A Quarter Millennia of Local Food

      7 Comments on A Quarter Millennia of Local Food

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.

7 thoughts on “A Quarter Millennia of Local Food

  1. Degroot

    Interesting and provocative post, David! I do take some issue with the direct correlations you imply between the diversity/supply of food, average heights, and total population. Of course, other influences – notably medical developments, technological improvements, cultural shifts, etc. – also played an important role.

  2. David Zylberberg


    I appreciate your points and accept that my short survey didn’t mention some major improvements in public health and sanitation that contributed to population growth. However, the increased food supply had a large impact on living conditions. No matter how well disease was eradicated, there would not be 53 million healthy and large English people without sufficient food.
    I will disagree with you on the role of technology and cultural shifts as separate from the increased consumption of non-local foods. The biggest technological improvements of the 1860s and 1870s involved the transportation and preservation of food (transcontinental railways, steamships, refrigeration). Many of the other big new technologies involved machines like reapers and binders that were used to harvest large tracts of prairie wheat. European living conditions improved even though their agriculture was less mechanized than North America in the late nineteenth century.
    Nobody can dispute that cultural preferences for food have changed, and that we now value fresh produce and non-grain foods more than previously. We also live in a world of unparalleled food abundance. A twentieth-century historian might correct me, but I believe that most of the changes in food preference happened fairly recently and followed access to new ingredients. Many of the changes you are thinking of occurred in a world in which the food supply was no longer precarious and undernourishment no longer assured.

    David Zylberberg

  3. Gregory Kennedy

    Great post, David. Another contributing factor, as I understand it, is that the period from about 1710 through 1740 was remarkably warm, consistent and favourable for traditional agriculture throughout Western Europe and North America. During the difficult years of the nadir of the Little Ice Age towards the end of the seventeenth century, I discovered many documents referring to the hot market for grain shipped from France to England for local consumption (when they were not at war it was official trade, when they were it was smuggling).

  4. Jim Clifford

    Great post David. The 100-mile diet is wide open to this kind of critique. I would caution, however, against lumping together 100-mile advocates with the wider food movement. Focusing on distance is an easy short hand for a more complicated concern with the scale, ownership and industrialisation of our food system. Buying local, from small farmers, is a political action that we can take against the very real environmental and social harm caused by a lot of the food available at a supermarket. I don’t think these political acts will be effective without a much wider political movement that motivates people at the ballot box, but I still think it is a worthwhile activity.

    Leaving a strict 100-mile diet aside, focusing on local food allows for a discussion of what we can produce regionally and what we can transport relatively sustainably. Wheat, olive oil and coffee are pretty easy to transport long distances by boat and train. We’ve been doing it for hundreds of years after all. The energy costs of flying perishable fruit from the southern hemisphere to Canadian cities during the winter is increasingly unsustainable in a world facing climate change. Moreover, building a market for local produce helps justify maintaining and expanding greenbelts and saving prime farm lands from suburban development.

    Many people engaged with the local food movement are trying to think about what we eat and our economy using a systems-approach and are not naive enough to think we should feed cities of two, ten or twenty million people from the immediate hinterlands. Of course, there are many more who are attracted to local food as a means of displaying social and cultural capital (eating at high end restaurants, shopping at Whole Foods, etc). To complicate matters further, a lot of people exist in both camps to varying degrees.

    Thanks again for the article, it was very thought provoking.

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