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How Local Food Became Exotic

The end of the year and the beginning of the next is usually marked by frequent pilgrimages to the grocery store. So on your next visit, stop and ask yourself: What is advertised as being exotic and special? Nine times out of ten, it will be local food. Beer brewed in your city. Herbs grown in a neighborhood plot. “Buy fresh, buy local!” the signs say, and with good reason. The fastest growing food segment in many supermarkets these days is their local produce. Not one to be left out, Whole Foods Market now employs a small army of “foragers” to scour each store’s region for local foods. We are all budding locavores, it would seem.

Now consider just how unique this is in world history. Exotic products were once those sourced from the far corners of the world: spices cultivated in Arabia, silk woven in China, or caviar plumbed from the Caspian Sea. The effort required to take them to market made these products rare and uniquely expensive, fit only for society’s elites.

Yet over the past half century, what was once exotic has become commoditized. Some far-flung products remain expensive, but with a large enough checkbook and a ready internet connection nearly anything is accessible. Grocery stores are now replete with fare from every corner of the world. Indeed, the most mundane foods, such as bananas, have often traveled the farthest.

[pq]Globalization has become the greatest gift to local food.[/pq]

We can credit the shipping container with bringing about this profound change. No matter the advances in transportation over land or in the air, shipping has always been the most cost effective way to transport goods over great distances. Yet until the 1950s, international trade remained hampered by inefficiencies in what was known as break bulk shipping. Cargo was often held in loose wooden containers just as they had been for centuries. Up to 75 percent of the costs of shipping went to the enormous sums of labor and time required to load and unload at port.

That all changed when shipping magnate Malcolm McLean introduced the intermodal container in 1956. It was a simple, uniform metal box meant to be transported easily by ship, rail, or truck. McLean’s costs for transporting a ton of cargo dropped from $5.83 with break bulk to $0.16 with intermodal in less than a year. Five years later, dock labor went from unloading 1.7 tons per hour to nearly 30 tons in the same amount of time. Now ships could grow bigger and ports could slim down. Dry goods could be housed with minimal loss, while the addition of refrigerated containers allowed for transporting fresh meats and vegetables from the world over. The shipping container has since boosted international trade more than every trade agreement in the past 50 years combined.

The result is that once exotic foods have now become more accessible and less expensive. How else can you explain the ubiquity of quinoa seeds grown in the Peruvian Andes? Or acai berries plumping up plastic juice boxes and Dr. Oz’s bottom line? As The Economist describes in a recent special, “The rise of the cargo-container ship and the abundance it brings everywhere have turned people’s feelings about the origins of food upside down.”

Now a growing minority of shoppers choose to fill their tables with locally grown food. Previous centuries saw us eating locally by necessity—now we do so by choice. Data from the USDA is still sketchy on this point, but demand for local food appears to be on a steep rise. A survey by A.T. Kearney, a consultancy, found that a majority shoppers across all income brackets were willing to pay more for locally-sourced foods. Moreover, we now shop at nearly 8,300 farmer’s markets, up from 1,755 twenty years ago.

For food to be of your state or city is now considered a high badge of honor for which consumers are willing to shell out a pretty penny. As The Economist concludes, “How different the world looks from the 21st-century dining table. Now that supermarkets are stuffed with exotic fare airfreighted from distant coasts, Westerners try to gesture towards their own heritage when laying a festive table, the more local the better.”

A simple metal box profoundly changed how we value our food. Globalization has now become the greatest gift to local food.