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The Global Locavore

March 14, 2011

Words are powerful things. I say this knowing full well that my twelfth-grade English teacher would have my hide for even suggesting such a ludicrous notion. His mantra was always, “The word is not the thing.” But despite my belief in their power, sometimes there are no good words to convey complex ideas.

Take for example my difficulty in trying to find great coffee and espresso. While I’m glad to have stumbled upon the term “Third Wave” as a useful shorthand, it’s hardly evocative of what I’m after. And as some have suggested, there are certainly a handful of “Second Wave” places that would more than satisfy my needs and desires.

Now granted, I take food way too seriously. I know this.

So I get really worked up when certain food industry words get corrupted and lose their meaning. “Natural” is meaningless, “Organic” has been weakened, and “Sustainable” seems to be a matter of opinion.

Locavore on the other hand would seem to be very concrete. Although maybe it’s not as clear-cut as it sounds. I don’t think I’m entirely alone on this, but I suspect that for most people “eating local” isn’t entirely about eating local. Rather I think it’s a convenient shorthand for something larger that we don’t have an adequate word to explain.

I’m not here to poo poo local foods. I love them and I support them. I’ve got local grass-fed beef in my chest freezer, I subscribe to a local biodynamic CSA, I enjoy the local wine, and am a big fan of our local distillery just to name a few.

I think it’s important to support the people within our region who are doing things right and making tasty things to eat.

But my primary concern is just that, that they are doing things right. There are local apple orchards that routinely spray poison on their fruit instead of engaging in an integrated pest management program. And you know what? I want nothing to do with them. I suspect there are local dairies that supply their cows with sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics, and I want nothing to do with them either.

However, for the most part the producers who are doing it right are doing it on a smaller scale, with regional distribution. And if you are interested in drinking fresh unhomogenized milk from grass-fed cows, you will be drinking locally.

Local foods also occasionally have the edge when it comes to being extra tasty. Produce that is optimized for deliciousness instead of heartiness can’t make the arduous journey across state lines. Rather, it is best rushed to market so it can be consumed within a day of being plucked from the earth.

In these cases the reduced carbon footprint is a happy bonus.

But there are some foods that can be produced “sustainably” around the globe that do not degrade in transport. Now some of these products have no local counterpart, like coffee or tea. However, others do.

Let’s take for example grass-fed beef. It just so happens that beef from New Zealand is grass fed and grass finished. A few years back Michael Pollan found that it’s cheaper to buy this beef that comes from the other side of the world than it is to buy a comparable domestic product.

Here’s my line: I am NOT going to stick my nose up in the air at grass-fed and finished beef just because it comes from New Zealand.

Good is good. And as far as I’m concerned, this is how cows should be raised.

Sure, cows like corn. It’s like candy. They may love it, but just like with people, too much of it will make them fat and sickly. For cows fat is desirable (but perhaps not all fat is created equal) and the sickly part can be easily fixed with antibiotics. People have been eating and enjoying meat like this for decades, but I just don’t find it terribly appealing.

None of this is to say that I plan on turning away from locally raised beef anytime soon. I still think it’s important to support local farmers who are doing things right.

But I’d rather see grass-fed and grass-finished beef on a menu, regardless of its country of origin, than conventionally raised meat. Even if that conventionally raised beef were local. And that is what makes me a global locavore, as ridiculous as it sounds.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    March 14, 2011 10:29 am

    Yes, the defense that meat-producers offer by saying “my cattle love corn” is indeed one of the worst defenses ever! I might love candy, but that doesn’t mean I should eat it.

    • March 14, 2011 10:58 am

      The point the local beef producer was making was that HE (not his cows) is in control of their diet. They primarily eat hay and grass. A small (proportionately) amount of corn is added to their diet.
      At least that’s how I read it and I know what I’m talking about since I used to raise beef cows.
      What I think we should really focus on is standardizing the terms used to describe our food so that it’s less confusing AND support those that are ‘doing the right thing’ whether they are local or not.

