We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Eating Locally

After living well for a year on foods grown within 250 miles of his house, Gary Paul Nabhan sees a simple solution to the planet's environmental problems:

By James Smolka and Gretel H Schueller
May 1, 2001 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:33 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

The Avra Valley in the Sonoran Desert, just southwest of Tucson, Arizona, doesn't look particularly inviting, especially if you're hungry. The rubbly soil bristles with spiny shrubs and thorny cacti, the trees have small, leathery leaves, and the animals have names like Gila monster and bark scorpion. But to Gary Paul Nabhan, that caustic exterior hides a veritable smorgasbord. Sidestepping some thorns and burrs, he walks up to a squat prickly pear cactus and whacks off a slice with his machete. After cooking, he says, it will taste a lot like green beans.

Nabhan is no Tex-Mex Martha Stewart, no hippie visionary hoping to feed the world fried grasshoppers and roasted moth larvae, although he likes to snack on them himself. He is director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University and the recipient of both a MacArthur "genius" Fellowship and a Pew Scholarship, as well as the author of acclaimed books on conservation. His most recent, to be published this fall, is titled Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods. It describes his one-year culinary quest to eat foods only from within a 250-mile radius of his desert home— not to test his survival skills, but to make a devastating point: Our eating habits are destroying the planet.

Little more than a century ago, nearly half of all Americans farmed. But by the 1997 U.S. agricultural census, only 2 percent still listed farming as an occupation. Americans now get nearly a quarter of all their fruits and vegetables and more than half of all their seafood from foreign countries. A typical morsel of food journeys 1,400 miles before it reaches a mouth— 50 times farther than it did 20 years ago— changing hands at least six times along the way.

The virtues of this global goulash are obvious: Food is relatively cheap, and almost any food can be had at any time of the year. Yet to Nabhan, the drawbacks are costly: The more global our agriculture, he says, the less varied our food; the more mechanized our farms, the poorer our farmers; the more abundant our crops, the less healthy our landscapes. Worst of all, we've grown blind to the bounty in our own backyards. To prove a point, Nabhan stoops over another cactus and says, "This little one here is the one we get the flower buds off of. They taste like asparagus tips." A few steps away, he stops in front of a withered-looking creosote bush. Its leaves make a great medicinal tea, he says. Even those mesquite trees are good for a snack or two. Their dried pods taste a little like chocolate, and they can be ground to make a flour rich in soluble fiber.

And all this in a desert, he seems to be saying. Just think what the rest of you are missing.

Nabhan and I visit a supersized supermarket in Tucson. There, we wander down aisles flanked by heaps of fruits and vegetables from all over the world: mangoes from Brazil, lemons from Argentina, tomatoes from Canada, bananas from Guatemala. The variety is both dazzling and predictable— all this produce is always available. "We can pick and choose from the planetary supermarket without any contact with local fishermen or farmers, let alone any responsibility to them," Nabhan says, eyeing a can of boiled baby clams grown in aquaculture farms along the coast of Thailand.

A few aisles over, we pass tins of orange breakfast drink and box after box of cake mix. Processed foods— or "marginally edible gobbledygook" as Nabhan calls them— are the fastest-growing sector of the food industry, and their genesis is even harder to trace. When I called a representative at Campbell's Soup, she couldn't say where the tomatoes in their tomato soup had been grown, much less where the corn syrup in it came from.

The hidden costs of supermarket convenience begin with seeds. Historically, Nabhan says, farmers had no choice but to grow plants adapted to local environments— flint corn in the northern plains, for instance, and drought-resistant flour corn in the deserts. But when modern transportation and mass production allowed all the corn we need to be grown in the Midwest, seed companies started to consolidate. Nearly a third of all vegetables found in U.S. and Mexican supermarkets are now grown from a single company's seeds. "We pretend we don't need drought-adapted corn in the deserts of the Southwest anymore," Nabhan says, "because we can take federally subsidized water from the Colorado River, divert it 200 miles to a place that has no water, and then give that crop as much water as we give it in the Midwest."

