Giving Local Food the Raspberry

(Flickr / Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)

The sustainable-food movement has finally been around long enough to face its first cold front. Pickled okra, critics want the world to know, is not as desirable as sales at the Prospect Park farmers market might indicate. The most recent round of attacks has focused on local food and locavorism: In April, Tyler Cowen took a few glancing blows at local food in An Economist Gets Lunch, and last month, Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu—two Canadians trained as economic-policy analysts—released The Locavore’s Dilemma, an all-out assault on local food in which they seek to “slaughter as many sacred cows in the food activists’ intellectual herd as [they] could.” But by focusing on local food, they end up arguing against problems that barely exist or that never will, while ignoring the real environmental costs of our food systems.

Desrochers and Shimizu mention that they received support for their work from Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the market-oriented research center where Tyler Cowen is the general director. Both The Locavore’s Dilemma and An Economist Gets Lunch rely heavily on an argument, connected to the center’s work on African agricultural exporters, that can be paraphrased as “local food advocates want everyone to live like destitute subsistence farmers in Africa.”

The question underlying this argument is fair: Will the food system provide enough sustenance for the world’s population? But it’s less interesting and ambitious than the question that the sustainable-food movement asks: Can the agricultural system feed everyone adequately and reduce our footprint on the environment?

While overuse has turned the word “sustainable” into a loaded word, the more specific “local” isn’t the best replacement. Farmers who sell primarily to local customers do sometimes run small, organic operations and try to feed people in an environmentally responsible way. And the first heroes of the sustainable-food movement, champions of organic techniques and land stewardship, often sold primarily to people who lived close by. These ambitions don’t necessarily need to come as a package, but when advocates for a better, more responsible agriculture system talk about local food, they tend to jumble all these ideas together.

When Desrochers and Shimizu talk about local food, they choose to understand the term in the most narrow sense—the idea that an ever-growing portion of our food supply should be produced in close physical proximity to the consumers who will eat it, an idea they claim “has made the greatest gain in popularity in the last two decades.”

The authors never provide any support for the comparative popularity of “local,” but it’s a convenient assertion. Growing food close to the place it’s consumed is one of the more questionable preferences of the sustainable-food movement—reducing the “food miles” associated with transporting food to its destination does not put much of a dent in its carbon emissions. And while community gardens, rooftop farms, and skyscrapers filled with hydroponic vegetables work well as topics for blog posts, Desrochers and Shimizu point out that these ideas are likely flash-in-the-pan trends—and not even novel ones.

During an economic downturn in the 1890s, Detroit tried pushing Urban Potato Patches, asking “owners of vacant lots to allow unemployed individuals to grow vegetables on their land.” The current passion for canning eerily resembles a fad during World War I, when Charles Lathrop Pack, the National Emergency Food Garden Commissioner said, “The canning and drying movement has brought back to thousands of American households an art almost forgotten since our grandmothers’ days.”

These twee trends aren’t exactly threatening to take over the world economy, but Desrochers and Shimizu latch onto them as a real danger. They seem to fear that the sustainable-food movement—represented in the book by a couple of anonymous but “well-regarded” academics (and the author Michael Pollan, of course)—wants only for all people, all over the world to consume only food produced within a certain radius of their homes.

In reality, the food movement is far more concerned with better food than food that's close-by. Buying local has mostly been a convenient shorthand for buying food that’s grown in a more broadly sustainable way. “Given the choice, buy local over organic,” Pollan advised in 2006. “Often local food is organic, but farmers may not have the capital to deal with all the paperwork involved.” It’s not an accident that farmers experimenting with alternative farming methods tend to sell to local markets: They’re developing ideas that have been unpopular in the mainstream of American farming.

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Although there are some food activists and writers who have glorified the local character of these experiments, the challenge now is to find out if any of those ideas can work on a larger scale. Increasing the proportion of food that comes to stores from close-by—fresh, unprocessed and tasting the best it can—may be one strategy for improving the food we eat and decreasing the impact it has on the world. But few writers, advocates, or farmers think that that strategy should work in isolation.

But Desrochers and Shimizu aren’t interested in applying any new ideas to the mainstream food system, because they don’t think it’s necessary. Their simplistic view of the food movement allows them to brush over the environmental damage caused by the country’s current agricultural system—problems that alternative farming techniques aim to solve.

Desrochers and Shimizu believe that agriculture will always destroy the land it uses and that the only way to reduce its impact is to use the least amount of land possible. They’re satisfied that since the industrial food system has moved farms from mountains onto flat plains, soil erosion is as minimal as it can be. “Severe erosion problems are now largely confined to poor countries extending low-yield farming onto fragile soils,” they write. In reality, millions of tons of topsoil disappear every year from the Mississippi River basin alone.

The food movement hasn’t necessarily been clear about which qualities are the most important to retain and apply more universally to the agricultural system. Should all farms be small? Local? Organic? Is it enough for bigger farms that sell food on a global market to adopt techniques that could leave the world with more soil, less pollution, and more food? Does the best system combine all these ideas so that it’s easier to buy local tomatoes and Peruvian potatoes in the same place?

These questions haven’t been answered yet, but Desrochers and Shimizu don’t seem to believe they are even worth asking. The two authors are convinced that the industrial agriculture system that we have is the best possible system, because it’s the one we ended up with. They assume industrial agriculture must lead to the greatest yields for a given piece of land, when the relative strength of organic and conventional yields vary depending on the crop and the location. By the end of the book, they’ve convinced themselves that there are the only two options—the system as it stands and subsistence farming.

It’s a limited vision of what could be possible. In places like Union Square, where the farmers market competes with Whole Foods, local food and more industrial food have pushed each other to improve: Whole Foods offers better and fresher tomatoes than other local grocery stores, for instance, while the farmers market has diversified its offerings. There are agricultural scientists who are just starting now to tinker with plants so that they grow best under organic conditions, shooting up more quickly over weeds, resisting bugs without pesticides.

The forces that Desrochers and Shimizu value—market pressures and technology—are just now starting to incorporate the influence and inspiration of alternative farming ideas. In ten or 20 years—if the food movement continues to succeed as it has—Americans are less likely to be buying all their food from an 100-mile foodshed than to have more options for how they get it. What economist really thinks that’s a bad outcome?

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