Hurricane Katrina is having a clear effect on both the hearts and minds of Americans, but I’m wondering what long term impacts it will have on another part of America’s collective anatomy: our stomach.
This may sound like a frivolous consideration in the midst of the suffering that has been taking place in the Gulf Coast where people have been killing each other over warm soda and potato chips. What may seem trifling to some, however, is essential to others. I side philosophically with the 19th century French foodie Brillat-Savarin who wrote that the “destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they feed themselves."
With costly battles raging abroad, our long-fought war against Mother Nature ramping up in intensity, and gas prices reaching all time highs, it seems like we Americans may have finally bitten off more than we can chew. Or have we?
Physics tell us that for every action, there is a reaction. The destiny of America may depend on how it reacts to the current confluence of troubling events happening at home and overseas. If history is any guide, there will be a reaction in the way we eat. During the Second World War, US citizens responded to government’s call for greater food production by planting thousands of “victory gardens” which continued enriching American communities and dinner tables well after the war was over. In the aftermath of 9-11, Americans became culinary homebodies, dramatically reducing the number of meals purchased at restaurants and take-out joints in favor of home-cooking.
My hope is that we will respond to the current instability in the world – political and meteorological – by reducing the amount of oil we eat. I’m not talking, of course, about olive, peanut, or canola, but sweet crude: the amount of fossil fuel is takes to produce and transport food from field to fork.
This won’t be easy. America is the nation that invented long-distance food transportation. The WorldWatch Institute estimates that the ingredients for the average American meal travel over 1500 miles before landing in our plates, twenty percent more than they did two decades ago. Growth in the global food system is one of the single most important causes of increased greenhouse gases during the past 50 years.
Yet, far from being a badge of shame, these statistics represents American ingenuity at its best for some. The construction of the interstate highway system was heralded as a remarkable feat that would create a national (and, ultimately, global) market for local food products. That food harvested in California could appear shiny and shrink-wrapped days later on the shelves of Maine grocery stores was seen as nothing short of a miracle.
The whole American food system is prefaced, though, on two important theories that recent geo-political events are proving untrue. The first is that that there is a limitless supply of cheap petroleum products to fuel our long distance food system. For those of you who continue to cling to this belief, a trip to your local gas station should quickly disabuse you of this. The theory that is even more dangerous is that we can keep on eating the way we always have – any food we want, from anywhere, at any time of the year, no matter what the fossil fuel implications may be – without it having an impact on the natural cycles that make the growing of food possible.
It’s true that we still don’t know for sure what and where these impacts might be. For some areas, it may be hurricane-strength rains like the ones that washed away entire landscapes of sugarcane and soybeans in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. For farmers in other areas, like the Midwest, it could be extreme droughts like the ones they have experienced this summer which sent the Missouri River to its lowest level ever and is now sending those farmers running in search of federal disaster assistance.
In pounding Louisiana, Katrina dealt a staggering blow to one of America’s most loved cuisines. Her long-term culinary legacy, however, need not be tragic. By raising gas prices and food transport costs, Katrina may end up blowing some wind into the sails of a local foods renaissance that has already started crossing the US. This revival brings with it the promise of fresh flavors, healthier citizens, and vibrant local economies. I don’t know about you, but that’s a national destiny that I’d be willing to chew on.
Roger Doiron works for the Eat Local Foods Coalition of Maine and is founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, a global network of individuals working to shorten the distance from field to fork.