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The Local Food Debate Heats Up

08/30/2010 11:20 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Eat local" has become such a commonly cited slogan that it's starting to lose its punch. You know an idea is getting shop-worn when major food retailers commandeer it, bumper stickers champion it, and no one blinks an eye when you talk about being into it. Even characters in movies are chatting about local food. ("The Kids Are All Right," anyone?)

Luckily, the moment when an idea is becoming so commonplace as to be scarcely controversial is also the moment when we can finally start talking about what the heck it all means. It might seem, from a quick perusal of Stephen Budiansky's New York Times op ed and the excellent set of rebuttals on Grist, that the conversation, as James McWilliams put it, is one in which "we smugly embrace our favored positions while dismissing the enemy as either hippie/yuppie-elitists or corporate shills who do little more than build straw men."

But it seems to me that the "sides" of this particular conversation aren't engaged in a yelling match from diametrically opposed positions so much as they are each making important points that are necessary for a more comprehensive conversation to unfold. This dialogue, as lurching as it might be at these early stages, actually seems to me like great progress toward hashing out some of the most fundamental concerns about the question of local food.

Budiansky and McWilliams (whose interesting book Just Food addresses this issue) argue that we must not be doctrinaire in trying to figure out what might make a good food system. A system that will feed the people it needs to feed while being as environmentally responsible as possible will inevitably fall, as McWilliams puts it, "between the extremes." These writers are encouraging us all to take up the task of figuring out what mix of our different options -- including industrial-scale production and long-distance shipping -- deployed in which combination of ways is going to be most effective in meeting our and the planet's needs.

The Grist writers, however, are collectively making an equally valid point in response to writers like Budiansky and McWilliams: Eating local is about so much more than the environment. One common misconception advanced by the two critics seems to be that the "food miles" issue solely revolves around the carbon emitted by the transport systems used to get our foods to our plates.

But the Grist writers cite myriad other reasons for eating closer to home -- on a regional scale, ideally -- including ensuring better food safety (particularly apt after the recent egg-based salmonella outbreak), buffering local and regional economies (think jobs, particularly apt in our recession), cultivating community, and, most strikingly, strengthening the fabric of our democracy.

McWilliams and Budiansky want people like the Grist writers to acknowledge that industrial operations may well play a part in a workable food system, while Grist's writers want people like McWilliams and Budiansky to see that what they're fighting for is about much more than the environment or even food itself. The movement to reform our food system is fighting for the vitality of our communities, the health of our families, a cleaner environment, and the strength of our democracy. It's a fight to ensure our deepest values and the most cherished aspects of our lives do not become casualties of corporate ascendancy and consolidation.

As Food and Water Watch's Elanor Starmer so aptly puts it, "The local foods movement is not so much about choosing between what's grown here and what's grown elsewhere. It's about having any sort of choice at all."

I think the two "sides" of this conversation actually agree on quite a bit, and maybe they will see that once they put down their pitchforks. Luckily, pitchforks in hand, they're already unwittingly deep in a conversation that we can all get in on.

A version of this post originally appeared on Change.org