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A Locavore's Dilemma - A Book Review, Part I

Feb 27, 2013 11:00 PM

Posted by Gemma Charlebois

Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu, both researchers in the area of public policy, have written a book that challenges the value of consuming locally grown food over globally grown food. They contend that the rationales for the local food movement are misguided and primarily based on protectionist and romantic notions of food production.

The book consists of their introduction to SOLE (sustainable, organic, local, and ethical) food, a history of the globalization of the food chain, five chapters on the five ‘myths’ regarding local food, and a roadmap of what is in store for us should more of the world choose to operate according to the local food model.

In Part I of this book review, I will be discussing their introduction, history of globalization, and “Myth #1: Locovorism Nurtures Social Capital” chapters.

Locovore's DilemnaThe first chapter on SOLE food could have been a strong basis on which the authors show their well-researched understanding of the concerns that would lead people to pursue a SOLE food diet, acknowledge their validity, and then proceed to present arguments against its implementation on a large scale. That would have been respected. Instead, the pages were filled with arguments against practises that do not form part of what eating locally promotes. For example, some time is spent detailing how plants and animals have migrated with people and hence no one really eats a true North American diet. This is a classic case of confusing the issue. Local food is not synonymous with indigenous food. Another example is to point to sub-Saharan Africa as a dystopian example of local food. Advocacy of local food has never suggested that hand dug wells and treacherous trails masquerading as roads are part of a sustainable food system. As pointed out by the authors themselves, political and economic chaos produces large areas with little means of subsistence. In fact, I think many advocates of local food would argue that this is precisely why local food is important – to provide the tools of subsistence living that will enable people to feed themselves and their community.

Another unfortunate aspect of the book and the first chapter in particular, is the frequent character assassinations of those in favour of local food. To classify locavores as upper-middle class ‘agri-intellectuals’ who can afford to pay high prices for produce and feel morally superior to those that do not or cannot has no place anywhere, least of all an apparently well-researched book. Name calling such as ‘foodiots’ does nothing to advance the conversation either. I also find the classification rather patronizing as it suggests that the poor and those with tight budgets haven’t the capacity or the time to care about where their food comes from and how it was grown.  

Locovore's DilemnaFortunately, the chapter on the history of globalization is based on cited research that aims to illustrate the authors’ points and the subjective opinions are offered less often. The authors state that urbanization through the innovative and technological advances that were made in cities have improved agriculture and allowed food to become more affordable. The steam engine, modern grain elevators, and improved transportation routes are all provided as examples. Each of these has also facilitated food to be transported greater distances. The argument then becomes that urbanization is impossible without food imports from distant locations. Plato is then quoted. I think it is fair to say that what Plato may have meant by ‘distant’ is not the same kilometres we now ascribe to the term distant. The Region of Waterloo, for example, is a mainly urban environment that has historically relied on surrounding farmland for its food. A shift in greater reliance on food from oceans away is not a function of increasing population, but a function of cheap food, in all senses of the word. I will be revisiting this topic again in Part II of the book review.

The argument in favour of the evolution of “regionally specialized and extremely productive monoculture” crops makes an appearance. While one can acknowledge that not all soil is conducive to growing all manners of produce, history is full of examples of widespread single-type crop failure that has caused the extinction or near extinction of species of plants and resulted in much human suffering. Even when it is successful, it is reliant upon heavy doses of chemicals.   ‘Success’ of the monoculture crop is illustrated in the book by the example of African nations exporting of fruit as being responsible for raising living standards. This model only works in ‘good’ times. Any system design needs to include contingency and redundancy, whether the system is mechanical or social, and I would argue food is both. Growing only, say bananas, and selling it all to then use that money to buy food that could have, at least in part, been grown to feed yourself in the first place defies all we understand about economic diversification, let alone biodiversity.

Locovore's DilemnaThe chapter on ‘Myth #1’ is a smorgasbord of arguable points, illogical points, valid points, and purely subjective opinions. One of the arguments made is that large national/multi-national food producers have a more standardized and consistent grade of food due in large part to the regulated scrutiny that local producers are not subject to. Canadian farms do not escape regulations due to being small, local, or organic (it was suggested the organic industry is unregulated). If by ‘consistent grade of food’ the authors mean a race to the bottom of prices and the addition of formaldehyde and other such preservation techniques to facilitate a vegetable’s voyage, then this is precisely the type of degradation of food quality that the local food movement aims to call attention to.

Another parallel argument in favour of larger food producers was that as they have a larger consumer base and (presumably) deeper pockets, they are more liable to be sued and thus will operate with more integrity. Really?? The basis of integrity is the desire not to be sued??!! The opposite could easily be argued as well. Larger corporations have the money to either settle out of court and thus pay for silence or wait out the plaintiff until they run out of money. Size may not be an indicator of integrity but ‘knowing’ your farmer is not some warm and fuzzy exercise in being invited over for tea, it means that I am aware of their farming practices and can choose with my dollars whether I support their operations.

The commentary on farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) food boxes are anecdotal at best. Unscrupulous vendors at farmer’s markets, rotten produce, and inconvenient pick-up times are all listed as reasons to shop at a supermarket. I doubt I am the only one that has ever purchased moldy berries at a large grocery chain. Complaints about the overabundance of particular types of produce from CSAs during the summer season strike me as ironically funny. I’m sure CSAs have their pros and cons as does any form of food purchasing, but to suggest that those who buy from them do so for purely emotional reasons is ignorant.

Another red herring is presented in this chapter. The authors contend that locavores are romantic about country life and that the migration of peoples from rural to urban areas is proof of the superior standard of living in cities. Cities can be great places of opportunity but they can also be sources of filth, starvation, crime, misery, and destitution. The reasons for mass migration of the poor to cities are not because it is far superior but because anything is better than starvation as a tenant farmer or as unemployed. The circumstances under which some previously urban people choose to purchase land for farming and attempt to make a business of it is vastly different. No one is attempting to reverse urbanization and return to some nostalgic communal agrarian society. What the local food movement is trying to address is how, as an increasingly urban country and world, we are going to feed cities in a manner that allows for adequate quality of food, respectful use of land, and contingency for ‘harder’ times. Thus far, this book is not only short on suggestions, but failing to address the problems all together.     

Part II of this book review will address the chapters titled “Myth #2: Locovorism Delivers an Economic Free Lunch”, “Myth #3: Locavorism Heals the Earth”, and “Myth #4: Locavorism Increases Food Security”.

If you would like to do further reading on this topic, Theresa Schumilas wrote a blog for the Roundtable last summer titled "Local is Where. Organic is How. Fair is Who."

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