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Gary Paul Nabhan: “Father Of Local Food Movement”

Earth Eats' complete interview with Gary Paul Nabhan, an ethnobotanist, professor and author, who has been called the "Father of the Local Food Movement"

gary paul nabhan

Photo: Courtesy Photo

Gary Paul Nabhan is the author of a number of books, including “Where Our Food Comes From" and he's also been called the Father of the Local Food Movement.

Recently we had a special guest stop by the Earth Eats studios here in Bloomington, Indiana. Gary Paul Nabhan is the author of a number of books, including “Where Our Food Comes From” and he’s also been called the Father of the Local Food Movement.

Nabhan spoke as part of the recent Bloomington Eats Green Conference, signed some of his books, and got us really really excited about apples. But first things first…I wanted to know what the Father of the Local Food Movement has in his fridge…

Gary Paul Nabhan: What is in my fridge right now is some of our own lamb and turkey, a bunch of grape leaves and prickly pear that I harvested last summer, and a few road kills.

I was chastised by Barbara Kingsolver for trying to promote local foods nationally by getting people involved in road kill and she said it won’t work. “And that’s why I have to write a bestselling book to follow yours because you’re not going to do it that way.”

Ethnobotanist, Father of the Local Food Movement

Annie Corrigan: In addition to being a “bio-terroir’ist”, you’re an ethnobotanist. What’s an ethnobotanist?

GPN: An ethnobotanist is someone who looks at the cultural traditions of food and medicines among the diverse communities of any particular place. And so we go around the world eating our way through different cultural traditions. It’s a wonderful way to spend a career.

AC: You’ve been called the father of the local food movement. That’s a pretty big responsibility.

GPN: And as my wife said, “Who’s the mother?”

AC: How’d you get that title?

GPN: I don’t know. It came from being a Time Magazine cover story about local versus organic. And then Mother Earth News then said I was “Father of the Local Food Movement.” And then I went to Carleton College to accept an honorary PhD, and I said, “Why am I getting this?” And they said, “Because you’re the father of the local food movement,” and I said, “I am?” So, you wonder how these things creep up on you, you know.

AC: Is it a lot of pressure to live up to that?

GPN: Well, I would give credit to the grandparents of the local food movement… Joan Gussow and Wendell Berry and people like that rather than trying to figure out the parentage. The grandparentage is a lot more interesting to me.

GMOs, Monoculture and Slow Food

AC: How would you define GMO, genetically modified organisms?

GPN: A GMO is an organism that has been developed by scientists in a laboratory using what are called ‘transgenic’ technologies, where we’re literally taking the inheritance of one species of organism and transferring it (whether it’s disease resistance or a nutritional characteristic or a biochemical pathway) and putting that into another kind of organism.

Both farmers and plant breeders and animal breeders have been doing genetic manipulations for thousands of years, but it’s the intensity of this technology and how much it costs and how much control companies want from that that it becomes the moral and political issues.

Of course, there are definitely moral issues about moving genes from sheep into people or cloning sheep or something like that. It’s sort of like the technology has gotten ahead of the moral and ethical discussions of how these impact the world.

AC: And what is a “monoculture?”

GPN: A monoculture is a single crop, or in some cases a single genetic clone, being grown over hundreds if not thousands or tens of thousands of acres. So it’s a genetically uniform food producing plant or animal that has very little natural variety left in it.

AC: We’ll talk more about that in just a moment. To you, what is slow food?

GPN: [Video] Slow food is a nickname for a broad, diffuse movement that is encouraging us to look for alternatives to fast food, first of all. And secondly, to support the producers and purveyors of food that is produced in safe, clean, and fair ways.

Define “Local Eating”, Why is it Important?

AC: And to you, since you are the father of the local food movement, what is local eating?

GPN: Local eating is paying attention to sourcing our foods from the nearest place from which we can obtain a particular food. The definition of local depends on the environment you’re in. So, people in Portland, Oregon can access fish, livestock, fruits, and vegetables from a radius of 40 miles around their home, whereas those of us in the desert might want to define local as a 250-mile radius.

AC: That’s right. (You try to eat within a 220-mile radius.) How difficult is that or how easy is it?

