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Zoe Stahl: Local, but not perfect

By Zoe Stahl, Columnist
Published January 28, 2013

I used to be one of those foodies who waxed poetically about heirloom tomatoes, kale and foraged mushrooms. I have the documentary "Food, Inc." to blame for my blind devotion to these foodie staples. Robert Kenner’s look at America’s industrialized food system left me feeling “enlightened,” holier-than-thou and unable to eat most of the conventionally farmed food in my fridge.

After watching Kenner’s film, I became outraged by the inhumane treatment of animals on what’s known as “the killing floors,” areas expressly designated for the slaughtering of animals; monocultures, you know, those rows and rows farmers grow of the same exact crop like soybeans or corn that deplete soils of their nutrients; and the fact that being poor in America often meant eating cheap and processed foods.

I then became, no joke, a militant supporter of the local alternatives demonstrated by farmers like Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farms — though practices were called into question after learning that his cult-like organization only employs interns with an “all-American look” — brunettes like me need not apply. So, empowered by the film’s message of “voting with my fork,” I became one of those local-food zealots.

However, a couple of summers ago, my religious faith in the local-food movement began to waver. I worked at Rosenhill, an organic farm an hour outside of Stockholm, Sweden. The farm was picturesque — a quilt of flowers and vegetables bordered by apple orchards. But the synonymy of local farming and ecological harmony quickly began to diverge. I realized that organic farming didn’t guarantee healthy soil or efficient farming practices (I can count on two hands the times I ate food fresh from the farm).

My food studies class that fall only confirmed my doubts and knocked me farther off my high horse. Reading James McWilliams’s “Just Food,” I realized that local food is not necessarily environmentally sustainable. “Food miles” are not always an accurate measure of environmental impact, considering that production, processing and food preparation account for the majority of food’s energy use. I also learned of organic agriculture’s shortcomings — lower yields and detrimental effects of certain natural chemicals. I came to understand that genetically modified foods can sometimes reduce the negative environmental impact often associated with traditional agricultural activities.

In its place, McWilliams provided a revised definition of sustainable eating, one that focuses on seasonality and vegetarianism. McWilliams argues that, regardless of how far the food must travel, seasonal produce usually requires less energy in production and processing (think tomato grown in the hot fields of California vs. Michigan tomatoes grown in a greenhouse). McWilliams also didn’t let us forget that whether conventional, grass-fed or free-range, animal production is always detrimental to the earth’s land, water and air supply.

With this vision of sustainability, I look at the University’s Ann Arbor Sustainable Food Purchasing Guidelines with equal parts pride and concern. I’m glad that the University recognized food purchasing as a crucial component in achieving long-term sustainability, and I’m even happier that the University said by 2025, 20 percent of the food they purchase will be sustainable.

But just crafting food sourcing guidelines isn’t enough. According to the University’s guidelines, food can be considered sustainable if it’s local, which the University defines as “within the state of Michigan or 250 miles of campus; third-party certified,” (You know, certified organic, fair-trade certified, rainforest-alliance certified, etc.), “and artificial hormone-free and antibiotic-free.”

The list goes on to include free-range poultry and eggs, grass-fed or pasture-raised meats and sustainable fisheries. This interpretation gets us only halfway there. Free-range poultry and antibiotic-free meat lead to slightly more humane animal treatment and greater human health. Fair-trade certification will help to guarantee better labor conditions and higher pay for the often-maltreated farm workers.

However, I fear that if the University relies on the current guidelines to meet this goal, the sustainability ball might not make it up the hill. Instead of crafting a comprehensive definition of sustainability, the University has focused on not what’s truly sustainable, but what’s en vogue. While eating organically and locally is the philosophy du jour, the University ought to create a more nuanced definition.

And out of our academically rigorous and research-centric University, I expect nothing less.


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