By David Zylberberg
It is currently spring in Ontario, plants are blooming and many people are expectantly awaiting the cherries, strawberries or tomatoes. Yesterday a pamphlet arrived in my mailbox advertising the home-delivery of seasonal organic produce, which emphasized the virtues of it being locally grown. At the same time, I see others suggesting that eating local food is morally superior. As a historian of eighteenth-century England with an interest in changing diets, I started to think about the meaning of local food and some of the broad changes of the last quarter millennia.
England in 1763 was a model of efficient and sustainable agriculture. Some grain was shipped between regions, particularly to London, but most of the food eaten was grown locally. There were no fossil-fuel based fertilizers, chemical insecticides or injected hormones so the food supply was organic. The country had a population of 6.3 million. English people were generally well-nourished by contemporary standards so that rural men born in ensuing decades could expect to reach adult heights between 168 and 170cm. They ate a carbohydrate-heavy diet consisting primarily of oats, wheat or potatoes. These were supplemented with some vegetables, milk, cheese, butter and occasionally small amounts of meat.
More food was shipped in ensuing decades, but most of it continued to be grown in the same region as it was eaten. Agricultural yields continued to increase with better crop-rotations, methods of draining excess water from fields and improvements in fertilization. The food supply increased less than the population, which reached 15 million by 1840. As a result, most people ate less food than their great-grandparents and boys born in the 1840s could expect to reach an adult height of less than 167cm. The decline in food consumption didn’t reverse itself until the late 1860s and the beginnings of the large-scale global trade in grain. Transcontinental railways and the devotion of new land to wheat in Manitoba, Nebraska and Kazakhstan meant that people were no longer limited to the food that could be grown nearby. Much of England no longer needed to be devoted to grain, and could now be used for fruits, vegetables or dairy, contributing to a more varied diet. Over the next 140 years, English people gradually ate more and men now average over 175cm. There were also 53 million English people in 2011.
Although the above story is English, the broad outlines would apply to most other regions of Eurasia. If we were to look at what is now the Czech Republic, they were also dependent on local food into the 1870s. Men born there in the 1740s who would later serve in the Austrian army averaged 172cm. Population also increased and soldiers born in the mid-nineteenth century averaged 166cm. Now, there are many more Czechs who each eat more food and the men average around 180cm. If that average Czech soldier from the 1850s were to walk around Ostrava in 2013, he would stand out for being short, unhealthy and possibly suffering from serious vitamin deficiencies.
In the Americas, the situation was different. Disease decimated local populations after 1500 and population levels were low enough that people were generally healthy and well-fed. The globalization of food supplies had less of an impact on health and quality of life here, but did help feed an expanding population. Canada remains a net food exporter and the lives of Canadians are improved by the long-distance food trade. Southern Ontario can devote so much farmland to fruits, vegetables and dairy because grain and meat comes from elsewhere. Meanwhile, many Canadians live in regions like southern Alberta that do not produce such variety of food. Residents of Calgary are not restricted to a diet of beef, wheat and whatever vegetables can be grown in heavily-protected patches. Instead, their lives are enriched by the availability of Saskatchewan wheat, Okanagan peaches, Washington apples and California vegetables. There are also many more Calgarians than could be supported by a local diet.
Seasonal and local produce tastes better. Fresh Ontario peaches taste so much better than half-ripe ones shipped from Chile that most people I know only eat the fruit in August and September. But the pamphlet I received did not limit itself to advocating local produce because it tastes better. It implied a moral superiority to local food that can also be seen in some discussions of ‘food-miles’ or the ‘100 mile diet’. I have seen people try to justify their preferences for certain foods because it is more ‘authentic’ or ‘sustainable’. They are searching for a moral justification for something that is a question of taste and quality. Taken to its logical extremes, it would also suggest going back to the regional world of 1763, despite our larger population.
David Zylberberg is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at York University.