(March 2, COLUMN)

Of all the arguments and struggles going on in the world, maybe the least productive one is the contest that pits long-distance sourcing of produce against local and seasonal produce.

It’s good to buy seasonally and locally. There’s been great progress in this area. A lot of supermarkets boast of local and seasonal produce. Organic is firmly in the mainstream after a long struggle. Farmers markets thrive.

But at the same time there is more and more criticism in media and by certain groups lamenting the fact that produce is shipped over long distances, and that this uses too much energy and resources.

Just recently we’ve seen articles, stories, books that decry the fact that produce is shipped from all around the world, and that local and seasonal should prevail.

Hold on. I remember the days when there was mostly just seasonal and local produce. It was no paradise. You simply couldn’t get most fresh items for most of the year.

Yes, citrus came in from Florida and California to the Midwest. Bananas from the tropics. Lettuce was from California.

Fresh produce distribution was revolutionized more than a century ago with the rise of refrigeration and the railroads. That was a pretty good revolution — fresh produce with snow on the ground. But for much of the year, we “sourced” from cans and frozen boxes.

Shipping produce around the world is nothing new. Even in the days of sailing ships, exotic produce moved from country to country. People in cold climes knew about coconuts and pineapple.

They were real luxuries for the rich. Captain Bligh sailed from England to Tahiti to retrieve breadfruit. The Spanish brought back all kinds of new foods from the New World, food that transformed Europe.

Potatoes from Peru, corn from Mexico. The wide availability of citrus cured such maladies as scurvy and other diseases of poor nutrition. No one cried, “Oh no, it’s not local, it’s not seasonal.”

People could go back to growing their own produce. With hard economic times hitting us, there is an uptick in home gardening. That used to be the norm, but it had its limitations.

My dad, at our modest Midwest house, planted a huge garden, maybe a quarter-acre, with every kind of produce item you could think of, from sweet corn to pole beans, from squash to vine tomatoes.

He even had grapes and apples until fungus and disease got them.

When harvest time came, my mother and grandmother got out the pots and pans, the Mason jars, the paraffin wax, and began canning. All winter long we “sourced” from the cellar, from the cool dampness of the larder. It worked well. It was incredibly labor-intensive.

Will people go back to that? Not likely, when their commute to work begins before dawn and ends in the dark. It’s a wonder to have access to produce from around the world.

It can continue without wrecking the environment. Lee Scott of Wal-Mart points out that his company is putting a big emphasis on more efficient transportation and refrigeration that uses less energy and reduces the carbon footprint.

There will be cheaper and better fuels, although right now ethanol and biodiesel are taking a big price hit with the decline in fossil fuel prices.

T. Boone Pickens wants to shift long-haul trucks to “cheap and clean” natural gas. Even freight trains are looking better as a transport means, which hearkens back to the early days of the produce industry.

The “buy local, buy seasonal” argument is self-limiting. If carried to an extreme, it means Canadians and people in northern climes can forget about eating citrus.

It would mean stopping the shipping of Canadian apples southward. It would devastate trade and hurt farming and rural areas, developing countries, and ultimately human health.

Rather than worrying about where the produce comes from, the concern ought to be focused on consumption. For years there were countless stories about the health benefits of fresh produce.

Now there is a spate of stories about research that calls into question the health benefits of nutrients found in produce. Maybe all those nutrients don’t help all that much. Maybe the effect is marginal.

Maybe there is not that much protection against cancer and killer diseases. That seems to be true in pill form, but what about in produce form?

The real message is that the benefit comes from the food itself, whether local, seasonal, organic or long-distance. The bigger picture would show that food — produce — is enormously complicated.

The food itself contains benefits we’ve never figured out. There are huge benefits from the whole piece of produce that we may never know about, so-called synergy. That’s a selling point that any product category dreams about.

They say we should pick our fights carefully. Arguing about where produce comes from doesn’t seem to be a fruitful fight.

Long-distance vs. local is a fight no one can win
Larry Waterfield
Columnist