Why "shop locally" is really a pretty radical idea
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Like far too many liberals, I spend far too much time listing to NPR, which can lead to a special kind of brain rot: I once actually sat through an hour-long program on Mormon folk songs that included a long, upbeat, and respectful ode to Brigham Young "and his five and 40 wives." Jesus, that's a lot of wives.
But there are things I love, and Science Friday is one of them. While I was fighting the traffic on my way back from a friend's house in Healdsburg last week, I heard a fascinating interview with Michael Pollan, the UC Berkeley journalism professor who's written a series of New York Times articles and now a book on how truly weird food production is in the United States in 2006.
Of course, everyone was digesting a big Thanksgiving dinner, and Pollan wasted no time getting to his thesis: if we are what we eat, then most of us are a mixture of corn and petrochemicals.
He's got evidence of this too: he has a friend in the biology department at Berkeley who ran a bunch of samples of fingernail and hair clippings from students and learned that much of the carbon that makes up the basic organic structure of a lot of human bodies can be traced back to one Midwestern grain and some fossil fuels.
The cow or turkey or pig you ate was fed with corn. The sugar in the salad dressing came from corn. The calories in the sodas the kids were drinking came from corn. And the corn came in part from ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which came from petroleum.
The point of all of this is that America has created a monocrop food system (well, duocrop — a lot of the animal protein that we eat comes from soybeans). That's not healthy for a long list of ecological reasons — and it's really bad for the economy.
The thing is, very little of what we eat comes from anywhere near where we live. Iowa, one of the most agriculturally productive parts of the world, imports almost all of its food these days. The corn grown in the state is shipped to giant centralized animal feedlots, which ship meat elsewhere.
I mention all of this, which is hardly news to a lot of people, because it plays into something that's going on the first week in December in San Francisco. Dec. 4 through 10 is Shop Local First Week, which sounds kind of like small-town-Chamber-of-Commerce-boosterish stuff (and indeed, Mayor Gavin Newsom, who clearly isn't paying attention, has formally endorsed it), but there's a lot more behind this. The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, which sponsors the event, actually has a fairly radical economic platform emphasizing how local merchants — and not big chain stores and other out-of-town corporations — benefit local economies. In the food world, that means buying stuff grown somewhere near you (not hard around here). In the arena of holiday shopping (and consumer behavior in general), it means patronizing locally owned outfits — and not giving your dollars to the chains.
Our main news story this week (see "The Morning After," page 18) illustrates well how big chain owners operate: the combine owned by Dean Singleton, which now controls almost all the big papers in the Bay Area, is laying off journalists and (maybe) outsourcing jobs to India. The San Francisco Chronicle is outsourcing its printing, killing the local press operators union.
And the money all leaves town. SFBG