The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet, has been on the edge of my radar for a while now, but somehow always on the edge. I noticed the talk by Dr. Pierre Desrochers given in New York at the American Association of Geographers, but it was at a time when I was also giving a talk. When the book, co-authored by Hiroko Shimizu, came out, I was asked by a colleague to help frame a response to the arguments made, but I was off in rural Newfoundland taking pictures of cod. Later, equipped with a copy of the book, I was slowly and leisurely wandering through the arguments in the Locavore’s dilemma, but to be honest I was much more engaged with a very interesting paper I’m co-authoring on Portland’s food cart pods, and the idea of crafting a detailed response seemed like something someone would do, at some point, and that someone didn’t really need to be me.
Today’s amble through journalism by Margaret Wente, however, reminded me that perhaps Desrochers and his arguments deserve some of my time. I am, after all, supposed to be an expert in food security, and I am not one of his “upper middle class foodies”. I was born into a family of fishermen, and have been involved with food pretty much my entire life. I have no delusions about the food industry, which is, from production to processing to presenting, hard work with long hours for little money. Also, and I give this fully to Desrochers and Shimizu, I have often cringed at the arguments made in the local food movement, as some of those arguments are simply assumptions, or are poorly supported, and I knew that eventually someone would drive a truck through the logical hole in our position. I have been working over the last few years with my graduate student to mend that hole, but there is a lot of work to be done, and Desrochers has captured attention. So are they right? Is local food at best a silly fad or at worst a dangerous mal-appropriation of resources by a small elite? Well, no. But I do think this book will change the movement, as we will have to account for ourselves, and abandon the “it just feels right” arguments that have been our bread and butter. Also, I invite more people into the lonely territory where bioregions both produce local food and engage in interregional trade where that trade makes sense.
I will begin by throwing some light onto key misconceptions that dominate the text. Firstly, the authors construct a “locavore” straw man that bears little relation to the actual local food movement. They highlight, perhaps understandably, the worst of the movement to sketch the typical local food enthusiast as being completely wedded to total local production of all things, which really isn’t the point at all. They write in a rather alarmist way for academics, suggesting that the locavores are on the verge of destroying the global food system. Now I will admit I’ve met a few people like the locavores they describe, but most people working to provide local alternatives just want more choice. Secondly, the locavore movement tends to shine a light on subsidies for giant monocultures, on the actions of lobbyists, on the interference by governments around the world to expand export agriculture. The authors don’t talk about these subsidies, or mention that the success of local agriculture has occurred within these market distortions, and often in the face of government barriers to local production and in particular local processing.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the entire book is based on the false idea that locavores want to return agriculture to some romantic past. Much of the book draws on historical accounts of how terrible agriculture was in the past, and those parts were actually a pretty fun read. The local food movement, however, is increasingly a movement that embraces high technology. By suggesting that local production is necessarily the territory of luddites, the authors discount the very drivers of innovation that capitalism thrives upon. Many a technology company started in a garage, and so why might the next agricultural innovation not start in a small plot near a city? For example greenhouse technology in the Lower Mainland is increasingly efficient, and that efficiency is emerging from small scale innovation. Yes, there is a certain amount of romantic revisioning of history in the movement; but once one realizes that researchers, scientists, and farmers are working together at the small scale their whole argument falls apart. The facile counter-argument that only giant businesses can drive innovation is so obviously false that I am surprised they tried to advance it. Their argument doesn’t work if the move from hunter-gathering to agriculture to industrial agriculture to high tech local agriculture is a progression rather than a move backward.
Lastly, the authors rely on Bastiat and the broken window fallacy to support their assertions against local food in several sections, however the cherry pick their arguments and fail to see the same argument works against them. I will expand upon that further in my analysis of the text itself, but addressing the locavore argument for economic multipliers with Bastiat’s unseen consequences is shaky at best.