Ironically, such heroic efforts only make crops more vulnerable. Monocultures are an ideal target for pests, to which they offer only a single source of resistance. And because most commercial crops have been bred for high yields, many of the genes for disease resistance have been lost. So pesticide use in the United States has grown 33-fold since 1945. Corn farmers alone spray 30 million pounds of insecticides each year to protect their 80 million acres of grain from rootworm beetles and borers. "Heterogeneity once protected us from epidemics and plagues," Nabhan says. "Now we substitute chemicals."

Gary Paul Nabhan has spent 30 years working in the Southwest— long enough to see even its bleakest deserts as ocher foodscapes. The saguaro cactus behind him, for instance, bears red fruits prized by Native Americans.

Like most conservationists, Nabhan has long seen the dark side of modern agriculture. But it took a trip overseas to shift his sights to the benefits of eating locally. He was at an exclusive restaurant in Beirut, Lebanon, when he noticed something odd about the menu: "French champagne, caviar from the Caspian Sea, shrimp from the Sea of Cortés, Sicilian capers, Argentine beef, Chilean wine. Not a single item came to us from Lebanese soil." Yet later, in the village where his cousins lived, he was served a feast worthy of an area once known as the Fertile Crescent: goat and lamb that had grazed on nearby slopes, home-cured olives, fresh-baked pita, tomatoes, eggplants, and squash— all grown in local gardens. That experience, he says, "sprung me loose" from complacency about food.

Once back home, Nabhan rebuilt his diet from the ground up. His garden was already a desert oasis, covered with prickly pears, heirloom grapes and pomegranates, mesquite trees, wild beans, a pollinator garden, and a peach tree. He added tomatillos and several varieties of squash, peppers, herbs, onions, and native shallots. He installed a drip irrigation system and planted under shade trees, lowering his water needs— even in a desert— to less than what a typical grocery uses to mist vegetables. Indoors, he purged his kitchen of processed and packaged foods. Instead of cereal from a box, he and his wife ate crepes made of panic grass flour, with a sauce of wild wolfberries.

The experiment began officially on the day after Easter, 1999 ("I didn't want to upset my mother, who was making ham and scalloped potatoes"). From then on, 80 percent of Nabhan's food would come from within a 250-mile radius of his home— about as far as he could drive (and drive back) in one day or walk in 10. "It seemed like an area within which, historically, you might have some cognizance of your neighbors," he says. He wanted at least 90 percent of what he ate to be native to the Southwest, but he kept his goals realistic— he continued to drink coffee for a few months, for example. Now he's an herbal tea drinker. "I had to keep telling myself that this would be an extended ritual," he says, "like a marathon runner who lumbers at first until he gains momentum."

Severed from the supermarket, Nabhan had to adapt to the seasons and their shifting resources. Spring brought cactus buds, which he could eat dried, pit-baked, or pickled, and squash blossoms that could be stuffed. Summer meant gathering wild desert greens, berries, and saguaro fruit. In the fall, he planted winter greens, onions, and legumes, gathered acorns and piñon nuts, and killed his flock of five turkeys, which he smoked in a backyard stone oven. One bird, prepared with home-brewed beer, mustard, garlic, lime juice, and a piñon nut dressing, served as the main course for Thanksgiving.

The daunting pads of the prickly pear taste like green beans when cleaned and cooked.

The most humbling parts of the experiment, Nabhan says, were crop failures. Hornworms chewed through his tomato plants, for example, and a rare snow in March led to a slim harvest of cholla cactus buds in April. But he had never planned to live from only a garden. Just a few blocks from home, he could shoot quail and doves. And although some days he'd come home empty-handed, on others he had a bird shot and dressed within minutes, ready to be stuffed with garlic and wild oregano, then glazed with prickly pear syrup.

The easiest part was finding other people who were doing the same thing. Every two weeks, for instance, Nabhan would travel 28 miles to see Miss Soto, a.k.a. the Egg Lady, to buy duck, goose, and turkey eggs. At a nearby roadside stand, he met a woman willing to exchange tortillas for some of his mesquite flour. And his neighbors chipped in to buy sides of beef from a local ranch.