GPN: There’s a lot of variability in productivity from year to year in the desert. So, I can personally do that fairly comfortably but I’m more interested in what a community can do than an individual. All of us, if we spend enough crazy energy can probably source most of our food from a more narrow proximity than that. But, if we’re trying to help a community transition to a less carbon-consumptive food economy then looking more broadly at these issues is sometimes more necessary.

Heirloom Seeds and Biodiversity

AC: Our last definition, heirloom seeds.

GPN: Heirloom seeds are a particular adapted stock of seeds that have been passed hand-to-hand by people of the same place over many generations. They may be native seeds or immigrant seeds that have come into a particular locality, but then they have multiple generations of being passed through family members or through community members rather than being purchased from a seed company or a some kind of clearing house.

AC: Tell me why they’re important. Why should people use them in their gardens?

GPN: There’s more genetic diversity left in these seeds, and often they were selected for flavor, texture, and keeping qualities that we don’t see in a lot of modern cultivars of vegetables. But they are also adapted to place in a way that reduces the amount of pampering, including water and energy, that would be needed to grow them if they were grown out of place.

The Varieties of Apples

AC: Let’s talk now about apples. People love apples.

GPN: I love apples.

AC: The apples that people generally eat and buy from the grocery stores… maybe a dozen, half-dozen. There’s so much more to apples than that though. Talk to me about what you know about the varieties of apples.

GPN: [Video] At one time, Americans had access to 16,000 different varieties of apples: sour ones and sweet ones, red ones and yellow ones, tear-shaped ones and lumpy ones. Ones that were good for making cider, others for pies, others for fritters, others for pancakes and sauces.

Now, 90% of the apples eaten in North America are from just 12 varieties and most kids can only name two or three different apples if that. And so a Red Delicious becomes all that a child thinks an apple can be, and it would be like thinking that all dogs are like Lassie and not knowing that dogs range from Chihuahuas to Saint Bernards, except in this case we’re missing out on incredible flavors and textures.

91% of the 3,500 apples that we have left in nursery commerce in the United States are threatened and endangered. They are being offered by just a couple nurseries, and the average age of a nurseryman is older than the average age of a farmer. So, we’re at risk of losing many of the 3,500 apples that we have left on this continent unless we do something about it soon.

And through the Renewing American’s Food Traditions Alliance, we’re training hundreds if not thousands of more people to go out and collect cuttings from apple trees called scion wood, learn how to graft them and grow those apples out in abandoned orchards.

Southern Indiana and Southern Illinois, because of a character known as Jonny Appleseed, are in the seed shadow of one of the great areas of apple diversity on the North American continent. Johnny Appleseed propagated apples by seed rather than by cuttings, and so a great range of varieties emerged out of these pippins, or seedling apples.

Right where we are today is one of the most diverse areas in North America for apples. You have some orchards near here that have 700 varieties, which is astonishing. And you have one of the top ten farmers markets in the country that has many great heirloom varieties. A farmers market like the Bloomington one probably has 60-80 apple varieties as compared to most grocery stores that have 5-10.

Your Favorite Variety of Apple

AC: You’re an apple lover, so what’s your favorite apple to eat raw, right off the tree.

GPN: I love something called the ‘Kandil Sinap,’ which is a crisp, pale-fleshed apple that’s sort of teardrop shaped. It’s from Crimea and Russia and Turkey originally but has been grown in the US for over a century.

It’s just unlike an apple I’ve ever seen. It looks like this translucent globe of light hanging from a tree, it’s like candles were put in a tree. It has a pale yellow skin. And it just has a crispness and freshness kind of vanilla and cinnamon after-taste that are just stunning.

“Good Keepers” and Apple Pie

AC: Vanilla and cinnamon after-taste…I would put that in a pie. What’s a good apple for pie?

GPN: Well, it depends where you make the pie. In the south, people tend to like tart apples for pies, and in the north they like sweets and vice versa for their fresh-eating apples.

So, it’s from what kind of pie tradition that you’ve emerged. If you like tart apples, some in the range of Granny Smith – I’m not promoting Granny Smiths alone – but that kind of tartness or bite to them is nice. But there are apples like Magnum Bonum and Gloria Mundi that are old apple varieties that make terrific pies.