Now I will look at each section in depth. I have always been rather uncomfortable with the preface, in which the authors impart the anecdote of the attack on Japan as an agricultural importer. I know from my own work that Japan has a thriving local food movement, called Chisan-Chiso, and so I got curious about how much food Japan produces domestically. It turns out this number is roughly 40%, which of course means the speaker the authors was listening to should check his facts, but it also points out that the straw man Desrochers and Shimizu are setting up is pretty weak. In the book Japan is cited in several places as having benefitted from the global food system, which is of course true but they still produce 40% of their food, which suggests that local can’t be that bad economically even within a tilted playing field. The other brief point is the squid argument presented on page 18. This is the first point where the broken window fallacy they use to hinge a major argument upon is conveniently overlooked. They discuss how squid caught in California are sent to China for processing and then returned to California. Now, imagine if the money used to subsidize and pay for transport and the time the freighter crew uses moving the cargo was used for something else “unseen” instead, wouldn’t that be a better use of resources as in the Bastiat example they give? Now if they said outright that they were Keynesians I would understand, but as is, they contradict themselves. Using Bastiat, we could as easily ask what the people transporting food across the world might do with their time.
So let’s look at their four “unanswered questions” of local food. Firstly, they ask, why are we healthier than our ancestors if our food system is so bad for us. Well, we could simply answer that we are not looking to create the past but rather to move food to the next stage, but also they are drastically overlooking the changes in just about every component of our lives, from medicine to changing social conditions. Life expectancy is sensitive to many things; for example after the fall of the USSR life expectancy for men plunged. Desrochers might attribute this to the loss of the Soviet industrial food system, but life expectancy for women did not plunge, so maybe it has more to do with male alcoholism. In fact, the puzzling lack of a major drop in female life expectancy suggests life expectancy isn’t as sensitive to food as we think, as long as people aren’t actually dying of famine.
The next unanswered question, how can local food provide food for the expected future population, given it is less efficient. Well, I would challenge that the industrial system hasn’t met that need yet either, and if some of the doomsayers are right, it won’t. They have a point here, I just don’t see any evidence that the industrial system is the answer either, so let’s just say this should be keeping locavores and the folks at Monsanto awake.
The next question asks why land should be used to grow local food when we could use less land elsewhere. Well, this only holds if they insist the locavore movement is looking backwards, and if we discount the huge losses of land to desertification, erosion, and salinification caused by industrial scale monocultures. Some papers show much higher yields from SPIN style agriculture on very small areas of land, though I admit I still want to see better numbers on that (graduate students, take heed). They don’t discuss the environmental losses due to industrial agriculture, which really is a big oversight, and is exactly what they accuse their detractors of doing. Now I’m the first to say that no-till could dramatically improve the condition of large monocultures, but there is no reason small plot agriculture couldn’t use no-till techniques as well. Also, not all land is created equal; an acre of rainforest lost to oil palm production is much more biodiverse and valuable (even economically, as a storehouse of genetic material) than an acre of highly disturbed farmland near a major urban centre.
Also, throughout the text, the authors state that locavores will (gasp!) lobby to force local food onto prisons, schools, and such. Point taken, except many of those institutions currently have given into lobbying to exclusively provision themselves from one large multinational corporation. One of my alma maters, for example, only featured Pepsi. So I’m willing to agree with them that legislating choice is bad, as long as they are willing to publicly back an end to exclusive provisioning agreements of all kinds.
As we move into the first chapter, I want to take a minute to give the authors kudos in one respect; their discussion of why cities are so important is a good one, and I am in total agreement, being an urban fancier myself. However, they don’t sufficiently explain why locavorism is anti-city, though I agree some people tie it to a naive back to the land ethos. An equal number are exploring high tech urban production methods that are anything but “back to the land”, in fact some of them do away with the land entirely. They critique growing in buildings later in the text, and their points are valid, but comparing a new technology to a mature industry is bound to be a bit one sided. I’m sure that in the early days of computing it made more sense just to hire a few more accountants rather than buy a vacuum tube colossus. And yes, I am saying that local food needs to ditch the pastoral cloak of righteousness.