Nabhan's new diet was less of a stretch for him than it would be for most. This is a man, after all, whose cookbooks include Unmentionable Cuisine and Dining with Headhunters; a man who doesn't mind eating roadkill— quail, dove, and the occasional rattlesnake— as long as it's "fairly fresh." Still, many of his family members and friends were skeptical. "When I put something out on the table," he says, "they usually let one person taste it to see if he would die."

As it turned out, Nabhan's diet became remarkably similar to what local Native Americans once ate— and therefore a good deal more varied than the typical American's diet. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, half the vegetable servings eaten in 1996 came from only three plants: lettuce (mostly iceberg), potatoes, and tomatoes. And half of all fruit servings came from only four fruits. Worldwide, only 10 to 15 species of plants and eight species of livestock account for 90 percent of global food production, and that range is narrowing. Of 15 breeds of swine raised in this country just 50 years ago, eight are extinct. And just two kinds of peas account for 96 percent of the U.S. harvest. Corn may be transmogrified into bread, beer, and even frosted flakes, "but it's the same basic thing," says Solomon Katz, a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. "We re-create variety by processing a handful of plant foods in a million different ways, and there're all kinds of consequences of that increased processing."

As early as 1974, a study led by John Steinhart, then at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, concluded that the U.S. food system had quadrupled its energy use between 1940 and 1970. It now takes between 10 and 15 calories of energy to deliver one calorie of food to a U.S. consumer. A head of lettuce, for instance, requires 2,200 calories of energy to produce when it's grown in California and eaten in New York, yet it provides only 50 calories of energy. By contrast, subsistence societies use about four calories of energy to produce one calorie of food.

The food consumed by each person in the United States takes the energy equivalent of 400 gallons of oil a year to produce, process, distribute, and prepare— 17 percent of the total energy supply. By contrast, Africans and Asians use about 40 gallons per person for all their activities. "We're using 10 times the amount just for food," says David Pimentel, a professor of agricultural sciences and ecology at Cornell University. Why? Because we eat about 3,800 calories a day, or about 2,200 pounds of food per year— twice as much as people in China.

At the very least, one would hope that farmers benefit from all the energy and expense lavished on their crops— after all, yields per acre have roughly doubled since 1950. Yet net returns on farming have remained relatively constant. Large, vertically integrated companies and cooperatives now handle almost all agricultural processing and production, from seed to supermarket shelf, leaving ownership and control in few hands. In the beef industry, for instance, four firms control more than 80 percent of the market. About 65 cents of every dollar spent on food goes into packaging, delivery, and marketing; 30 cents goes to the companies that make fertilizers and pesticides; and only 5 cents goes to the farmer. Last year, the USDA distributed a record $28 billion in direct subsidies, yet some farmers still couldn't compete with overseas labor. Chinese imports, for example, have devastated the apple industry in Washington State.

Years ago, Nabhan got a glimpse of a different kind of agriculture, and the intimate ties to food that it can build. In Gary, Indiana, where he grew up, his grandfather was a fruit and vegetable peddler and his neighbors were Greeks, Swedes, and Lebanese to whom preparing a meal was as important as eating it. Nabhan often went hunting for small game with his father and uncles, and after high school he took inner-city kids on field trips to nearby Amish and Mennonite farms, where they helped plant potatoes and fruit trees. When he came to the Southwest in 1971, he delved into local agriculture, visiting remote farms in search of heirloom vegetables once grown by the Hopi, Apache, Tohono O'odham, and other tribes. A year or two later, so many farmers were asking after the seeds he had found that he helped establish a native seed bank in Tucson. It now houses nearly 2,000 varieties of corn, chilies, beans, melons, and other heirloom crops, and distributes them to Native American farmers free of charge.

One morning, Nabhan takes me to the village of San Pedro, an hour west of Tucson, where some 20,000 Tohono O'odham members live on a reservation. It is an unseasonably cold and gray day, with a steady mist that sends a chill into our bones, and the area around the local church looks as barren as the moon. But nearby, inside a shelter of waist-high walls and a corrugated tin roof, the mood is almost festive. Several women are busy preparing lunch over four wood fires, next to a large wooden table covered with woven baskets and blackened pots filled with native foods. Nabhan spoons a broth of brown and white tepary beans— the most heat- and drought-tolerant legume in the world, he says— into a tortilla made from floury, fast-growing native corn. The tortilla is soft and flaky and the beans, spiced with a pungent wild oregano, are almost buttery. Tender cushaw squash, cholla buds, and a freshly steamed salad of wild desert greens fill out the meal. For dessert there is yellow watermelon and a tropical-tasting drink made with wild chia seeds.

