The argument against locavorism

Pierre Desrochers, author of "The Locavore's Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet," discusses why eating locally produced food at all costs has negative implications.

Image of The Locavore's Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet
Author: Pierre Desrochers, Hiroko Shimizu
Publisher: PublicAffairs (2012)
Binding: Hardcover, 288 pages

A high percentage of the food on our grocery shelves contains genetically modified ingredients. If that fact scares you, you're probably inclined to shop at your local farmers market. Going locavore -- eating food that is locally produced -- is a way to help support sustainable agriculture.

But it's a movement that author Pierre Desrochers claims could have negative implications if taken too far. Pierre is co-author of "The Locavore's Dilemma: In Praise of the 10-Thousand Mile Diet," a book that explores why and how food became a globalized industry. It's also critical of the choice to eat local at all costs.

Over the past few years, we've been hearing a lot about the need for us to be locavores, but Desrochers says there are several arguments against locavorism.

He uses the environmental dimension to illustrate his point -- the less food travels, the less we will emit greenhouse gases in the process. Right? Desrochers says several studies have shown that while the food mile is a good indicator when everything else is equal, "in the real world not everything else is equal."

In support of his argument against locavorism, Desrochers says that in the 19th century things began to really change when people stopped eating seasonally year-round -- humans grew several inches as a species, life expectancy grew, and people didn't die of many things related to malnutrition.

"The problem is that people tend to forget that famines and malnutrition historically were only really defeated for the masses when long-distance transportation came along," he says. "People would regularly starve because when you depend entirely or mostly on your local food supply, you will not only have good years, but a fair number of bad years. And historically, two bad local harvests in a row and you had a famine. It was only long-distance transportation that put an end to that."

Desrochers says he is not against good quality, appropriately-priced local food. But he is against local food that has no other positive attributes other than being local. Desrochers even goes to so far as to call locavorism a marketing fad. But why not have a moment in support of local farmers?

"The problem is... ultimately this will result in even more agriculture protectionism. This, we argue, is a really dangerous path to go down," he says. "The extra bucks that you're spending buying lesser quality local food unfortunately will not help the earth, will not help the local economy, and is part of a local movement that we think -- carried to its logical conclusion -- can be very dangerous."

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.
Image of The Locavore's Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet
Author: Pierre Desrochers, Hiroko Shimizu
Publisher: PublicAffairs (2012)
Binding: Hardcover, 288 pages
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Many of us have kitchens more than capable of preserving food for long periods of time. I'm always amazed by the swanky kitchens these days, yet so many people eat out so often - but I digress. How about buying locally whether CSAs, farms, farmer's market, or U-pick then blanch, freeze, dehydrate. I'd say can, but food loses a lot of taste and nutrition - sorry canning fans. Anywho, most of us are capable of doing at least one of these preservation methods. Fun with kids, put some music on, make a cup of tea and 'put up some good food'. Everything seems to be too much trouble for people these days. Stop, think about it, slow down. Make good food a priority and save money too.

The local farmers market near me gives great argument for this guys stand. Overpriced, only open for a few hours, inconvenient to get to, a mud stone parking lot, and questionable "local" status. (really, bananas? local? in North East Ohio?)

Maybe others have better local sources, but we don't. My feeling is if you want "local", plant your own garden. Otherwise, you don't really know.

Container ships are fine, but then there's the trucking--hundreds of miles from seaport to inland town--to move the product to market. I wish there were fewer sleepy truckers on the highway when we're out there. We buy locally because our taste buds prefer it. We go where we get the best deal. If the guest prefers supermarket produce, then he should continue to pay $4 for pale little sprigs of supermarket fresh basil while we get obscenely big. dark green sticky bushes of the stuff for $2.75. Of the things we buy, supermarket produce can't compete in quality or value. That's Econ 101: price, value, utility. I care nothing for the supplier's profit as long as he can be there every week. If the multinationals can't win the competition for my produce dollars, so be it.

