There's a movement afoot to eat only food made with local ingredients prepared simply. Don't get your milk from a dozen dairies across the country, don't get your potatoes from Idaho, dont get your artichokes from California and your winter grapes from Chile. Get only what is produced locally and only when it's in season.
To this, I say "Phooey!"
Let me clarify and add a few facts. As I write this, I live in Chicago, Illinois, at the southwest tip of Lake Michigan. To the north lays Wisconsin, the home of cheese and fresh milk. To the east is Indiana, where eggs, corn, and mint are found. To the west and south, the vast corn and soybean fields of Illinois, and beyond to the west is Iowa, where thousands of well-fed pigs meet their fate every day. It would seem that there is plenty here to eat to keep body and soul together sticking only to local agriculture.
Well yes, but also no. It's important to remember that the quest for different varieties of food is one of the great driving forces of human history. The expansion of Rome into Egypt was as much for control of the grain grown along the Nile as for the cotton or Cleopatra's charms. The merchants of Venice built an empire on spices like cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and pepper, and the Portuguese desire to break that monopoly led to the financing of Columbus's expedition to India, which was blocked by a New World of opportunity.
All this movement and trade and conflict brought new foods to old cultures and transformed them.
Can you imagine Italian food without tomatoes? Scandinavian or German food without potatoes? Indian food without chili peppers of any sort? It was once the case.
There were no tomatoes in Italy until after they were discovered in the New World. Potatoes came from the Andes and before the chile pepper was brought to Goa by the Portuguese, the hottest thing the Indians had going was "long pepper", similar to black pepper. Even before the Portuguese, Northern Indian food was heavily influenced by Mughal rulers who could trace their origins back to Persia, and who introduced many new foods to the Indian diet.
Of course these foreign foods were incorporated into the agriculture of these regions where possible. Tomatoes grow in Italy and peppers love the Indian climate. Still, no Christmas oranges grew in England (maybe at Gibraltar), and no cinnamon or nutmeg grew in Norway or Sweden, and these foods still became a part of the national cuisine. An orange from Spain contracted for and arrived in Britain was as much a symbol of the nation's sea power as the appearance of a frigate off an enemy coast.
Today, global capitalism brings mangos, bananas, and coconuts from Africa, the Caribbean and South America, avocados from Mexico, tomatoes from Italy, and spices from India, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
I am all for using and cooking with locally grown produce when it is better than that which is available from far-off countries. If asparagus or potatoes are grown in the collar counties around Cook County, Illinois, they have a freshness advantage, and I'm glad to get them from the local market. We get fine apples from Michigan, cherries from Wisconsin, and even some grapes from Michigan in the fall. And you'll never catch me knowingly eating sweet corn or sunflower seeds that are not from Illinois or Iowa.
But for the sake of Eating Locally am I expected to cut mangoes and bananas and avocados and coconuts and oranges and lemons from my diet? Am I supposed to forego grapes in the winter and artichokes completely? Should I rely on chili peppers grown in a cooler Illinois climate, or look for a bundle of serranos, poblanos, and jalapenos grown in properly hot conditions to come in from south of the Rio Grande?
Look, importing food is not evil. If tariffs are fair, and agribusiness hasn't turned the exporter into a "banana republic", it can be a great way to alleviate poverty and bring a slumping agricultural economy into the 21st century.
Agricultural imports, despite pollution from transport are also often ecologically more sound than trying to force inappropriate crop production. I'd rather have rice imported from Nicaragua or Brazil or Vietnam than rice from California where scarce fresh water resources have been wasted growing rice in a natural desert climate.
We must also acknowledge that there is a geographic inequity inherent in the Eat Local challenge. If you live in California, or Italy, or France, the "eating locally" challenge is much, much easier than if you live in Chicago, or Edinburgh, or Moscow. Instead of being limited to a small number of crops, I encourage those of us in more "variety challenged" areas to take advantage of the global economy.
I'm not saying you shouldn't support your local farmers. They are the best place to find regional specialties and heirloom produce. Buy a share in a CSA, go to the farmer's markets as long as they run.
But when you see a mango from the Philippines, a can of Italian Pomodoro tomatoes, or Swiss chocolates in the supermarket, don't hesitate. Drop them in the cart and enjoy the amazing variety of food that modern agriculture and transportation has brought to your doorstep.