Posted by: Amelia | September 5, 2007

The Distance From Plant to Plate

While relaxing up in British Columbia this past week, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s new nonfiction book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. The book, whose too-precious title is one of few faults, recounts a twelve-month span in which Kingsolver and her family endeavored to eat only self-grown and locally-grown food from her rural Virginia county.

In some ways, Kingsolver’s book echoes Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I started this summer but never finished. Both books address, to varying extents, the problems associated with industrial farming. The stomach-turning conditions of industrial feedlots, the soil-depleting practices of agribusiness, and the pollution created in long-distance food transportation all make appearances in both books. Pollan’s book, however, was too painstaking in detail to hold this summer reader’s interest. Kingsolver artfully weaves the environmental and economic arguments for reducing one’s carbon footprint into the fabric of her down-home tale of a year of seasonal food and farming.

A lot of attention has been paid to ‘food miles,’ since the transportation of oranges from Israel or blueberries from Chile invariably puts carbon gases into the atmosphere. Our demand for out-of-season foods and the subsidization of long-distance food transportation leads to mountains of cheap, non-local produce that has been bred for longevity and not for taste. Food miles aren’t the whole story, though; a recent New York Times article pointed out that petrochemical fertilizers also create a lot of carbon output. The article argued that a Londoner would create less of a carbon footprint buying grass-fed New Zealand lamb than if he bought British lamb, whose pastures require fertilizers.

Still, the combination of local AND organic is hard to beat; the only thing better is growing it yourself. It was fun to read Kingsolver’s book up at our friends’ remote cabin in coastal BC, where many of the foods we ate left no carbon footprint at all. We harvested oysters, dug clams, and picked vegetables in the garden. The apple and plum trees were positively overloaded with fruit, as were the unruly blackberry patches. The applesauce and chutney they canned will last for months, remaining carbon-neutral all the while.

Most of us will never have a life that rural. For city-dwellers, extreme measures such as those in Kingsolver’s experiment are unattainable. Fortunately, she doesn’t proselytize an all-or-nothing approach. Eating even one meal per week with all-local ingredients, she says, would be enough to make a difference en masse. She suggests that we urban foodies could also grow things on our decks, fire escapes, or windowsills (my love of urban gardening is well-documented, though I wasn’t doing it for the carbon offset). Instead of insisting on out-of-season produce from far away, we can craft seasonal menus when the local ingredients are at their tastiest.

So I’ll do my best. I’ll find the farmers’ markets around Boston and shop there when I can. I’ll eat what’s in season, and maybe set aside some fall produce for freezing or dehydrating. Mostly I’ll just try to be more conscious about which product I choose in the grocery store. Though I love supporting my home state’s economy, it’s not a problem to forego the Washington apples and instead opt for one of New England’s venerated varieties. Buying rice from Texas involves transportation, but it’s less than for rice from Thailand. And if the spring thaw is early, I could even have some kale or baby greens ready for harvest in my windowboxes by the time final exam season hits in May. Good brain food, and good sense.


  1. I started reading Michael Pollan’s book, too, but didn’t finish — not because I wasn’t really enjoying it, but because it had to go back to the library and they wouldn’t let me renew — it had too long a waiting list! The Kingsolver book is sitting on my coffee table, lying in wait for me to read it.

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