Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Buying Local

I won a muffin contest the other day. Not a phrase I often utter as I have never entered one before. The competition was organised by the local environmental types to showcase the general deliciousness of local seasonal ingredients. Don’t you find that all of a sudden localness is everywhere? From supermarkets to tourist information everyone is touting it as better, tastier and, above all more morally sound than the alternatives. Our ancestors had to wear hair shirts and flog themselves to get into heaven. All we have to do is re-style beetroot as dessert (see the winning entry here), and we’re laughing. As the glory of victory fades, though, I’m left with this thought: is our current obsession with buying local all it’s cracked up to be?

It depends on what you mean by local. Buying food from Tesco (in Lewes) is one kind of local. Does that sound ludicrous? There are clearly all sorts of reasons to dislike supermarkets but, along with their cheapness and convenience, they keep you or your neighbour in a job. Of course you might do better going to Waitrose; it’s a few quid more but the employees also own the store and are in on the profits.
Businesses owned by people in town are what spring to mind when thinking about buying local. Going to Skylark or Bag of Books instead of Amazon. No hyperlink for the faceless multinational, but they do offer a range and prices that the local shops can’t possibly compete with. The local ones have advantages of their own though: browsing (never as good online), bantering with the owners, and events with authors. You (literally) pays your money and takes your choice. The stock of businesses like these is, of course, not particularly local. Though Lewes is obviously a town of infinite creativity, only local stock would mean they’d be bankrupt by tomorrow.

The real piety du jour (and the raison d’etre for a lot of the Town’s environmental activity) is eating local food. The less food travels, goes the argument, the less the impact on the environment. It’s just common sense, no? Unfortunately the notion of 'food miles' is an area where common sense is misleading. Sure, you can probably be confident that those air-freighted blueberries you had in January aren’t the best emissions-wise; but what about other commodities? Loads of basic stuff comes by ship where the carbon footprint is a lot smaller, while growing things locally on inappropriate land or with extra heating, or whatever, can mean a far higher environmental cost. While the whole issue is really mind-bendingly complicated it’s nice to feel good even if we’re not having much practical effect.

I can hear the teeth gnashing at that last sally already. Of course if it’s a completely different sort of life we’re after (living with the seasons, getting our hands dirty and eating seasonal veg all winter), then local food is clearly the way forward. The thing is people who do live this kind of life, usually as a result of economic collapse or sanctions, never seem all that happy with it. Funny that. To be honest, much as I liked my beetroot muffins I’m not expecting them to storm the world any time soon. Show me someone in rural Ukraine who wouldn’t prefer a Nero’s chocolate chip one and I’ll show you an empty branch of Tesco. And now, if you’ll excuse me I think I have a few muffins left.

John McGowan

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