Participants in a lifestyle experiment called the Decolonizing Diet Project have committed to eating like aboriginals in the Great Lakes region did 400 years ago. The project has drawn attention to the locavore movement, a belief that eating food produced close to home is healthier and leaves a smaller carbon footprint. But locavores may be deceiving themselves about the impact of their movement in today’s world.
The Decolonizing Diet Project
Locavores believe eating locally produced food supports the community and fights global warming because it eliminates the need for trucks traveling cross country from factory farms to supermarkets. People also become locavores for spiritual reasons, which are exemplified in the Decolonizing Diet Project.
The Decolonizing Diet Project is being conducted by the School of Native American Studies at Northern Michigan University. A group of 25 volunteers have committed themselves to a diet of foods indigenous to the Great Lakes region that natives had eaten before European’s showed up.
The difficulties of being a locavore are magnified by the Decolonizing Diet project, including adhering a master list of eligible foods compiled by an ethnobotanist and holding off on the hors d’ oeuvres at social occasions. But some participants who have embraced the project 100 percent report significant weight reduction and a profound sense of well being.
The Decolonizing Diet includes foods defined by the Department of Agriculture as native to the region, such as whitetail deer and morel mushrooms; non-native foods introduced by other indigenous people prior to 1600, including corn, beans and squash; and contemporary versions of native animals, such as domesticated turkeys.
Good native eatin’
A sample menu shows that the natives ate pretty well. For example, a breakfast of dried wild rice and corn with wild rice milk and maple sugar could be followed by a lunch of sunflower, dandelion and mushroom-baked whitefish with hazelnut, black cherry and nodding onion salad. Or how about a dinner of fried duck with cattail hearts and huckleberries?
Tainted by politics
The locavore movement has gained enough influence to inspire legislation in the form of the “Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act” sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine. The law proposes spending about $200 million to local farm programs.
According to Steve Sexton at Freakonomics, the Local Farms, Food and Jobs act flies in the face of basic economic laws, could endanger natural habitat and challenge climate change mitigation efforts.
Specialization, trade and food miles
Sexton points out the concept of specialization and trade in agriculture, where crops are grown in regions with climates most suitable for those crops. Add economies of scale and localizing agriculture would take more land, more chemicals and more carbon emissions to grow the same amount of food.
When it comes to lowering “food miles,” a major tenet of the locavore movement, according to a 2008 study by Carnegie Mellon University, transportation only accounts for 11 percent of the carbon footprint of food. Production accounts for 83 percent. Driving small amounts of food to the local market can take just as much fuel per calorie delivered as shipping large amounts of food across the country.
How to actually reduce your carbon footprint:
The complexities of the real world often interfere with utopian ideals such as the locavore movement. If you really want to reduce your diet’s carbon footprint, author James E. McWilliams has a suggestion: quit eating meat.
Meat takes more energy to produce than any other food. It takes 6 pounds of grain to make a pound of chicken and 10 to 16 pounds to make a pound of beef. It takes 2,400 liters of water to make a burger and only 13 liters to grow a tomato. A majority of the water in the American West goes toward the production of pigs, chickens and cattle.
Based on the average American meat consumption of 273 pounds of meat a year, giving up red meat once a week could save as much energy as driving to the local farmer’s market to get your groceries.