Locavore: To Be or Not to Be

Posted to Subscribers on 11 May 20140


Dear Subscribers,

Hope everyone enjoyed celebrating Mother's Day. My intention is now to ride the wave of the Earth Mother and discuss a number of related topics whose dots may, of course, be quite far apart. The word "locavore" came into our vocabulary less than a decade ago and was the word of the year in Oxford American Dictionary in 2007. Let's say it's a new word for an old concept. We get the word "devour" from the Latin "vorare" and there are many words in our language with similar origins: omnivore, herbivore, carnivore, and now locavore, which is defined as someone who eats locally. Think about it a moment and you realize that all animals are locavores. I suppose we could argue that migratory species are not 100% pure locavores, but none of them depend on trains or trucks for food transport. In short, by-passing the containers that move food from one part of the globe to another is a sort of return to normalcy.

Before discussing this in detail, I want to recap and perhaps expound a tad upon a course I took in college in the very early sixties. It was ostensibly about the impact of Western civilization on the East, but the reality was quite different. Before taking that course, it had never occurred to me to wonder what the Italians ate before Marco Polo or how the spaghetti tasted before tomatoes were brought from the New World. Now, the famous Mediterranean diet would have us believe that most of what is eaten by people in all countries bordering the Mediterranean is actually native to these regions. While olives and oregano may indeed be native, much of what we think about when salivating over the cuisines of the world is not native. For instance, try to imagine curry without chili peppers or Germany without potatoes or Sweden without gingerbread cookies. I think you get the point now.

When we think of local diets, we might think mainly of the staple food such as rice in most of Asia, corn in much of Latin America, unleavened bread in the Middle East and beyond. Unless one understands the totality of the cuisine, the diets may look monotonous and perhaps not very tantalizing. Relatively few people are actually adventurous about food. Try to change anyone's diet and you will quickly discover how resistant people are to change. Besides, if motivated to change, there are just too many books and opinions to make sense of the whole. Years ago, I hired someone to research cancer diets. She was dumbfounded and asked, "Is there anything upon which everyone agrees?" It would have been easy to say "No" but my mind is usually in the middle somewhere, not to the extreme end so I said, "Well, maybe white sugar."

There is much more than processed versus whole foods, much more than corporate versus sustainably grown food, and much more than health involved in the locavore movement. I happen to live in a tiny town that has a relatively new farmer's market, light years behind Santa Fe, but it boasts the shortest distance between farmers and consumers of any similar market in the country. The boasting ends about there. The market has a lot of evolving to do.

What is obviously good about locally grown food is that it is harvested when ripe and consumed fresh. I believe that plants adapt faster than humans to change so we benefit from their genius. Let's take a simple example of leafy greens that are harvested early in the growing season. They are tender and sweet but they become more fibrous and bitter as the summer heat increases. Eating in season keeps us in balance.

Recently, I heard about the Nordic Diet. It seems to be getting a foothold in Scandinavia, mainly Denmark, but the thesis is that cuisine was influenced by other European countries and is not well suited to the North. Obviously, before the days of huge ships and planes, people were predominately locavores. This is not 100% true. I have been fascinated for many years by the spice trade. For instance, three cloves were enough to pay all one's real estate taxes for a palace in Venice. Hildegard of Bingen based many of her most important remedies on galangal which, in those days, only came from South China and Thailand and perhaps here and there in Indonesia, and she predates Marco Polo. Swedes use a surprising amount of cardamom in their bakery goods so the Vikings must have gotten around. We know they did. We also know that anyone who travels retains lots of impressions and shares certain stories and keeps some secrets. The maps were clearly highly valued and mostly hidden, but the evidence of intercultural contact predating the Age of Discovery is abundant.

Modern agriculture is really industrial agriculture. It is based on efficiency and involves exploitation of the land and mass marketing to the consumer. It has led to monocultures in the form of processed foods and fast foods, all requiring some adulteration so as to prevent spoilage and extend shelf life. We are seeing an epidemic of illnesses that are directly related to the mass marketed food that is, by historic standards, completely new, novel, and unnatural. If we take the evolution of any species, we cannot find examples of such sudden changes that were not also rife with danger.

Over the last few years, there has been a fierce backlash against industrial foods, especially genetically modified foods. May 9th was dump Monsanto stock day. I checked to see what happened, not much, but we'll see what the future holds. Normally, Wall Street discounts long before news becomes news.

Meanwhile, Bhutan is planning to be the first 100% organic country in the world. I would love to live in Bhutan, kind of like a dream for someone of my nature, but not only because of the agriculture but because the culture and landscape fascinate me.

Some South American countries might not be too far behind Bhutan. Keep your eyes on Bolivia and perhaps also Argentina and Uruguay.

Now to back step a bit, I do not agree with all the nonsense that has been published about diet and cancer. When I first dived into the literature on cancer, several points were quite clear. First, cancer has been found in dinosaur bones so it is not exactly a "disease of civilization" and we should therefore not be silly enough to blame it on one thing or another. Second, for centuries the incidence of cancer was estimated at about 25%. I want to take this in context. Go back one or two hundred years. There were probably very few early diagnoses. Many people could have had cancer and not known it. Others could have died of something else. Cancer was regarded as a degenerative disease, something that usually occurred later in life, but if people died at a much younger age than is common today, something else would have caused their demise before the cancer. Third, even if it is true that cancer is becoming much more common among children, it is not necessarily 100% attributable to diet. There are countless other contributing factors such as exposure to harmful electromagnetic fields, vaccines, radiation, and so on and so forth. However, when we eat nutritious foods that are rich in antioxidants, we tend to cope better with stressors so we might enjoy the benefits of improved sanitation as well as nutritious food.

Now, back to eating what grows close to home. There are many forms of locavorism. The most romantic might be a return to hunting and gathering. This is certainly implied by the founders of the Nordic Diet. Finding tasty leaves and flowers is an adventure in the wild, something many of us crave, but the truth is there is much less botanical diversity in high latitudes than there is in more equatorial regions so keeping the menu interesting will be a challenge though I have to say that these chefs are creative! The most practical form of locavorism would involve heavy reliance on what we grow for our use. This enhances food security and ultimately promises an immense biodiversity because each garden or small farm would have different plants and trees so the race as a whole is better protected from the uncertainties that concern the think tanks of the world. The best part of small local farms is the trusteeship that is fostered generation by generation. If you are bonded to a piece of land that will stay in the family for generations, you will learn how to protect that land from the uncertainties that are typical of monocultures. Ideally, the soil would also constantly improve because, as I have been noting, tilling is very damaging to the precious microorganisms that are necessary for plant health. In Tibet, digging was actually prohibited so there we see how diverse our views are and how next to impossible it will be to reconcile them. Then, since all of Nature is interactive, the question is whether individuals can be allowed to do what they choose. Increasingly, we are seeing strong political movements swinging both directions: towards absolute control as well as a return to Nature. Ultimately, we cannot control Nature. She is stronger than we are, and She, too, has a will to survive so we are safer as an ally than conqueror.



Copyright by Ingrid Naiman 2014








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