Why There’s No Such Thing as Local Food

For anyone who looks for unsolicited advice about the food we eat, there is no shortage of suggestions. There are the people who say we should eat organic, or only natural crops, or foods never corrupted by genetic modification. There are the local foodists, the raw people, and the prehistoric dieters. Food sage Michael Pollan  says that if you want to be extra prudent, only eat the foods that your great-grandparents ate.

But when it comes to eating local, there’s really no such thing. The rationale for choosing food produced nearby chiefly refers to food miles—the long distances most food is shipped before arriving in your supermarket and, ultimately, your stomach (see Road Trip Follows Strawberries Across the U.S.) And, depending on who you ask, the cutoff is anywhere from 500 to 1,000 miles.

Yet our common definition of eating local says nothing about the natural history of food on our planet. And if you’re in North America, very little is really, truly, local. Much of the food North Americans grow now is thanks to a group of agricultural explorers who fanned over continents in the 19th and early 20th centuries to find exotic crops and bring them back to the U.S.
One of the first and most influential was David Fairchild, an adventurous botanist and food explorer who made it his job to fill the country with the foods we eat today. Lemons? Fairchild picked up the ancestors to our modern ones in Corsica. Avocados? The parents of the contemporary, popular Haas grew first in the foothills of the Chilean Andes. Dates were unsurprisingly from the overheated deserts of the Middle East before Fairchild, who traveled through Iraq in 1902, brought date seeds to Washington that jump started an industry in Arizona and southern California. (See Dates: The Sticky History of a Sweet Food.)

America has a rich history of people like Fairchild exploring for food. What it doesn’t have are many native crops of its own—crops that grew wild on the continent before early North Americans domesticated them and turned them into agricultural commodities.

According to Eduard Akhunov, a plant biologist at Kansas State University, and Paul Gepts, a UC Davis plant breeder, the primary North American crops that made it to ubiquity are the sunflower, tobacco, sassafras, strawberries, pecan, and sumpweed (an herb in the sunflower family). I include strawberries to be charitable, since the primary modern strawberry we now eat, called Fragaria ananassa, is technically a hybrid from two species of wild strawberry. Only one (Fragaria virginiana) comes form North America. The other (Fragaria chiloensis) sprouted on the Pacific coast of Central America.Throughout history, food tended to migrate the same way people did, often following economic opportunities in other parts of the world. Bananas originated in Papua New Guinea before being spread, hybridized, and cultivated around the world. Now they’re the single most sold item at Walmart, even though they’ve only been available in the U.S. for less than 150 years.

Or, consider citrus fruits. Not only did citrus originate in Northern Asia, but all of the citrus we have today—oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes, etc.—are all descendants of ancestral mandarin and pomelo species. In fact, the thirsty orange groves of southern California aren’t just non-natives, they’re the last place on the planet oranges could possibly have spread on their westward creep over the continents.And then there’s my favorite fruit, the pineapple, which grew first in the native lowlands of South America and was domesticated in the Amazon in Northern Brazil and parts of Columbia.

Here’s an interesting thought experiment: If you’re grateful, like I am, that pineapples were chosen among thousands of fruits in the middle of the rain forest, and then thrived, and are now available worldwide, consider the thousands of similar fruits that grew near it, perhaps only slightly different, that never made it commercial, and that we’ll never know and never try.

There are economic stories in all these migrations, which become examples of globalization at work. A fruit like the avocado—which is technically, botanically, a berry—arrives in a new place, gains popularity and then, decades later, that industry finds it cheaper to grow avocados elsewhere. California avocados used to be one of the world’s biggest brands. Now, more than two-thirds of the avocados Americans eat are grown in Mexico, and most of those in one particular state called Michoacán. (See “We’ve Reached Peak Avocado“).

Buried somewhere in all the stories of food migration and food innovation at the hands of scientists and multinational corporations is an ethical question about just who owns native foods, and whether the lands where crops first grew have some natural claim to them. Countries that find themselves atop ancient oil or mineral deposits don’t have to share the spoils with the rest of the world. Should people whose ancestors cultivated the first grapes (western Asia) or eggplants (India) be compensated for those formative decisions and the work that followed? What if every apple you ate included a tax to Kazakhstan, where the first apples grew? Certainly it would change the distribution of wealth and economics, nowhere more than North America. The U.S. could rake it in on sunflower sales, but not with anything resembling dominance. Sunflower flowers, seeds, and oil are seasonal. For such a large country, it’d be a rather niche business.

Dan Stone is a staff writer for National Geographic Magazine and is working on a biography of David Fairchild. Follow him on Twitter at @DanEnRoute.