Friday, July 26, 2013

The Food Economy of Cities

Is it a waste of resources for urban foodies to garden on their rooftops?

Will Boisvert points out to locavores in “The Breakthrough” that transportation is only 5% of the energy used, on average, to get food on your plate, reducing the locavore dilemma to one of choosing between being a “rather cultic” farm share owner and accepting the efficient solution of factory farmed produce from California. But there’s more value in getting close to your food sources than simply saving fuel, and you don’t have to move to the country to get some of the benefits.

Harvesting your own food, even occasionally, gives you more respect for the land and the people who do farm labor. It’s satisfying on an animal level to see and smell the soil and air, and to taste what they yield. It inspires confidence to serve---and is actually more nourishing to eat---foods that you know well and enjoy. Meeting food where it lives advances that knowledge and pleasure.

Boisvert says he’s an environmentalist, not an agribusiness executive, but the ways in which the author of “A Locavore’s Dilemma” ignores the differences between conventional Red Delicious and heirloom Belles du Boskoop in comparing apples with apples, makes him sound more like the heartless businessman behind institutional cuisine than a passionate foodie. Just as focusing on transportation costs in food production is a red herring to environmentalists, focusing on efficiency in food production is largely irrelevant to people whose priorities include health, social justice, and flavor.

The author is correct that a city’s efficiencies force certain lifestyle standards on people in the city that give them smaller environmental footprints. 24 hour subway service is an efficiency that works for the most populous city in the United States, not so well for the Pioneer Valley. But why not encourage city folks, as Shel Horowitz suggests, to use spaces that wouldn’t be otherwise used? New Yorkers are not likely to drop off the grid entirely. They’re going to grow a few salad vegetables, and hopefully take ownership of their diets in a new way.

Consider those rooftop greens a gateway drug to lining up like “junkies,” as Boisvert describes those of us with farm shares. Some items in the reasonably priced (for organic) share box will represent a challenge at first, but the lifestyle changes of eating locally have made us more resourceful consumers: better educated, more confident, with more real answers to the question, “What’s for dinner?”

Instead of having respect for the people who produce his food, Boisvert thinks that growing your own arugula is work properly done by “Mexicans”, middle class urbanites who do it for the vegetables and a sense of accomplishment are suckers, and CSAs are “the worst food deal imaginable.” He imagines fresh produce as no more nutritious than canned , and a hydroponic operation in a Brooklyn warehouse as locally grown food. But canned food is cooked, which destroys nutrients in fruits and vegetables, and hydro is more factory than farm.

In hydroponics, there’s no terroir to convey the distinctive flavors and nutritive qualities of the soil, making locale irrelevant, and there’s no sun as a free energy input for plants. Instead, there are grow lights and vitamin solutions: micro-factory farming. This is convenient for restaurants and grocers that want delicate greens delivered on a just in time basis, year-round, but as Boisvert points out, it’s not an efficient use of energy to produce food. It also doesn’t teach city folk to respect the origins of their food, but to expect it to conform to the same control and mechanization as other aspects of city life.

Every solution has to be localized, even if it partakes of global solutions. In New York City, foodies seeking ingredients from upscale groceries and farmer’s markets can add local hydroponic salad greens to their options. As well as scouring the city for goods, aspirant urban locavores have their rooftops on which to grow, although there is the concern Horowitz raises, that the air up there is no cleaner than at ground level, and not as clean as the air in California, or the Hudson Valley.

But rooftop arugula and hydroponic mache are additions to, not replacements for, what feeds the vast majority of New Yorkers: the fields of not just California, but the world. The U.S. may be self-sufficient in the staple crops that make industrial food, but the foods we eat fresh, livestock and produce, are increasingly grown in other parts of the world. The USDA puts very little emphasis on the importance of fresh, raw, and green vegetables in our diets, as reflected by the tiny percentage of USDA subsidies that go to garden crops, and the gradual de-emphasis of vegetables in dietary guidelines.

Which brings us to the real issue at hand, the priorities on which we base our lifestyle choices. True urban locavorism may be science fiction (or a future dystopia of vat food), but urban food production on a small scale is currently being practiced, if not for its efficiency, than for other qualities important to people, such as freshness, nutrient density, flavor, and novelty.

---Image of NYC rooftop garden credit: Jeffrey/Flickr