  2. March 14, 2011 4:12 pm

    Here is a very very long discussion on chowhound on Grass vs Corn fed beef with good points made for both sides:
    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/427906

    I had a very long discussion with Bill Niman on this topic when he was still associated with Niman Ranch. His philosophy was that you should allow cattle to develop naturally eating grass, which is what is going to happen if you let them roam the range and eat hay in winter, then finish them at 2 years or older on a corn and feed diet which adds marbling and deepens the flavor profile. He did not like the idea of exposing cattle to grain before they were fully developed, nor exposing calves to grass too young in the interests of creating a “grass fed” animal.

    Even considering all the evils of corn, I find that beef developed in this way has the complex taste that I prefer and that purely grass-fed beef is a little lean and one-dimensional for me.

    Let the flogging begin.

  3. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    March 14, 2011 8:49 pm

    I realize that corn-fed beef tastes great and just like we want it to taste, mainly because of marbling. This does not mean that that is the natural way for beef to taste. I prefer “one-dimensional” grass-fed beef.

    • speshulk99 permalink
      April 21, 2011 7:23 am

      I agree with you Mr. Sunshine. Having visited a slaughterhouse several times and seeing grassfed,grassfinished beef hanging alongside corn finished, one can obviuosly see the difference. The fat on the grassfed/finished has a yellow tint to it, and the other is white. According to the folks who perform the dastardly deed of slaughter, the color indicates the presence of omega oils in the grassfed/finished animal which are missing in the other one.

  4. March 15, 2011 3:19 am

    It’s late, and I probably shouldn’t be responding to this now, but I’d like to add some thoughts to this discussion since I was the one that recently said cows love corn. And perhaps I shouldn’t be taking this personally since I would argue our beef is not conventionally raised. But, it’s late and some of this seems directed at my earlier comment.

    I am not a local beef producer or even the main care taker of the animals. At different times during the year, we own 2 or 4 steers. The steers are raised to an age of 24-28 months prior to slaughter. The beef is divided among 4 families. None of it is for sale.

    The steers get corn daily. Not mass amounts of corn. A scoop in the morning, and a scoop in the evening. By scoop, I mean something about the size of a 32 ounce can of tomatoes. No shots, no antibiotics.

    The point I was trying to make earlier is that some corn in a steer’s diet does not necessarily impact the happiness of the animal. For most of the year (they are in a corral during winter), our cattle are free to go anywhere they want on the property. Eat any grass they want to eat. Hay is available if they want it. They can run. They can walk. They can play with each other. They pretty much come and go as they please. Water is available whenever they want it. The environment in which these steers live in no way shape or form resembles a feed lot. Sickly-never. I would argue that this is as happy as steers get.

    I disagree with the “I love candy, but that doesn’t mean I should eat it” argument for a number of reasons. First, I would say some candy isn’t a bad thing. If you had a cat or dog, would you never give it a treat? Possibly be a daily treat? And when you are talking about an animal this size, these are small scoops. Deep fried food probably isn’t the best thing for human consumption but I doubt anyone reading this will never eat anything fried again.

    Second, corn is not the only food these animals are fed. It is not even the main food our animals are fed. If they were locked in a stall and only fed corn you’d have an argument and I would agree with you.

    Third, corn helps an owner get close to his livestock. When the steers arrive on the farm, they get to know their main handler at the corn feeding times. They learn his voice, his scent, and grow accustomed to his presence. Should a cow get out, this handler and some grain will get the steer back. I’m not sure what you suggest the small time farmer do to get a 2000 pound steer out of a neighbor’s yard and back into the corral at 2 AM, but the truth is a bowl of corn works. But that bowl of corn won’t mean anything to the steer if he’s never seen it before. Maybe it’s not the best reason to feed a steer corn, but I’d argue a valid one for a small time farmer.

    The most important point is that I have not had beef of this quality anywhere. Not from a market, butcher shop, prime steak house or farmer’s market -grass only or corn fed. On a recent trip, steak from our steers were cooked along side purchased steaks and the difference was staggering.

    I bet a lot of local beef is raised in a similar fashion. As Otis said, let the flogging begin.

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