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The Locavores’ Delusion: Truer Advertising for the Local Food Debate360°ANALYSIS

Locavorism is just a new spin on the old rhetoric for agricultural protectionism.

Numerous food writers and activists claim that our modern-day transnational and genetically-modified “corn-utopia” is unsustainable. One meaningful way to break these food chains, they tell us, is the worldwide revival of regional food economies that will deliver greater food quality, safety and security, healthier bodies and natural environments, and improved community spirit and individual well-being.

Strangely though, no one questions why so many people worked so hard and for so long to create our globalized food supply chain, when historically, most food was produced and consumed locally.

I will highlight of the five main myths of locavorism — the movement to promote the consumption of locally produced foods. Locavorism is a regressive practice, and will bring with it widespread misery, hunger and famine.

The Myths of Locavorism

Local products offering the best quality to price ratio (say, New Hampshire maple syrup or Washington State apples) have long been consumed both locally and far and wide. To be justified at all, a local food movement must therefore promote items that consumers would not purchase for reasons other than geographical proximity. The case put forward by local food activists revolves primarily around five alleged benefits:

  • Social: Farmers' markets where producers and consumers get to know each other can help mend local community ties eroded by big box retailing and distant large-scale producers;
  • Economic: Money spent locally creates local rather than distant jobs;
  • Environmental: Because locally produced food items travel shorter distances, they generate less greenhouse gas emissions than more distant ones. Local food production systems are also inherently more (bio)diverse than export-oriented monocultures;
  • Security: Local producers are more dependable in times of political crisis and economic collapse than distant producers who only cater to the highest bidders. Diversified local agricultural productions are also less likely to suffer from pests and diseases than monocultures;
  • Taste and Health: Because locally grown food is fresher and picked in a more ripened state, it delivers both better taste and nutrition than items that have travelled long distances. Food contamination is also more likely in central processing facilities where vast quantities of food from diverse geographical origins comingle and are exposed to undesirable elements;

Unfortunately, none of these claims can withstand scrutiny.

Myth #1: Locavorism Nurtures Social Capital

Local food activists’ preferred way to (re)connect food consumers and producers is through community supported agriculture (CSA) schemes, where farmers prepare a selection of pre-paid seasonal items. Regular deliveries (typically once a week) take place either at participants’ doors, at locations where farmers can meet a larger number of consumers, or at the farm itself. The truly defining feature of CSA, however, is that participants “share the risk” with the farmer they support, meaning that the weekly pick-ups may be larger than expected when things are good, but smaller when they aren’t.

CSA initiatives, however, are problematic on several levels. Among the most common complaints are that they require more time, cost more money, and generate more waste than shopping at supermarkets. For instance, a significant increase in the amount of produce delivered will often result in a rapidly growing composting pile, while unexpected guests will mandate budget-busting trips to the supermarket.

Such problems are a useful reminder that intermediaries in the food sector create value by delivering lower costs (by ruthlessly looking for the better deals among several suppliers), greater convenience (through closer geographical proximity to consumers), and less waste (by providing consumers with the amount of food they need when they need it). True, initiatives that help consumers meet food producers might create new genuine friendships. But spending more time and money to acquire food less efficiently means fewer opportunities to nurture social capital in other ways; from charitable giving to volunteering opportunities.

Myth #2: Locavorism Delivers a Free Economic Lunch

The basic problem with diverting a portion of public institutions’ (hospitals, military bases, government agencies, etc) and consumers’ food spending on locally produced items, is that no one would buy “imported” items if they did not provide a better quality to price ratio. Promoting policies through which people spend more money on food means that they have less money to spend on other things — in the process destroying more jobs than are created through inefficient local productions. (True, many activists suggest that local food items are somehow more ethical. But they are typically oblivious to the geographical disadvantages of certain locations; be it in terms of soil, climate, or smaller market sizes that do not allow the development of economies of scale.)

Another consideration lost on local food activists is that for a few thousand years, economic growth has never occurred without urbanization. Among other benefits, cities make possible the profitable operation of a transportation hub through which firms can better serve a broad range of activities (both in local and more distant markets). Being located next door to suppliers, customers, and creative people in general also facilitates the diffusion and development of a broader range of skills and the launching of new innovative businesses.

The key point against locavorism, however, is that urbanization has long been impossible without substantial food imports from distant locations, something which was obvious to Plato’s characters in his Republic nearly two and a half millennia ago, when they stated that to find a city “where nothing need be imported” was “impossible.” Like all predominantly rural societies, the world envisioned by locavores would unavoidably use scare resources less productively and deliver lower standards of living than an urbanized one.

Myth #3: Locavorism Heals the Earth

In a 2008 National Geographic article, journalist Michael Mann discusses how mistaken soil management policies in communist China led to the creation of terrace agriculture in unsuitable conditions, along with the cutting down of trees and the planting of grain on steep slopes. The results, not surprisingly, were increased soil erosion and depletion. Daring to challenge official wisdom, some villagers replanted the steepest and most erosion-prone thirds of their land with grass and trees, covered another third of the land with harvestable orchards, and focused their cropping efforts on the remaining lower flat plots that had been enriched by the soil washed down from the hillsides. By concentrating their limited supplies of fertilizer on the best land, the dissident villagers were able to increase yields to such an extent that they more than made up for the land sacrificed. They managed to deliver both increased output and reduced environmental impact.