I don't think most people eat locally "at all cost." I think most people balance cost against value. We buy locally when fresh produce is available, and we buy less locally when it is not, so the "malnutrition argument" is bogus. People DON'T buy "food that has no other positive attributes other than being local." Most of that food has at least a few other positive attributes! Of course if a good selection of fresh local food is available, one cannot do better for freshness, flavor and "greenness."

Sorry Tess, but this is a diversion from the truth. Nobody "eats locally "at all costs." But locally-grown food IS better, in virtually every way, from freshness to a wider variety to less transportation, so we should buy and eat it whenever possible. BTW, it also keeps our money local, where it might be spent again, perhaps even coming right back to US.

This is correct. Keeping the money in town is always better. Always, no exceptions ever.

The main problem with it boils down to the "little guy" (Small business) always taking shortcuts and cheaply producing and charging too much; Look at any fly by night operation and you will find this ends up being the case. You know, the whole "LLC" thing.

Small scale farming is NOT "fly-by-night." It is agribusiness that takes the worst shortcuts, by far, using chemicals by the ton (actually, by the thousands and millions of tons), growing only the hardiest, least-tasty strains, and then shipping them half if not all the way across the country. Agribusiness, NOT the small specialty or organic farmer, is the one which will always use GE stocks for their mass production. The net result is we're commonly stuck with a nice looking but otherwise poor food product, made with slave labor (i.e. illegal aliens paid $2.20/hr for the hardest work on the planet), often retaining traces of toxic pesticides, at a high market price, and at a high environmental cost.

You put far too much faith in big business to do the right thing. They almost never do - except for themselves. They certainly aren't doing the right things when it comes to food. Unlike the small, independent grower, who really needs YOUR business, and cares about earning it, i.e. cares that every customer is satisfied, all agribusiness cares about is its bottom line.

The suggestion that if we as society stopped shipping food around the world to supply an over fed, self entitled population we would have wars is preposterous. The food bought from other countries in the 19th century was not laden with unregulated pesticides. The assumption that locally grown food is more costly and of lesser quality is a complete fabrication. Studies show that organically grown food contains higher levels of many nutrients, including Vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, due to the healthy, fertile soils where they are grown. They also contain the microbes present on your local soil that you also have in your body, when you eat a grape for Chile you're also eating the microbes for Chile. Produce grown in other parts of the US or outside the US are often picked before they ripen (before they obtain all their nutrients) and many are genetically engineered to resist ripening and bruising in shipping. Buying local food keeps your dollars circulating in your community, keeping jobs and money in the local area. Locally grown food comes short distances to market, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions and harmful packing materials.
Buying the best food for your family should always take priority. Buying locally, sustainably and if possible organic preserves the environment, promotes bio diversity and food safety. By taking charge of knowing where and what is in our food is one of the most important choices we make 3 times a day. I personally like know that what I put in my mouth came from a local organic farm just a few miles away. Would I like to eat strawberries in January? Who wouldn't? But honestly show a little restraint and wait! It's worth it!
I do hope you follow up this confusing and erroneous piece with some factual journalism... please.

I just listened to the segment and I think the true argument is against idealism trumping rationality.

By all means use local produce in your kitchen when it makes sense to do so. My family are shareholders in a local CSA and grow a few of our own vegetables too, but that's just as much because we prefer the taste of the varieties we grow as it is from a desire to support local agriculture. We don't eat seasonally even though between our garden and the CSA we get seasonal rotations of more fresh produce than we can eat in the season. If you haven't the knowledge or can't afford the time to freeze, dry, pickle, sauce or otherwise preserve the excess, our approach would not work for your family because you'd be trashing (or preferably composting) way too much of your annual investment.

Buying local "just because it's local" or avoiding the farmers market "just because the grocery is cheaper" is two ends of a seesaw, the best, healthiest and most economically or ecologically sustainable approach for a given families lifestyle will probably fall somewhere between them.

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