This is just a sneak peek from Alice’s feature in SCENARIO 02:2016. If you are not a current subscriber to SCENARIO or a member of The Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, then subscribe or get in touch with us here.
Stepping out of the subway at Union Square in central Manhattan, one is confronted by swarms of shoppers reviewing stalls of leafy greens, free-range eggs and honey at the local farmers’ market that operates three days a week. On the south side of the square, the immense Whole Foods supermarket boasts locally-grown produce from the nearby Hudson Valley, and up the street are trendy Midtown restaurants where celebrity chefs attract patrons for farm-to-table fare.
The iconic metropolis – typically associated with steel skyscrapers and yellow cabs – is in this instance overrun by the seemingly incongruous imagery of green plants and fertile soil sweeping over the streets. In New York City, as in much of the urbanised West, gourmands have developed a taste for locavorism: ‘slow’ and natural food, bringing consumers closer to producers in a ‘back-to-basics’ movement.
This current trend covets a culinary moment in history before the prepared food aisle, industrial farming, and synthetic ingredients. The retreat inwards to the local can be seen as a reactionary consumer gesture in the face of global shocks to the food system; emission-intensive transportation of produce in worldwide supply chains, price fluctuations from economic integration, and global warming damaging crop yields through droughts and foods.
Though locavorism is often tied together with other food politics, at its essence it is pitched as a ‘traditional’ solution to today’s harmful and wasteful agricultural norms. But while proponents suggest a step backwards in time might bring our food system into balance, critics instead see this as developmentally anachronistic and largely unfeasible given the ecological and planning constraints of our time. Whilst broad-based visions of metropolises supplied by burgeoning greenbelts are unrealistic, to a certain extent, some more technologically-enhanced version of locally-sourced foods likely represents our way forward.
Locavorism in numbers
The numbers behind the locavore trend are compelling. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently measured that local food sales in the US have more than doubled in recent years, climbing from USD 5 billion in 2008 to over USD 11 billion in 2014. A year-on-year survey by the National Restaurant Association of over 1,500 prominent chefs has found that ‘local sourcing’ has grown as a culinary trend for restaurants in the US by 44 percent over the past decade. Local sourcing is even outpacing other food movements; the 2014 Cone Communications Food Issues Trend Tracker survey found that 74 percent of (American) respondents ranked ‘locally produced’ as very important, compared to ‘organic’ at 52 per cent.
Perhaps paradoxical to common assumptions of geographic plausibility, this consumer trend is distinctively urban. In the United States, farmers’ markets in cities have quadrupled over the past 20 years, according to the USDA. Furthermore, ATKearny found that the highest-ranking consumer segment for willingness to pay more for local food was ‘single urban households’ at 95 percent, while ‘affluent families’ ranked lower at 71 percent.
Marketplace studies consistently demonstrate that urbanites are more likely to make purchasing decisions based on matters of consumer consciousness, such as ‘sweatfree’ clothing or furniture made with recycled materials. Social scientists anecdotally purport that urbanites are more likely to be physically confronted with scarcity, waste, inequality, and pollution on a day-to-day basis, making this consciousness a truly lived experience rather than a theoretical concern. The locavore movement may merely be today’s case-in-point.
With generally higher median incomes and rates of education in cities, it is certainly a privilege to be able to “vote with your dollar” on issues that matter. when trendy urbanites proudly aunt their “Think Global, Eat Local” canvas bags in place of designer purses, they are toasting to their socially conscious consumption lifestyle.
The locavore movement began in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a spin-off of the Slow Food movement, which was established at a protest against McDonald’s in Italy in 1989. Local food production is indeed an important aspect of the official Slow food Manifesto: “To escape the tediousness of ‘fast-food’, let us rediscover the rich varieties and aromas of local cuisines” it urges. This may be accomplished “…by advocating historical food culture and by defending old-fashioned food traditions.”
Given that the locavorism trend is both rooted in a ‘back-to- basics’ ethos and seeped in consumer consciousness, it is somewhat ironic that the narratives and imagery associated with the movement are developmentally flawed, according to food historians.
“Locavorism presents itself as a return to a kind of traditional food way, a system where people ate in accordance to where they were both in place and in time, i.e. both local and seasonal. It’s a fantasy about a return to nature. It’s a past that never quite existed,” says food historian Nadia Berenstein.
Contrary to current imaginings of localised consumption as a history of plenty, our food history has been mostly defined by scarcity. We have consistently worked to cultivate and process foods to be less natural, fresh, and local; migrating for new varieties of plants, colonising for spices, inventing preservation methods, and utilising selective breeding for leaner and tastier livestock and produce. The rhetorical innocence of the return to the past is “evading the actual work that we have done actively throughout history as responsible consumers,” Berenstein adds.
By way of historical example, the ancient Greeks, who were prideful of their successful food preservation and processing methods, considered citizens digging for food to be a signal of dark times. “Eating fresh, natural food was regarded with suspicion verging on horror, something to which only the uncivilised, the poor, and the starving resorted,” reports Rachel Laudan, author of the book Cuisine and Empire, in a piece for Jacobin.
Given that the rhetoric of locavorism is developmentally anachronistic, it is more likely that the movement is a culinary protest against the currently vilified global food system. It is certainly not the first time that societies have experimented with food politics as a means of confronting their social contexts. For example, in Cuisine and Empire, Laudan describes how opulent banquets went out of fashion with the rise of the Roman Republic, in rejection of the extravagant dining associated with the defunct monarchy. Similar trends were witnessed in the early Dutch republic, and in the post-revolutionary United States as well.
Ultimately, “the [locavore, ed.] narrative suggests that there’s a moment in the past we can pick and return to, as if that were meant to bring us back to a balance. it is bad history and also probably won’t have the good consequences that the proponents ardently argue it does,” reasons Berenstein.