I like a lot of the Winter Pearmains for pies, good keeping apples that then you can use a month or two after they’ve been picked and still have great apple pies. It used to be that apples were celebrated for being good keepers, that was the vernacular phrase for an apple that could last a long time in storage and still taste great.

And I think we ought to promote the notion of good keepers as something that we want in our community again whether they’re people or apples.

How Did We Get Here?

AC: I like it. Hearing you talk about all these varieties of apples, I’m intrigued. I’m not sure I’ve had any of those apples that you’re talking about. How did we get here? How did we get to the point where I go to the supermarket and I can only buy four or five different varieties?

GPN: It’s a stepwise reduction in apples that’s happened over about 120 years; from the first mail order apple catalogs, with the beautiful color pictures that said, “Grow Red Delicious and you can put your kid through college,” or something like that. And apple salesmen were some of the first traveling salesmen in the US once the railroads went through.

So the thrill of having a color catalog show up at your door, and then two weeks later an apple salesman, was a great thrill for rural people. Places like the Stark Brothers Nurseries captured the American imagination with their promotion of apples that was much like P.T. Barnum promoting circuses. And it temporarily wowed people.

The next thing we knew, about one hundred apples were dominating trade rather than several thousand. Then, the industrialization of apple production meant that people were looking for uniform apples that could be mechanically harvested and shipped in frozen boxes. So, apples that had different keeping qualities from the norm that the business was looking for affected it.

Then we lost tons of apples during prohibition because most Americans were still drinking hard cider more than beer or wine up until that time. Hard cider became one of the targets of prohibition, and by the time prohibition was repealed, a lot of the knowledge about how to make hard cider from heirloom apple blends went out.

Fortunately, we’re seeing a revival of both hard and sweet ciders of heirloom apple blends.

Conservation Work Through Food Communities

AC: How do you get your message out to people who eat at McDonald’s all the time, who don’t go to co-ops?

GPN: The interesting thing is that doing conservation work through food communities rather than doing conservation work through, say, The Sierra Club or World Wildlife Fund has put me into contact with people of far more walks of life, income levels, and ethnic backgrounds than any of my previous conservation work, working for non-profits and universities. That’s because everyone at some level deeply cares about their food and has food memories from a more diverse time in America.

There’s sort of a personal, visceral, sensory appeal to this because we all have food memories of an heirloom tomato or a delicious lime or lemon or orange or pomegranate or strawberry that we can’t find anymore.

What I find is that the food activism crosses cultures more easily than other kinds of environmental issues – that I’m talking to Republican conservative ranchers one day in a small town in Idaho or Texas, and the next day I’m talking to urban permaculturists living in multi-ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago or New Orleans.

To me, that’s pretty amazing that people across all colors and walks of life are concerned about our food system and want something healthier not only for themselves but also for their children and their parents.

Is It More Expensive To Eat Local?

AC: You had a great question on Friday from someone in the audience. An excuse that I know I personally hear often for not eating locally… it’s expensive to go to the co-op and to go to the farmers market.

GPN: Local food restaurants that are paying farmers and orchard keepers what they’re worth, tend to have higher price points than a Red Lobster or a steak house. But, at the same time, the average price in farmers markets is often lower than the same commodity in grocery store-chain stores.

The same apple, however, may be higher in a Whole Foods or a health food store where there are a lot of middlemen involved. So, one part of the local food movement is to reduce the number of middlemen because today farmers get 4-15% of every consumer dollar if they’re putting their food into the commodity market. A hundred years ago they were getting 60% of every consumer dollar. The rest of that money is going to the middlemen.

So, if farmers are offering their food directly to you at a farmers market, they have some extra costs that they have to cover in terms of the gas to get there rather than letting a truck pick up their produce at the farm, but typically those foods are coming in lower in my surveys than what we might see at a grocery store chain or certainly something like Whole Foods.

I think there is a lot of scrutiny… we have to look at the cost of very nutritious, healthy, fresh food relative to what we’re getting through some of the commoditized markets. And we have to ask ourselves if it really is more expensive to eat well or not.

AC: Expense aside, do you suppose is the biggest misconception of local eating?

