Fall 2012Vol. 7, No. 3

This article is from TOS Vol. 7, No. 3. The full contents of the issue are listed here.

The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu

New York: Public Affairs, 2012. 256 pp. $26.99 (hardcover).

The Locavore's Dilemma

Observe the enormous bounty of food at your local grocery store. Note the fresh fruit and vegetables from around the world—bananas and coconuts are imported from Caribbean islands; strawberries, melons, and peppers travel from California or Florida to stores across the land; blueberries and mangos come from Central and South America; and so on.

Likewise, meat, fish, eggs, and dairy originating from distant agricultural producers are available in abundance throughout the year. Chilean, South African, and Australian producers supply food for consumers during the winter months of northern U.S. states and Canada, where the growing season is short. Whether coffee from Sumatra, rice from India, or lamb from New Zealand, a great variety of food is always available and affordable, thanks to the producers, shippers, and distributors who make it so.

What if, instead of being imported from all over the world on trains, planes, boats, and trucks, all of our food had to be produced locally? Would our food be fresher, more nutritious, and safer if it were not produced and distributed by industrial operations? Professor of geography Pierre Desrochers and his wife, Hiroko Shimizu, address these questions and more in their book The Locavore’s Dilemma.

“Locavores” are people who believe that “an ever-growing portion of our food supply should be produced in close physical proximity to the consumers who will eat it” (p. 4). Desrochers and Shimizu describe locavorism as part of a larger cultural movement that is concerned with “the nature of foodstuffs being supplied” according to the SOLE components: Sustainable, Organic, Local, and Ethical (p. 4). The authors observe that “locavores belong to an environmentalist sect that makes a moral issue out of where your food is grown” (p. 8).

Although Desrochers and Shimizu concede to the appeal of growing an urban garden for summertime fresh vegetables and patronizing farmers markets for the social experience, they point out that historical efforts to establish local food initiatives failed. They write, “Locavores might wax poetic about wartime gardening and other past initiatives, but the fact remains that none of them lasted once most people had other options available to them” (p. 39).

The truth, according to Desrochers and Shimizu, is that industrial agriculture and global trade has consistently and dramatically increased the quantity and quality of food that is available today. “In the last two centuries . . . consumers went from shopping in ‘dry good’ stores to the ‘permanent summertime’ produce sections of progressively larger supermarkets whose ever expanding range of offerings have become only safer, healthier, and considerably more affordable” (p. 29).

Via copious research and with ample evidence, Desrochers and Shimizu argue that “locavorism can only result in higher costs and increased poverty, greater food insecurity, less food safety, and much more significant environmental damage” (p. 14).

Rather than merely arguing against locavorism, however, Desrochers and Shimizu inspire appreciation for the magnificent achievements of modern, industrial agriculture and the global food trade. They show that through the developments of technology and the advancements of agricultural science, the ever-rising productivity of modern food production has nearly eliminated famine and hunger. For example, the number of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition in the early 1950s compared to today “went from nearly 40% to less than 15% [of the global population] while the absolute number of people who were provided an adequate diet rose from 1.5 to 6 billion” (p. 30).

Desrochers and Shimizu agree with political scientist Robert Paarlberg that where “locally produced organic and nonprocessed food” is the only option, the reality of the locavore’s so-called ideal is the poverty, disease, malnourishment, and starvation of sub-Saharan rural Africa. This is because without modern technologies, farmers “must rely on traditional organic methods,” meaning that, in Africa, “60% of the population is engaged in either farming or herding from dawn to dusk” (p. 9). Trade is cut off because “70% of households live more than a 30 minute walk from the nearest all-weather road,” and lack of processed food and cooking technologies such as microwaves mean that “they must devote much time to food preparation” (p. 9).

To understand why long-distance trade leads to abundant, cheap, and high-quality food, Desrochers and Shimizu reference Adam Smith’s observations from two centuries ago that Scotland could produce its own wine, but “Scottish people would have to use thirty times as many resources than if they were to import wine from Southern Europe” (p. 63). The authors note that variables such as climate, soil, and other geographic factors are why location determines the success or failure of agriculture more than it does that of any other industry.

The ability to produce large amounts of certain crops in certain geographic locations is an important part of a “much broader geographical division of labor” (p. 115). “Large-scale monocultures . . . have long been able to rely on the work of numerous plant and animal breeders, researchers combating disease, and countless other experts whose very existence has always depended on the wealth generated by specialization and exchange” (p. 116).

Desrochers and Shimizu note that exchange on the international market—the global food trade—is the reason famine has been eradicated in advanced economies. When “freedom to trade [is] secure and goods [can] be moved between political borders, differences in physical geography and seasonal weather [ensure] that the surplus of regions [enjoying] good harvests [can] be channeled to those that experienced below average ones” (p. 112).

