Can locavory save the world?
Having lived for almost 20 initial years in small towns, I know the pleasure of gardening and growing your own vegetables. Nothing tastes better than a freshly plucked tomato or a guava from your own kitchen garden. I always thought that the rose plants I tended to for many years produced the best flowers in the world. Such is the force of having your own garden. The raw smell of Mother Earth, tenderly planting seeds in neat rows, watching the first green shoot peeping from the soft broken soil, lovingly watering the growing plants, and subsequently watching the first dahlia or digging out the first carrot of the season, are indescribable pleasures of owning a garden. I feel sad for those who have missed such communion with nature. Unfortunately, their tribe is increasing and in another 20 years, more than half of the population of India will be living in large megapolis’, owning a small balcony with 4-5 flower pots as an apology for a garden. This too in case of some lucky ones; the majority will not even have that.
Till the human population exploded in the 1950s and 1960s, planning a house meant planning a garden, no matter what your financial status or where you lived. Kitchen gardens were as necessary as fixing water and electricity connections are today. Most consumers of vegetables were also their producers. Even city dwellers of large cities like Mumbai and Delhi had a small patch of garden or a few fruit trees. In the current scenario, this has changed in cities, although 65 per cent of Indians still depend on farming for livelihood.
We now get vegetables transported hundreds of kilometres to our supermarkets, and it is not unusual these days to buy pears grown in China and apples from New Zealand. In order to keep them fresh, they are refrigerated all the way from the orchards of New Zealand to the supermarkets of Mumbai, Chennai, or even small towns. Packing, transportation, retailing, distribution and finally keeping these imported fruits on display in shops have an environmental cost. This cost is in the form of carbon emission, directly or indirectly. If we factor-in the environmental cost of use of pesticides and fertilizers, (mis)use of fossil fuels and ground water, the impact of international transportation of fresh food will increase further. Many scientists and concerned citizens have started questioning this: do we need to transport fresh fruits and vegetables to the other side of the world, or should we depend more on food grown close-by?
You must be familiar with the terms carnivore, herbivore, insectivore, etc., but how many of you know the term locavore? Locavore is a person who consumes food grown locally. It is a new fad and a fast-growing hobby of environmentalists to reduce carbon emission to save the planet from the vagaries of climate change. It is also spelt as ‘localvore’ by some, meaning eating locally grown food.
Like many other fads, this too started in the United States of America – the worst polluter and the biggest consumer of natural resources of the world. The word was coined by Jessica Prentice of San Francisco Bay on World Environment Day in 2005. It was so unique and spread so fast, that the term locavore was the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year in 2007. Expectedly, there is a website www.locavores.com, and if you search for the word in locavore/localvore in any search engine, you will see many articles on this subject.
According to Wikipedia, the locavore movement encourages consumers to buy fresh vegetables and fruits from farmers’ markets or even to grow and pickle their own food. A little more search reveals that food sold in US supermarkets averages c. 2,400 km from farm to plate – a 25% increase from 1980s, according to World Watch Institute. Transporting food over long distances means consuming fuel. Although transport and fuel cost is included in the price of the product (which consumers pay), the indirect cost of pollution or emitting carbon is not factored in. This is paid for by Mother Earth!
So, the next time you purchase vegetables in an air-conditioned supermarket in any city, think of the carbon footprint it made to reach you. Perhaps your old vegetable seller, whom you may have stopped patronizing since the supermarket was established, is much more benign to this world. And, your purchases also helps him earn a decent income to look after his family.
Admittedly locavoryhas limited appeal. Much of what we consume cannot be grown nearby. For example, tea or apple needs a particular climate and soil, and cannot be grown everywhere. More importantly, our population growth and urbanization means that most of us cannot grow our own food – we have to depend on markets. What we can do is individually make a choice whether to eat apples from the orchards of Himachal Pradesh or those flown in from New Zealand. Here again we may have a problem. Transporting apples from Himachal to Mumbai in an old derelict truck may emit more carbon per kilometre per apple than bringing it from New Zealand in an efficient cargo plane or by ship.
Finally, our Mother Earth cannot be saved by some impracticable fads with limited appeal. We have to seriously consider our present development paradigm where hyper-consumerism by a small percentage of the population (or countries) results in inequalities and large-scale deprivation of the majority. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”. Have we forgotten this, like his other messages?
Asad R. Rahmani