Monday, November 21, 2011

NaBloPoMo Day 21: Chili Lime Tofu and Local Food

I'm far from being a vegan, but I really love the cookbook "Vegan Yum Yum" by Lauren Ulm. I'm very sad that she doesn't update her blog anymore.
I first encountered the cookbook in a bookstore, just randomly browsing. I liked the fact that every recipe had a photo of the dish, and many dishes had photos of the cooking steps. The ingredients weren't all that complex and and the flavors sounded very appetizing.

When I first get a cookbook, I read through it all and mark with a sticky note which recipes I want to try. By the time I was done flipping through this book, I had marked nearly every page! I've made about 10 different recipes and I've loved every one of them! I especially love the sesame baked kale and this chili lime tofu with kale dish.

Today's Reading
As usual I'm behind in reading, but saw this on the sidebar at the Freakonomics blog.

The Inefficiency of Local Food

In it the author argues that small farms can do more harm to the environment while lessening the impact of agrobusiness on addressing the problems of hunger. He uses economic concepts like specialization and economies of scale to make his case.

As an admirer and believer of the food policies and philosophies of Michael Pollan and Michelle Obama, among others, I was dismayed at this article. Of course as an aspiring economist, I agree with the approach he's taken. But I feel like he's left out a lot, and certainly simplified the local food argument too much.

He first posits that a local farm system can't possibly grow all products as efficiently as they can be where the crops are best suited. I can agree that perhaps oranges are best grown in Florida or California and cherries are best grown in Washington. But is the local food movement really saying that each region should be self-sufficient in its agro-production? That there is to be no interstate trade, no regional varieties, no specialization? Somehow I don't think so. I would hope, and this is my believe, that we've become over-reliant on specialization and big farm businesses and local farms don't get the chance to find out what they can produce.

It's a similar line of thinking about economies of scale. Industrialized farms in remote areas have the capacity for large-scale production where they can employ cost-effective irrigation, fertilization, waste management, etc. But what the author seems to mention is the tendencies of these agro-businesses, with their focus on the financial bottom line, to seek out ever-cheaper production materials, thus potentially sacrificing health and safety standards. The economies of scale seems to work in the negative, too - witness the periodic outbreak of e. coli and other bacteria that come out of one production facility but affects hundreds or thousands of people in multiple states.

Small farms might be higher cost, but if that is the true cost of producing quality food, what's wrong with higher cost?

Yes, the poor communities will be challenged with higher cost. But are they any better now with agro-business in charge? I live in a low-income neighborhood and the only restaurant choices are fast-food and the large chain super-markets carry under-ripe, non-organic fruits and vegetables. There is a farmer's market, thank goodness, but one outlet for fresh produce once a week just doesn't seem enough. And, what about all the subsidies the agro-business get? Why not route those to the local farms? What will happen to the costs to consumers then?

I think what draws me to the idea of local farming is the thought, however naive, that there is a connection between the farmers who devote their lives to producing food that will be consumed by people they know. That the spinach they produce, or the tomatoes they grow, will be used in the school lunches at their children's cafeteria. I would hope that connection would instill a sense of responsibility about the quality of the production process, including the use of pesticides and other chemicals.

I would also think that local farming provides an opportunity for the consumers to get more educated about what they eat. It was so sad to see on Jamie Oliver's TV show a couple of years ago where elementary school children didn't know what a bell pepper was or an onion when shown the actual produce (I know there's editing and dramatic effect but the fact is, they didn't know, right?). By providing more access to local foods, I hope that children learn about produce and learn to appreciate where their food comes from, so that they can learn more about it and learn to like them. I certainly wasn't a model child at eating my vegetables - but now that I cook on my own and think about the food I'm cooking and what went into growing it, I feel very appreciative and I'm less inclined to cover up ingredients with excess salt or sauces or butter or anything like that.

The agro-businesses are too big and strong and that scares me. That their lobbyists were able to convince Congress to overturn the FDA's recommendations for more health-conscious school lunch guidelines is disgusting to me. One of the arguments that was put forth was that it'll just increase the amount of food served that kids just won't eat. That is such a short-sighted argument. They don't eat it because they haven't grown up with it and they don't know it. If kids grow up eating pizza and chicken fingers, I feel that their sense of taste is forever conditioned to accept and eventually seek out the processed nature of food, and therefore not accept food in its true form - whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, etc.

I'm guessing, like all problems, the solution isn't clear-cut. It's not all-small-farms and it's certainly, hopefully not all Con-Agra. I won't argue that oranges be grown in Montana instead of Florida or potatoes be grown in Texas instead of Idaho. There's probably a place for specialized industrial food production, and with responsible environment management including the use of clean fuels, it may be a good solution, in conjunction with local farms.

The article doesn't even touch upon the cost of raising cattle or chicken but I suppose that's a separate argument.

Now I feel like I have to go and read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and other books, to educate myself more. So much to read, so little time.

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