I eat local more often than not, especially since I moved to Maine. Maine is on the front lines of the local food movement, earning the number two slot on the 2014 Locavore Index behind Vermont. Being a so-called locavore is not without its risks, however, and this fact seems to sometimes get lost in the rush to push local foods as a means of boosting local economies. Don’t get me wrong, I’d prefer that the money I spend on food stay local. Politics aside, I’d like to see Maine continue to grow into what Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud envisions as “New England’s food basket,” but I also know that just because it’s local and sustainable doesn’t mean it’s without risk.
There is an interesting dynamic I’ve noticed in my coverage of fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. Many consumers seem to view a food product sold as “sustainable” or “local” as “heathy.” Even when the consumer doesn’t explicitly make the connection, if asked if sustainably-sourced, local seafood is healthy, the most common response is “yes.” When asked which is “healthier,” the imported seafood or the locally-sourced seafood side-by-side in the case at the fish mongers, most consumers I’ve queried point to the local fish.
Earlier this year, I published a story in Discover Magazine about an effort by the New England congressional delegation to put locally landed spiny dogfish into the National School Lunch and other entitlement food programs despite elevated levels of mercury in the small shark species. Dogfish is abundant in the waters off Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, all states with struggling fisheries due to federally mandated quota reductions and concerns about the sustainability of traditional fisheries like cod. To many, including virtually all New England politicians, several environmental groups and the fishing industry itself, dogfish seemed a perfect part of the solution. They pointed out, “it is an inexpensive protein” and could serve not only to bolster embattled fisheries but also feed populations in need of so-called entitlement food. The only trouble is that dogfish is high enough in mercury content that both state and federal agencies advise against women of reproductive age and children eating it.
At the heart of community supported agriculture (CSA) and community supported fisheries (CSF) is an implicit agreement that the consumer is sharing both the benefits and risks of local food production with the producer. While the risk is often understood as having to do with scarcity (e.g., poor crop, unexpectedly low harvest, etc.) for which the buyer may not be reimbursed, there is also another risk. Many small producers are exempted from federally mandated food safety regulations and oversight, and many lack the resources to demonstrate data-based compliance with food safety standards. How big is that risk? Like I said, I eat local food more often than not, and, truth be told, I fear a sealed bag of salad-ready greens at the grocery store more than a bunch that arrives by horse weekly as part of our CSA (yes, that really happens!). But I’m also aware of the risk and the fact that a food which is local and sustainably sourced is not necessarily the healthier option–that’s where personal responsibility comes into play.
“In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves,” said Eleanor Roosevelt. “The process never ends until we die, and the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” We should take personal responsibility for the food we eat. For me, that often means buying local–supporting local farmers and fishers. It also means educating myself about the food choices available to me and acknowledging that I am in a position of privilege. I have the option to pay more for a product because of where and how it was sourced. I have the opportunity to stop at the fish mongers, the local farm market and the co-op to gather supplies for a home-cooked meal. And I have the luxury to research the food I eat and how it reaches me.
Most people don’t have these options.
As we look for ways to connect more people with local food that supports local economies, we must also remain vigilant and not let our enthusiasm for such a movement trump basic concerns about health and food safety. This is especially true in the case of farm-to-school (FTS) programs and other programs where the recipient of the food may not be aware of the risks. As we strive to solve complex problems like the fishing industry crisis in New England, we must avoid the lure of simple solutions that lack a comprehensive understanding of unintended consequences–consequences about health or sustainability. With climate change combined with overfishing driving a massive change in fisheries, we must take the time and resources to understand emerging fisheries before we start funneling abundant but under-appreciated seafood into our schools and other institutions.
So by all means buy local and eat local, but do so with eyes wide open, and remember “the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.”