Freedom to trade is violated when governments impose export bans, “ensur[ing] that farmers [earn] less on their investments . . . and thus remov[ing] much incentive to improve production volume and productivity” (p. 171). Export restrictions “lock farmers out of the international market” (p. 173). Consequently, in places such as Africa under the export controls of commodity boards, “producers . . . were increasingly forced back into subsistence farming” because export markets that they had created were destroyed (p. 174).

Another violation of the freedom to trade is the imposition of import tariffs. Increasing the cost of importing food, in order to protect local domestic farmers, also results in less food for consumers. To demonstrate the benefits of open-border food trade, Desrochers and Shimizu point to Denmark during World War II. By allowing their markets to be “flooded” with cheap imported grains, the Danes seized the opportunity to “specialize in more lucrative livestock and dairy farming, making it possible to expand dairy production from summer to year-round” (p. 133).

A consequence of export bans and tariffs, according to Desrochers and Shimizu, is the distortion of prices, which, in turn, throttles producers’ efforts to determine whether to ramp up or slow down production, whether to increase or decrease capital investment, which crops to plant, and so on. Price floors (government impositions of minimum prices for certain goods) create artificial demand resulting in “much waste of valuable resources” that are diverted from the production of food (p. 174). Price ceilings (government impositions of maximum prices for certain goods) result in shortages, because “artificially lower prices quickly [increase] consumption, [reduce] stocks, and [encourage] hoarding” (p. 175). The net result of any government coercion in the production and trade of food, the authors explain, is less food produced.

Industrial agriculture and the global food trade led not only to a worldwide increase in quantity of food, but also to increases in quality and safety of food. Desrochers and Shimizu show that “[l]ocal diets have always been more monotonous and less nutritious than our present day food cornucopia” (p. 143). In preindustrial times, Native Americans used animal excrement in their food as seasoning or additive; German farm laborers lived on a diet of “gruel and mush”; and the British diet long consisted of “bread, a little cheese, bacon fat, and weak tea.” Until the mid-19th century, most of humanity was in a chronic state of malnourishment (p. 143).

Comparing life expectancy, average height and weight, among other variables, the authors show that in merely a century and a half the increasing quality of food due to industrial agriculture and long-distance trade has literally transformed the size and shape of the human body. In fact, “[p]oor American boys today at ages 18 and 19 are taller and heavier than middle-class boys of similar age in the late 1950s . . . [and] a full inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than American soldiers who fought in World War II” (p. 145).

The authors note the widely acknowledged fattening of Americans and observe that it is often used by locavores as evidence that “the most significant advances in terms of availability and affordability [of food has] been achieved in the realm of ‘junk food’ and that today’s fresh produce grown with ‘synthetic’ methods are less nutritious than those grown with traditional inputs” (p. 148). In answer, Desrochers and Shimizu cite decades of studies that conclude: “[O]rganic foods are not [more nutritious] than conventional ones and have at best tiny, intermittent and overall insignificant differences in nutrient levels from one study and research sample to the next” (p. 149).

Just as industrial agriculture has raised nutritional standards, Desrochers and Shimizu explain, so too it has improved food safety. The authors note,

Humanity’s food supply has never been inherently “pure, natural, and safe” and only recently corrupted by man-made chemicals and careless industrial practices. On the contrary, it was always afflicted by a large number of “natural” pathogens that are all around us and have been significantly . . . brought under control in the recent past, in large part because of the development of industrial-scale food safety technologies. (p. 155)

Desrochers and Shimizu note that smaller and nonindustrial agricultural operations are often rife with food-safety problems. For example, a recent outbreak of E. coli that killed three people originated in spinach that came from a “field that was in transition towards organic production, meaning that chemical fertilizers could not be used” so animal manure was used instead (p. 157). Comparing historic and geographic data, the authors show that in Western countries such as the United States, “deaths from foodborne illness have proportionally dropped by perhaps as much as 100-fold since 1900,” and in many parts of Africa, where organic and local food is an unchosen reality, “approximately 700,000 people die every year from food- and water-borne diseases” (p. 162).

In addition to showing that technological advances have led to safer foods, Desrochers and Shimizu emphasize the importance of economies of scale. Large, industrial food producers have significant self-interest in making the safest food possible, even “if only [to avoid] attendant litigation and decline in sales” (p. 156).

Referencing a recent outbreak of listeriosis linked to a cantaloupe farm in Colorado, the authors agree that “the more general cause [was] the local food movement,” which encourages retailers and consumers to sacrifice food safety to the alleged benefits of regionally produced food (p. 159). Using numerous examples and a trove of evidence, Desrochers and Shimizu convincingly argue that industrial agriculture and the global food trade are the means to better, cheaper, and more abundant food.

Although The Locavore’s Dilemma is an informative and enjoyable read, it would have been substantially improved by better organization, shorter paragraphs, clearer formulations, and fewer typos. Nevertheless, the book is a paean to the vital industries and heroic producers who provide us with such abundance as to make grocery shopping a spiritual experience. Highly recommended.