At the Café Poca Cosa in Tucson, Arizona, more than half of all the food is grown locally. This "carne asada à la Mexicana" contains local cabbage, zucchini, onions, and garlic and is served with roasted prickly pear cactus pads.

The O'odham farms are "mosaics of microhabitats," Nabhan says. Here, desert-adapted varieties of corn, beans, and squash grow side by side, complementing each other: The corn provides a trellis for the bean vines, which provide nitrogen for the corn and squash. The large leaves of the squash form a living mulch, keeping the soil cool and moist. Compared with nearby conventional farms, Nabhan and his colleagues have found, the O'odham farms have fewer cotton rats and other pests and many more pollinators, such as carpenter bees and hummingbirds. According to a 1996 study in the Journal of Agriculture and Applied Economics, the average small farm devotes 17 percent of its land to woods, compared with only 5 percent on large farms. Small farms also allocate nearly twice as much land to soil improvement projects, such as cover crops that reduce erosion.

Such measures may now seem quaint. Yet in 1992, the U.S. agriculture census survey found that as farm size increases, the average net output decreases. According to Peter Rosset, executive director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy in Oakland, California, "the smallest farms, those of 27 acres or less, have more than 10 times greater output per acre than larger farms." Where large farms have weeds growing between their endless rows, Rosset explains, small farms have secondary crops. "It might look like the large farm is more productive because they're getting more, say, soybeans per acre. But you're not getting the other five or 10 products that the small farm is getting."

Many agricultural economists still say that the small farm is dead— no amount of loving care, heirloom vegetables, and clever intercropping can make up for the vast economies of scale available to corporate farms. But Nabhan believes that American agriculture has reached a turning point. Events over the past year, he says, represent "the equivalent of the Boston Tea Party for food." Thousands of farmers have refused to grow patented seeds; students have destroyed experimental fields and labs for genetically engineered crops; consumers have demanded better food labeling; and the Slow Food Movement, founded in Italy in 1986 to resist the homogenization of food production, has arrived in America after gathering more than 60,000 members worldwide.

The strongest signs of this change may be the boom in farmers' markets and organic food sales. According to the Department of Agriculture, the number of markets nationwide has risen from a couple of hundred in the 1970s to 2,863 today— nearly one for every community in the country. At the same time, community-supported agriculture programs, known as CSAs, are helping more consumers buy produce straight from farmers. Just north of Santa Barbara, for instance, in the midst of suburban sprawl, the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens runs a 12.25-acre farm that grows 100 varieties of fruits and vegetables and feeds about 500 families. The concept is simple: People sign up to pay for a share of the season's crops. In exchange, they get a load of fresh-picked produce each week. The farmers know in advance how much to plant, and they share the risks and rewards with their customers. If the early lettuce freezes, everyone has to wait for the second planting. If it's a bumper year for cucumbers, everyone gets extras. "One of the good parts of CSAs, over and above the fact that they may be cheaper, is that you have a greater variety of foods," Nabhan says, "and they enable you to understand the plight of people growing your food."

On my last night in Tucson, Nabhan takes me to a restaurant. He's worried that I haven't enjoyed his native foods. Actually, I have— and I didn't have to sneak in anything. But we go anyway.

The century plant, or agave, contains a sap that can be fermented into a pungent alcoholic drink.

Inside the Café Poca Cosa, the walls are the color of chili powder, the floors are terra-cotta tile, bright paintings hang above heavy wooden furniture, and the only light comes from dozens of flickering candles. This is cheating, I think. But as we wait by the bar for a table and Nabhan sips some local tequila, he explains that more than half of what's on the menu can be traced to within a few miles of where we sit. The tomatillos and cilantro for the salsa, the mixed greens in my salad, and the peppers, squash, and eggplants in my roasted vegetable burrito were all grown at some of the same small local farms where Nabhan bought his produce. The shrimp he orders came from the Sea of Cortés, less than 250 miles away.

