Living off the land limits food choices (commentary)

Living off the land limits food choices (commentary)

LOCAL food has been the primary focus of the past several columns I've written. That wasn't intentional; it just sort of worked out that way.

Nevertheless, both columns emphasized how readily many aspects can get somewhat warped amid the advocacy for local food. That typically results because of various oversights and oversimplification within the arguments for eating locally.

For example, the first column illustrated some of the popular misconceptions about "food miles." Properly accounting for differences in load size and backhaul capabilities, the true representation of distance on a unit basis is often surprising. In other words, just because food is raised more closely to the point of sale doesn't necessarily mean net food miles are reduced. Moreover, food transportation comprises a relatively small portion of the total greenhouse gas emission equation for food.

The second column pointed out that many people attempt to eat more locally due to some presumed connection with living life in a simpler, slower, more rewarding fashion. However, embarking on that type of journey can be revealing. That is, many of the benefits of our modern society are the direct result of specialization both in AND away from agriculture. That has provided incredible economic advantages throughout our society from which we all benefit.

With those thoughts in mind, I can't help but take a third shot at this and add some further context for the broader discussion.

That's primarily because shortly after submitting my previous article, I visited the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville. As I wandered through the exhibits, one particular placard caught my attention. It read:

"A frontier family's diet was typically high in protein — mostly of necessity. Before crops could be harvested, during lean winter months and in times of crop failure, early settlers had to rely on game they could kill for food. By the late 1700s, buffalo had been hunted almost to extinction in Tennessee. Other wildlife, such as deer, turkeys, rabbits, squirrels, fish and even possums, were still plentiful. The diet of Tennessee's settlers was basically pork, wild game and corn, supplemented in later years with beef, milk, butter, eggs, chickens, nuts, vegetables and fruit. Items such as coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate and wheat flour had to be purchased and would have been considered luxuries on the early frontier. Later, they were more common."

Such a historical description presents some important challenges to many assumptions that regularly get floated. Obviously, the settlers had limited trade capabilities and had no established agriculture at the time. They had no other choice but to eat locally.

With that in mind, the first thing that jumps out is the comment regarding their diet being "high in protein — mostly of necessity." That reality pretty quickly blasts the popular argument that humans are vegetarians by nature.

No doubt, some will argue that it's only recently that humans began to eat meat, but whatever your anthropological view on meat consumption, American settlers obviously managed to do pretty well with a diet comprised of primarily meat (even if it did include possums).

Second, many of the items we consider to be everyday staples like flour, chocolate and coffee (think center-aisle products at the grocery store) were luxuries several-hundred years ago. Imagine starting your day without that first cup of coffee or not enjoying a banana with your cereal or not having a piece of toast in the morning.

That's precisely how it would be if you were relegated to living off the land. It represents a sharp contrast to how we live today. The range of ingredients and subsequent repertoire of meals becomes quickly limited if living as described above. Not only would that prove fairly mundane, but it also has some serious nutritional ramifications.

The eating local movement is admirable. It has been successful in advancing food literacy while boosting people's awareness about the food they purchase. Those are favorable outcomes.

However, given the evidence, we also need to be realistic. Eating locally will never be an all-inclusive solution — no matter where you live. It's the very existence of a highly successful, far-reaching agriculture industry, coupled with unprecedented access to the outside world, that ensures that we never miss a beat when it comes to food.

In the absence of such an incredible network, there would be no ability to seamlessly fill in the gaps, thereby making any suggestion of eating more locally seem downright unappetizing.

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

Volume:85 Issue:52

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