March 4, 2008

Are you a locavore? If so, you are either a 'local hero' or 'indulgent and hedonistic'

"Buying local is like a hippie movement of 2008, but is it really a good use of a college graduate's time," asked food science professor Joe Regenstein. Indeed, is it not "indulgent and hedonistic?" He had just heard Cornell nutrition expert Jennifer Wilkins analyze claims made by "locavores" in a panel discussion on supporting local food producers Feb. 28 in Emerson Hall.

"Locavore" (which combines "local" with "omnivore" or "herbivore") is such a popular concept that it was named the 2007 Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary. The term refers to residents who try to eat food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius, which means eating only locally produced food.

Said Wilkins, a senior extension associate at the Division of Nutritional Sciences: "The Empire State Poll results indicate that there has been an increase in 'local heroes,' who believe locally grown food is important enough for them to go out of their way to get it." The number of farmers' markets nationwide, she said, increased to 4,386 in 2006 from 1,755 in 1997. "National research has also shown that whether food is grown locally affects food purchases more than whether it is grown organically."

She added, "Conventional markets tend to favor varieties chosen for yield, growth rate and shipability -- commercial traits often come at the expense of nutrition and taste."

Regenstein, however, said that changing how Americans eat and improving the overall nutritional value of food are much more urgent needs than eating "local." He said, "One of the beauties of our food supply system is that it draws from all kinds of soil, which prevents certain nutritional deficiency from food that is grown from only one kind of soil."

Despite the two widely differing perspectives, eating local food has become a growing trend at Cornell and in the Ithaca community. Cornell Cooperative Extension is actively involved in the local food campaign in Tompkins County. Through the Local Food Growers Initiative, Cornell Dining is purchasing about "30 percent of its food locally," according to Anthony Kveragas, a Cornell senior executive chef, who participated in the discussion.

Panelist Ken Goodwin, service manager of Ithaca Wegmans supermarket, described Wegmans' commitment to supplying local food as a response to consumer demand. "Ithaca Wegmans has the highest demand for organic products among all of our 70 stores," he said. Ithaca Wegmans works with 24 local suppliers providing everything from produce to beer and cheese.

According to Wilkins, the fewer miles food is shipped, and consequently the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, are factors that justify buying local.

"To transport the same food, the conventional system releases four to 17 times more carbon dioxide than a local system," she said, quoting from a recent Iowa study. However, "mode of transport matters, too," Wilkins said, citing a study showing that, on a per bottle basis, fewer emissions enter the atmosphere when "a Bordeaux [wine] is transported by container ship to New York than a cabernet from California by truck."

Food safety is another issue that concerns both sides of the debate. Wilkins said that "while local food is not by any means immune to contamination, the consequences of a problem in a highly concentrated food system are far greater. Also, I suspect that smaller, more localized production and processing systems are less attractive to terrorists."

Regenstein, however, argued that "many local growers are not trained to process food properly."

The locavore lifestyle, he said, is "indulgent and hedonistic" when "three people drive their BMW for 30 miles to pick up 5 pounds of produce." Higher yields per acre is more important than growing 20 different crops on a local farm, he declared. "We should use resources more wisely because we have over 6 billion people on this planet."

The panel discussion, moderated by Ellen Harrison, former director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute, was part of the Crop and Soil Sciences Seminar Series at Cornell.

Graduate student Zheng Yang is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.