If a restaurant in Arizona can do this, anyone can, Nabhan says. "We get 10 inches of rain a year. And Arizona has the lowest number of small farms per capita of any state." In fact, restaurants like Café Poca Cosa are catching on. A nationwide network of more than 1,500 chefs, known as the Chefs Collaborative, now advocates "sustainable cuisine" of just this kind. In the end, Nabhan says, finishing off the last bits of food on his plate, eating locally isn't just about eating well. It's about communities getting involved and returning food to its natural place at the center of our lives. "Each time we put something in our mouths," he says, "it's a moral act, whether we admit it or not."

The Fat of the Land

Thanks to modern agriculture, developed nations have leapfrogged the threat of famine— only to land in the insalubrious pit of overnutrition. Simply put, we've become global gluttons. Last year, the average American ate 220 pounds of meat and poultry, at least 14 pounds of seafood, more than 200 pounds of flour and cereal products, nearly 740 pounds of vegetables, fruits, and nuts, more than 28 pounds of cheese, about 65 pounds of added fats and oils, and 150 pounds of caloric sweeteners such as cane sugar and corn syrup. We consume twice as much butter, shortening, oil, and sugar as our counterparts in 1909 did. We consume seven and a half times more cheese, five times more chicken (up to 54 pounds a year), 24 percent more beef, and 15 percent more pork. And while we eat just a little less fresh fruit than folks did in 1929, we make up for it by ingesting a lot more processed fruit.

The effect is all too obvious: More than half the adult population is overweight or obese, according to the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and diabetes has reached epidemic proportions. Every year, obesity accounts for 300,000 preventable deaths (second only to tobacco in that category) and, say the National Institutes of Health, obesity-related diseases cost the country $100 billion a year. — G.S.

Future Farm

While Gary Paul Nabhan is trying to curb our addiction to modern agriculture, Wes Jackson wants to reinvent it from scratch. For 10,000 years, Jackson says, people have been planting crops like corn and wheat that survive only one season. But every time the ground gets plowed and reseeded, more topsoil is lost to erosion. Today the United States loses 2 billion tons of topsoil each year— 25 to 50 percent more than when the Soil Conservation Service was established in the 1930s. Yet a single inch of topsoil can take 500 years to form naturally. Plants do not grow well in rock or clay, which is about all that will be left when the topsoil is gone.

In 1976, a decade after earning his Ph.D. in genetics, Jackson set out to address the problem by founding the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. There, he and other researchers study what they call "natural-systems agriculture." The idea is to farm more benignly by turning farms into something closer to what they've replaced. In central Kansas and much of the U.S. grain belt, that means prairie— a mix of long-lived perennials that resprout every year, hold and even build soil, sequester water, resist pests, and fix nitrogen.

A native prairie is made up of warm-season grasses, cool-season grasses, legumes, and members of the sunflower family. To mirror that structure, Jackson and his colleagues are breeding perennial versions of wheat (a cool-season grass), sorghum (a warm-season grass), and sunflowers, and hope to begin work on a legume soon. They're also trying to domesticate wild perennials such as Illinois bundleflower (a legume). Their ideal perennial farm would never need plowing, and like a prairie, would run essentially on sunshine and rain.

Perennials have long been thought to devote too much energy to their roots to produce as much grain as annuals. But Jackson believes that perennials actually consume less energy than annuals: "A corn plant's got to do it from seed, bootstrapping all the way"— and work at the Land Institute and elsewhere is beginning to prove him right. At Washington State University in Pullman, for instance, Stephen Jones has created a wheat/wheatgrass hybrid that produces nearly as much grain as annual varieties did 50 years ago— and only 30 percent less than modern varieties.

Getting an annual to behave like a perennial— going dormant in the winter and sending up shoots at the right time of year— is a slow, tedious process. But Jackson is a patient man. In 25 years he expects to get some "really outstanding results." And agriculture has been around a lot longer than that.— G.S.

See the Web site of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University: www.environment.nau.edu.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.