Historical Context for the Debate Over "Local" Food, Part 2 of 2

Part One

Now here we are in 2009, and people who are [justifiably] discontented with the nation’s food supply system want to return to "local" food production.  But that desire may, indeed, likely will, produce conflicts, big ones, and over more than just urban hen houses.

Consider the variant of that conflict that has been playing out for years in the midwest.  In the mid-twentieth century, meat packing moved out of the "stockyard cities," like Chicago, and into more isolated rural packing factories. Iowa, where I live, for example, is dotted with these packing plants, as are other midwestern states.

The rationale for these isolated packing facilities is that they are near or adjacent to the huge feedlots that provide the livestock for the plant. The proximity of the one to the other, and the relatively low cost of rural land are two factors that allow packers to produce meat with a low retail price --- ground beef, for example, that costs about two dollars a pound at the store.

But as home ownership rates have soared, especially since the 1980s, developers have converted more "farmland" to housing developments. Many of those developments sit just a few miles from giant feedlots, large packing houses, or, most often, both.

Result? Conflict: Homeowners want their 2500-square-foot houses, but when the wind is right, they’re reminded that just a few miles away stands a massive hog feedlot or beef packing plant. They demand that the meat operations move --- although no one can agree on just where those ought to go.

No surprise, of course, homeowners who complain about the proximity of these facilities are also the first to complain when the price of meat rises. They don’t seem to understand that those giant, rural operations, plus taxpayers’ agricultural subsidies, are what allow us to enjoy low-priced filets and bacon.

So --- the idea of "local food" is great, and I think many Americans would agree that the nation’s food system needs some, uh, readjustment. But if history is any judge, getting from here to there won’t be easy.

But hey! It’ll be fascinating to watch and take part in. You can tell your grandchildren: "I was there during the great food wars of the early 21st century."

In any case, there are many, many blogs, websites, and twitter users who are busy debating the logistics, ethics, and business of a "new" food system. If you're interested, seek them out and join the discussion.