Chapter two is one of the weaker parts of their text, in that they try to debunk the creation of social capital through local food, and yet make almost no reference to what social capital is. I have written extensively on how market spaces build social capital and act as critical spaces of innovation and interaction within cities, and also, if one plays the history game, in most cases where urban markets were closed, it was government intervention at work, not market forces. New York’s markets were eliminated by government, Les Halles was destroyed and replaced with a subway station as a government project, and in Montreal, former mayor Jean Drapeau went on a government rampage that saw half of the old city bulldozed for a freeway and four of the six central markets closed. The other two, Jean Talon and Atwater, survived because the public rioted. This is a common problem with the book; it is assumed that the current system arose out of a perfect market system, and that locavores want to subvert that system. Well, I would argue that the social capital created in the urban market was loved, fought for, and only destroyed because of the brutal force of modernist planning. Marketplaces are returning precisely because we are intervening in urban form less, not more. As to the question of why not create social capital in other ways, well, that’s fine but food is a natural site for conviviality. It is incremental in that making a meal of local food is a limited commitment, everyone eats so it is ubiqious, and enjoying a good meal or two requires a minor (but non-trivial) investment in skill.
The next major issue I take is with the dismissal of food miles, though at the same time I will totally agree that the food movement has gone a little crazy with the concept. It is assumed by Desrochers and Shimizu that transport is practically free, which is of course not the case. The rise of global food networks depends heavily on highway systems that were created during the heyday of Keynesian extremism, and those roads are now rapidly decaying and need an investment we don’t have. Comparative advantage ignores transport, and has since the days of Richardo, but in the future we will find some transport chains just are too expensive to maintain. My students have done extensive food mile studies, and it is true that in some cases local is much better and in some cases it doesn’t matter at all. It really depends on assumptions; here in BC greenhouses are heated with electricity in many cases, or with gas, and so the footprint varies. I will, however, give a nod to the strange reality that products that are flown in have oddly low energy footprints; parmesan cheese in particular surprised me. To give this a bit more rigor, my student Kristi Peters-Snyder footprinted every input into a restaurant in Calgary and found that in summer when local products were used the energy for transport dropped by about half, so it isn’t as easy to sweep under the rug as suggested.
I was concerned by the logic in the argument that monocultures are safer because if they suffer a major failure they will find or make a variety that addresses the problem. I found it interesting they used the example of the banana, as we are currently in a stage of upheaval as the Cavendish banana is on the verge of being eliminated by new strains of Panama disease. The only way to protect the bananas is to find a new variety from wild bananas, or versions grown by small hobby growers, or by going to seed banks. Local growers are vital to this process as wild material is becoming scarce, and landraces provide a back-up that can’t be replicated in seed banks. (Also, funding for seed banks, which must be grown out constantly to stay viable, is shaky.) We could likely lose entire food crops in the future because we won’t have back up materials and varieties to provide the genetic material needed for conventional breeding or genetic engineering. As long as small scale growers still remain, we have a way to reset industrial crops.
The authors also glance over the question potential disruption from an increase in fuel prices and the onset of climate change. While I must admit that I roll my eyes when the worst of the peak oil folks roll out their survival gear, their assertion that somehow we could replace cheap oil with cheap coal is a pretty facile approach to the rising cost of fuel and the impact it is having on industrial agriculture. What happens if the cost of oil rises enough that food stops arriving from the far corners of the world, or if farms the size of small countries can’t run their machinery? Banking on coal requires a means to remove carbon from the atmosphere, as burning the world’s coal reserves would, even in conservative estimates, lead to catastrophic climate change. I don’t want to go too far down that road, as obviously a loss of oil infrastructure impacts local food too, but I also have to note that most literature shows climate change is very bad for agriculture; the one-two punch of increased extreme events and creeping warming are a net negative for production for both industrial and small scale agriculture, and the sunk cost for the industrial producers makes them much less nimble.
To conclude, The Locavore’s Dilemma tries to do far too much and ends up framing a dichotomy that doesn’t exist, and applies arguments in a one-sided way. One has to ask, in the spirit of their book, if the industrial system is so perfect, why did the local food movement arise in the first place, and why has it been successful? That said, the authors raise some points among the hyperbole that the local movement needs to accept. It is time to ditch the back to the land rhetoric, move beyond romanticism, and embrace the truth that local agriculture is more a child of a high tech future than a rural past. Industrial agriculture is the dinosaur, and as Desrochers and Shimizu say “the key point to improving food security in the long run is to ensure that as many resources as possible are invested in the development of the profitable activities of tomorrow rather than squandered in a vain attempt to cling to the industries of yesterday”. Well said.