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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Locavore's dilemma ~ review of an excellent book

“The Locavore’s Dilemma - In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet” is the title of a new book by Pierre Desrochers, a Professor of geography at the University of Toronto and his Japanese wife Hiroko Shimizy who has worked at John’s Hopkins university. A locavore is someone who espouses the concept of eating locally produced food. The book ends with a quotation  of the historian, Paul Johnson who wrote that history “is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance” and the book begins in this vein with a look back to 65 AD when Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella wrote in De Re Rustica (On agriculture): “Again and again I hear leading men of our state condemning now the unfruitfulness of the soil, now the inclemency of the climate for some seasons past, as harmful to crops; and some I hear reconciling the aforesaid complaints, as if on well-founded reasoning, on the ground that, in their opinion , the soil was worn out and exhausted by the over-production of earlier days and cab no longer furnish sustenance to mortals with its old time nourishment”. It is indeed reassuring to know that two millennia ago, we had the same old arguments by urban romantics about the fortunes of agriculture.

The first myth challenged by the authors is that local food nurtures social capital by creating a link between the producer and the purchaser. They go on to point out that each and every locality has its own growing conditions from soil type to micro-climate. Some favour the growth of wheat, others soft fruit, others oil seeds or grass or vegetables. If locally grown food is to meet the nutritional needs of a sizable urban population, it must produce a variety of foods. Because some are less suited to the local climate, by definition, productivity will fall and prices will rise. the second myth is that by supporting local food, the local economy is stimulated. The authors point to data comparing supermarket prices to locally grown foods and by and large, the latter costs twice as much as the locally grown food. When geography is not a feature of the buyers agenda, he or she can buy from the cheapest source at that time of the year. The cheapest source may be continents way but economies of scale will mean that it is produced under very efficient agricultural systems and shipped in considerable bulk in a very cost efficient manner. The authors cite David Cleveland, a professor at the University of California,  Santa Barbara talking of “two produce-laden trailers passing on the highway, one bringing food into the county; the other hauling it out”. The authors point out two glaring omissions in this emotive statement. One is the the county of Santa Barbara produces nine times more food that it needs and what it does import comes from Chile, Argentina and New Zealand. If Santa Barbara did not export its food, the market price would collapse. Economics will dictate the majority of consumer purchases of foods.

The third myth they challenge is that locally grown foods will be more environmentally friendly on the basis that the locally grown foods will have less “food miles”. However, the authors point out that the data on food energy reveals that just 4% of greenhouse gas equivalents is due to the journey of food from harvest to fridge. Some 83% is used in its production from seed to produce. They also point out that for the UK food chain, just 1% of “food miles” is due to air travel. Kenyan roses grown in the local sunshine emit one sixth the carbon dioxide of Dutch grown roses. The fourth myth tackles the belief that locally grown food will increase food security and it doesn’t take much to demolish that theory. When geography is not an issue, a climatic or pest event that reduces foods grown in one area simply means that competing parts of the globe can trade without them.  When a community relies on solely local food, any major climatic or pest event can dramatically increase food insecurity.  Myth 5 would have us believe that locally grown food is tastier, more nutritious and safer. Freshly picked food is believed to be tasty but I’m not aware of any published studies to verify that opinion. As regards nutrition, as I have pointed out in several blogs, the nutritional quality of plants varies according to the microclimate and not according to the growing conditions and endless studies have refuted this myth that local or organic foods are nutritionally superior. As regards food safety, the bigger the producer, the bigger the investment in food safety.

Modern agriculture has evolved to embrace all manner of new technologies in much the same way that other industries have: energy, transport, health, communication and so on. Nobody is hankering back to the good old days of the typewriter, the model T Ford or the telegram. But food is an exception here and it is reflected in the fact that scientists who consult for Boeing, Google, Apple, or held in high regard for their efforts but those who consult for the food giants are shunned from expert committees. The authors of this excellent book point out that modern agriculture has developed to where it is because  it is successful and competitive. Locavores dream of a food chain that is economically unsustainable. They quote Michael Pollan, the guru of locavorism who argues that at the end of World War 2, the US home garden sector was providing 40% of food consumed in the US. As the authors point out, someone else was responsible for the remaining 60% and the minute the opportunity arose, the romantic but highly burdensome home garden was abandoned in favour of the cheaper, more convenient and more accessible supermarket.
Some time back, my blog covered food insecurity in the US and with a declining economic environment, the number of citizens who are challenge d to provide adequate nutrition will rise to perhaps on in six or seven. The authors write: ”Michael Pollan’s manta ‘pay more, eat less’ may seem eminently sensible to the upper middle class consumers who can always cut back on the cappuccinos in order to spend eight dollars for a dozen eggs and $3.90 for a pound of Frog Hollow peaches”. Locavoraism is for the privileged and the selfish.

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