The outcome described by Mann is a microcosm of the long-standing economic and environmental benefits of high-yield agriculture and long-distance trade. By concentrating the production of certain agricultural items in the most suitable locations worldwide, more food is produced using less land and other resources (water, heat generated from natural gas, pesticides, etc) than would otherwise be the case.

Unfortunately, locavores are oblivious to the fact that some regions have better soils and climate than others and that, in this context, the greater distance traveled by food items is much less problematic than the additional inputs (irrigation water, natural gas-generated heat for greenhouses, greater volumes of pesticides, etc) required to make up for local deficiencies. Furthermore, the distance traveled matters much less than the mode of transportation. For instance, shipping things halfway around the Earth on a container ship often has a smaller footprint per item carried, than a short distance trip by car to a grocery store to buy a small quantity of these items.

Importing perishable food items produced at different latitudes at different times of the year also reduces environmental impact. For instance, importing New Zealand apples to the northern hemisphere in April rather than preserving local apples picked in September in cold storage for several months, delivers fresher items while reducing both storage costs (higher than normal CO2 concentrations and artificial storage temperatures) and losses to spoilage.

Another consideration lost on locavores is that, by virtually any metric, residents of high density urban areas drive, pollute, consume, and throw away much less than people living in greener surroundings. Concentrating human population in urban centers and feeding them from the world’s best agricultural locations, is a more sensible way to lighten humanity’s load on the planet than promoting lower population densities.

Myth #4: Local Food Increases Food Security

Several local food activists believe that because they must be more diversified (after all, you can’t sustain local populations on a single monoculture), local food systems are inherently more resilient to pests and diseases than export-oriented monocultures. In times of rapidly rising commodity prices, political turmoil, all-out war, or sudden decline in the demand for a particular crop, they add, vulnerable communities will be better served by nearby producers.

Yet, there is currently only enough food to go around because of the much greater productivity of large-scale monocultures. Furthermore, the vast majority of today’s malnourished people are found in the parts of Africa and South Asia where highly diversified and mostly self-reliant subsistence agriculture is the norm. This is because they have no choice but to put all their eggs into one geographical basket, something which has always and everywhere been a recipe for disaster. There is the risk of destructive natural events (from droughts and floods to tornadoes and tsunamis), highly contagious diseases that affect a broad range of animals, and generalist pests.

In the end, the claim that monocultures are a serious threat to food security can only be sustained in the absence of broader economic development (which provides other income opportunities if local agricultural productions become problematic), long distance trade (including the movement of agricultural commodities when there is a local food shortage), and labor mobility (which makes emigration a realistic possibility when every other local option fails). The only way to achieve greater levels of food security than is presently the case is through increased trade and labor mobility.

Myth #5: Locavorism is Tastier, More Nutritious, and Safer

The claim that locavorism delivers tastier, more nutritious and safer food than agribusiness, typically boils to the notion that food sold at farmers markets will have been picked in a more ripened state than items shipped over long distances, thus ensuring superior taste and nutritional value. Concentrating food processing in a few mega-factories, it is also often said, will further drastically increase the risk of cross-contamination than in a highly decentralized system.

This argument conveniently skips over the fact that traditional local food systems provide inadequate nutrition, and can once again be disproved by simple logic and the available evidence.

First, the claim that freshness is key to superior taste is self-defeating. After all, barring massive investments in energy-guzzling greenhouses, in temperate climates fresh food is only available for short periods of time each year. By contrast, the globalized food supply chain delivers “permanent summertime” in the produce sections of supermarkets.

Second, the alleged nutritional benefits of freshly picked local produce depend more on its freshness than its geographical origins. For instance, a local item picked four days before it is sold at a nearby farmer’s market cannot be inherently superior to an identical item picked further away, but closer to the selling date and preserved and transported in state-of-the-art conditions.

Third, produce destined for freezing and canning is typically picked in its best state, something to keep in mind because “depending on the commodity, the freezing and canning processes may preserve nutrient value” better than refrigeration. In the end, there is no simple correlation between freshness and nutritional value.  

Fourth, arguing that a food system devised around a limited number of large-scale operations is more likely to diffuse pathogens than highly decentralized regional ones ignores the importance and risks associated with the completely natural pathogens that surround us. Indeed, virtually all cases of food poisoning can be traced back to completely natural pathogens such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli O157 virus that are all around us, including in small-scale operations. Unbeknown to locavores, economies of scale are significant in food safety and are better thought of as fortifications against roaming marauders than hubs facilitating their movement.

In the end though, the real problem of the locavore’s stance on nutrition is that while human consciousness might care about the geographical origins of food items, human bodies don’t. From a physiological perspective, what matters about food is that it provides sufficient energy and nutrients. Because locavorism can only deliver a more expensive and monotonous diet than the globalized food supply chain, it cannot provide superior overall nutrition than is presently the case.

Conclusion

Most governmental interventions in agricultural markets — from production subsidies and trade barriers to ethanol mandates and country of origin labeling — have traditionally been designed to increase national (if not purely local) production at the expense of foreign imports. Far from being an innovative step forward that would take us back to the “good old days,” locavorism is but a new spin on the rhetoric for agricultural protectionism. As such, it can only deliver the trying times our ancestors left behind and which today’s subsistence farmers would gladly escape if given opportunities to trade. The problem of our current agricultural system is not that it is too globalized, but that it is not globalized enough.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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