biodynamic CSA in Massachusetts, they raised pigs as part of the basic operations of the farm -- along with vegetables, herbs, flowers, cows, and chickens. The farm advocated integrating animal husbandry and agriculture, relying on a single system of humans, plants, and animals to produce good food. The pigs roamed in a generous pen, rootling in the soil and consuming not table scraps, but the pumpkins and squashes left in the field after harvest.

At the end of the article, Nosrat concedes that perhaps pigs aren't suited to being raised in California, and that we might have to consider eating fewer foods that can't be grown effectively where we live. I tend to agree with this logic, even if I'm hesitant to part with any of my favorite cured pig products. Then again, I have yet to be disappointed by anything made from Range Brother's heritage pigs, such as the phenomenal (but difficult to acquire) salumi from Boccalone. But I think it's important to keep in mind the value of decentralizing food production -- even if it's less efficient. Challenging agribusiness sometimes requires challenging the underlying logic of industrialization in the first place.

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