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.

5 thoughts on “Historical Context for the Debate Over “Local” Food, Part 2 of 2

  1. “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.”I have no sympathy for these people. They moved in next to a farm, what did they think it was going to smell like?

  2. Our little town in Oregon – King City has been faced with the chicken problem only their request was to have their pet chickens in coops in their yards. Shine the light on our frivolity and help us return to our common sense heritage. I am in awe that 30 years is all that it has taken to literaly destroy this country.Love you much. BL

  3. Maureen — I’m enjoying your new series on food production, especially as last year I earned my keep researching and writing about farm subsidies, trends in grain and livestock production, and random topics like aquaculture. I’m looking forward to your new book.What are some of the key words and hashtags used on Twitter for people interested in this new “food” discussion? I can (and have) guessed on a few, but I’d love to see what you’ve seen on search.twitter.com!

  4. Sean, food is fascinating, isn’t it? I’m finally deep enough into the new book that I feel confident to start blogging about what I “know.” (Which, I have to add, probably means bye-bye beer blogging. My brain can only manage so much.)On Twitter, try #localfood, #profood, #locavore, #agchat, #sustainability. That will get you into the main discussions. But there are corporate tweets, farmers’ tweets, policy stuff. Just about anything related to food. It’s almost overwhelming. I’ve only just begun adding some of the blogs I’ve been reading to my blogroll in the right-hand sidebar. There are zillions out there…And Bonnie, thanks for the comment. I didn’t realize you were having “chicken debates” in King City! Fascinating.


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