GPN: I think there are two misconceptions. The simplistic view is that it’s always less costly and less carbon costly to get something from closer to your house than it is something from 500 miles away.  In some cases, because small pick-up trucks do use more gas than a big diesel truck full of produce, the price per unit weight is higher with food coming from a farm 40-50 miles away than it is a larger sized farm of food coming from 500 miles away.

We have the capacity with local food to change some of those variables easier. We can collaborate with four or five nearby farmers and take turns bringing all of our produce into a market in a slightly larger biodiesel truck. We can go back from town with our truck full, which typically doesn’t happen, with some of the national food distribution services. We can also work on how much energy goes into the food on the farm and reduce that, rather than just thinking about the transportation issue as a separate issue.

So, the big misconception is that local necessarily means closest to where I’m picking it up. It may be that there are efficiencies in having a route through different habitats over 150-mile range that brings a variety of foods, because each of those farms are at a different point in the season, and that our greatest efficiencies are building relationships across zones closer to home, but not thinking that mileage is the only metric we should be looking at.

How Has Eating Local Affected You Personally?

AC: You’ve been doing this your whole life. How have you felt a change knowing where your food has come from, knowing that it’s come closer to where you live?

GPN: [Video] First of all, I feel this incredible rapport with the people who grow the food I eat that I don’t grow. So that the neighbors who I buy beef from (I raise lamb and periodically turkeys) are now friends and we swap foods, we have an exchange network and I know the struggles they’re going through.The food has a human face, and I know the place that it’s from.

Second of all, I feel that I’m made from the very molecules of the place I live in, from the soil I live in, because so much of my food is from my place. So, I don’t feel displaced anymore. I feel connected to the community and the land in a way that I carry with me spiritually, emotionally, and viscerally. I think that grounds my life and makes me feel less lost in a rapidly changing world.

Heirloom vs. Conventional vs. Organic vs. Local?

AC: We had a listener write in with a question. Compare a conventional tomato that’s locally grown with an heirloom tomato that had to be flown in…What kind of trade-offs should we accept in this interim period as we’re advocating for more locally grown heirloom/organic produce?

GPN: What we’re talking about here is that we tend to have a human propensity for pitting one kind of label of something we value against another and seeing them as either/or choices.

For instance, most of the local produce in the farmers market I helped jump-start up near the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona, was not certified organic but was local of course. None of it could be officially labeled organic, but when we talked to the farmers, regardless of them having that official legal label, almost all of them were using organic practices. So, it’s a false choice to think it’s either local or organic there.

On the other hand, I’ve stopped eating strawberries, including organic strawberries, from Chile in the winter, and I’ve resolved myself to just eating strawberries in season that are grown closer to home because I don’t quite see the value of bringing in organic strawberries from 5,000 miles away.

So, I think the key thing as we’re making these transitions, is to have some flexibility and get deeper than the labels – what I say, deepen our sense of local. We can get trapped if we take these things as categorical entities that… for instance, is food really local in Arizona if it’s using ground water that’s transferred from a river 250 miles away or from water from a well 500 feet deep. We could claim that the food is local but it’s using extra-local water and fossil fuel.

So, we need to get beyond the simple labels and look at what’s sustainable both to the land and water and perhaps the cultures that are the best stewards of the land, and move toward a more holistic, improvisational way of making these choices.

And to some extent, I think the interesting thing about buying from the farmers market is that there’s some kind of traceability and means to obtain more information about it. If I see a guy selling pork and two weeks later I happen to drive by his farm and there’s a lot of erosion going on, and I see his farm sign, and I say, “Oh boy, that is local pork but now I have an indicator that he may not be as good of a land steward as I had presumed. Um, who are the other pork salesmen at the market and can I see their farming practices?”

So, to some extent, it’s about relationship building. If we want to go back to that pork producer and say, “I’d feel a lot more comfortable with buying your pork if you had some perennial forages rather than a dry lot with open mud there. I’d really help promote your products to my neighbors if you could improve your practices.” And then I hear, “I’ve always wanted to do that, but I’ve never had the incentive for it.” We built a relationship that’s positively reinforcing – he’s challenging the way I eat and I’m challenging the way he farms in a positive way.

AC: Gary Paul Nabhan, the Father of the Local Food Movement… bio-terroir’ist…professor, lecturer, and author. He stopped by the Earth Eats studios in January 2010.

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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