Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Fetishization of Seasonal and Local

One of the great tragedies of the culinary world is that it is not only faddish but also completely ignorant of science, history, economics, and the mechanics of trade.

In an ideal world, we would all eat seasonal and local but it's not an ideal world. For starters, there are 7+ billion people in the world and they can't all eat locally. An increasing amount of the world's population lives in cities so it is literally impossible that everyone in the city eat locally. It's just a simple mathematical argument about the population versus the amount of arable space and the steepness of its value. (The value comes from the fact that the population provides steep "value" on the economic food chain.)

Simple economics argues against it. The crux of a modern city — and by modern we have to understand that this is at least 500+ years old — is upwardly-mobile cheap labor. The desire to have a better life propels the cheap labor into the cities in the first place. The idea that these people can eat "local" is risible beyond the extreme. If cheap labor propels cities then by definition, it's cheap food that propels the cheapness of the labor.

So cheap means invoking Ricardo's principle of comparative advantage. Source the produce from wherever labor is cheapest and that means Africa, Asia and South America.

Seasonal is another bugaboo.

Places that have absurdly short growing seasons (think: Japan, Korea, Russia, Poland) rely to an unprecedented degree on pickled salted food.

Before World War II, Japan had the highest rate of stomach cancer in the world. It was so high as to be a routine tear-jerker movie cliché most memorably exploited by Kurosawa in his masterpiece Ikiru (生きる). It was definitely due to a heavy reliance on salted, smoked, and nitrate- and nitrite-rich foods (cured meats), the heavy incidence of the bacterium H. Pylori which thrives in stomachs with heavy salt diets, heavy tobacco usage, and above all, the lack of fresh vegetables for all but the briefest of growing seasons.

The same happened in Korea, Russia, and most of Eastern Europe. The common factor is the "short growing season" which means a reliance on "pickled foods".

Compare with both China and India where in spite of the heavy smoking and an equally important pickling tradition, the vegetable-rich diet traditionally traveling along trade routes had stomach cancer incidences at de minimus levels.

This is not just speculation. We have evidence for this.

After World War II, when vegetables flooded the Japanese markets thanks to free trade, the rate of stomach cancer plummeted precipitously. (Even then today, it's still 4x the rate in the UK!)

Do we really want to go "seasonal" so that we can go back to these bad old days?

To rephrase, going non-local caused stomach cancer rates around the world to plummet. Is this a bad thing?

Seasonal and local are not bad things.

For one, the seasonal component gives you an extreme rush of excitement. There's an anticipation to looking forward to something pleasurable that won't come around for another six months. There's also the fact that seasonal actually means cheap. Whatever is plentiful is cheap by the simple laws of supply and demand.

Local is a good thing too.

You can talk to the farmer. You can actually ask for something that lies outside the norm and since you are there to pay for it, they will do it. (Try doing that at a supermarket!)

What's wrong is the fetish. The hide-bound rules that don't allow for five thousand years of trading history (think: spices!), and science (think: stomach cancer) and a certain flexibility of both thought and process. A certain give and take (trade pun intended!) in the approach to food and markets.

Why not have a rich understanding of the subject and the best of both worlds?

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