Nearly a quarter of American shoppers now buy organic products once a week, up from 17% in 2000. But for food purists, “local” is the new “organic,” the new ideal that promises healthier bodies and a healthier planet. Many chefs, food writers and politically minded eaters are outraged that “Big Organic” firms now use the same industrial-size farming and long-distance-shipping methods as conventional agribusiness. “Should I assume that I have a God-given right to access the entire earth’s bounty, however far away some of its produce is grown?” asks ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan in his 2002 memoir, Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods. Nabhan predicted my apple problem when he vacillated over some organic pumpkin canned hundreds of miles from his Arizona home. “If you send it halfway around the world before it is eaten,” he mused, “an organic food still may be ‘good’ for the consumer, but is it ‘good’ for the food system?”
I had never really thought about how my food purchases might affect “the food system.” Even now I don’t share the pessimism and asceticism of the local-eating set. In her 2001 memoir, This Organic Life, Columbia University nutritionist Joan Dye Gussow writes that her commitment to eating locally “is probably driven by three things. The first is the taste of live food; the second is my relation to frugality; the third is my deep concern about the state of the planet.” I don’t have much relation to frugality, and, perhaps foolishly, I’m more optimistic than Gussow about our ability to develop alternative energy sources.