March 11, 2011

The Locavore Debate, Revisited

Jared Margulies, MS

Jared Margulies, MS

Guest Blogger

Center for a Livable Future

Photo courtesy of scottroberts-flikr


How can local food systems support a resilient and sustainable future food economy in the United States? That was the question of the day at a recent conference entitled, “Reviving the American Economy-One Heirloom Tomato at a Time.”  But for some, the question isn’t so much how, but even can local food systems support a sustainable food economy.  It’s always important to be open to dissenting viewpoints, so it was with great interest that I listened to Pierre Desrochers of the University of Toronto critique the “eating local” paradigm.

According to Desrochers, who has garnered a respectable amount of publicity as an “anti-locavore,” choosing to eat local foods isn’t necessarily the sustainable choice many believe.  Although he brings some very critical and noteworthy perspectives to the broader food system debate about energy efficiency and CO2 emissions from ‘food miles,’ he also obfuscates and distorts the broader goals of developing resilient local food systems, and for this reason I’d like to address some of his main talking points here.

Food System Resilience

The main thrust of Desrochers’ argument against the resilience of local food systems is his belief they may lead to future food insecurity.  He suggested that local food systems are inherently more unstable in the face of plant disease outbreaks, crop failures, and the limited growing seasons of different latitudes.  His argument, in sum, was against a pre-20th Century food system, where local crop failures might spell disaster for rural, isolated communities.

But is this really the vision of the local food movement?  I don’t believe local food system advocates are calling for a return to eating only what is produced in isolation of wider regional or global food systems-an idea which is historically contentious to begin with.  By creating a false dichotomy between choosing either an extreme local food system (where one would have to subsist only on foods grown directly in your locality) or a global one (where food would only come from where it was cheapest to grow-a “cheapness” dependent on agricultural subsidies and externalizing environmental health costs), it seems Desrochers has only constructed a straw man in order to knock it down. 

The reality of nearly all food systems is that they are nested on varying scales, from the local to the global, and can interact between scales.  As CLF Visiting Scholar Kate Clancy and co-author Kathryn Ruhf acknowledged in a well-articulated article 2010 in Choices on regional food systems, “An ideal regional food system describes a system in which as much food as possible to meet the population’s food needs is produced, processed, distributed, and purchased at multiple levels and scales within the region, resulting in maximum resilience, minimum importation, and significant economic and social return to all stakeholders in the region.”

In sum, Desrochers’ suggestion that widespread adoption of local food production might lead to the next great American famine is only even remotely tenable if we ignore the pragmatic and sensible reality that opportunities for creating truly sustainable food systems exist between the local and the global.

Environmental costs of local foods

Desrochers discussed two broad arguments for how “eating local” may actually do more harm than good when it comes to the environment, focusing in first on greenhouse gas emissions, and then threats to nature conservation. I’ll tackle these in that order.

Greenhouse gas emissions from local food systems

Desrochers made some cogent arguments for why there is a need to account for total energy consumption of food production systems in the context of the “locavore debate.” As he argued, the CO2 emissions from transporting foods can make up a significant part of the total energy costs associated with food production, distribution and consumption, and although it sounds counterintuitive, sometimes transporting produce by air or sea a long distance can still be more energy efficient than driving it a shorter distance when you consider emissions per volume and weight transported (Desrochers & Shimizu, 2008).

Arguments based on “food miles” emissions are an important reminder that we need to be critical in examining the entire energy chain of our food system, from farm inputs to transportation choices.  Though there isn’t space here to discuss the many studies on CO2 emissions from different production and transport systems, what is important to clarify is why I would advocate for a nested regional food system (inclusive of local food production) in the first place: It’s not just about food miles, but the total sustainability of a resilient food system, inclusive of economic, social, and environmental factors. As Clancy and Ruhf (2010) explain, “a regional food system includes multiple “locals” within a state, and those that cross state boundaries.  Regional food systems operate in relation to other regions as well as to the national and global food systems.”  Considering sustainability in all of its varying forms, it quickly becomes apparent that food miles are only one part of the equation, and that local food production can fill an important space in developing resilient and sustainable future food economies. From urban gardens which can address food access in the food deserts of urban America, to reviving rural economies through regional diversification of farming systems, by its very nature as a system, the study of food system sustainability (inclusive but exclusively focused on food miles) demands holistic approaches to inquiry.

Nature Conservation

Another reason local food is bad for the environment, Desrochers argues, is that local food systems do not concentrate agriculture production in the most favorable regions, thereby having an overall greater impact on natural landscapes.  Conversely, efficient global food systems concentrate the total food production area, thereby “sparing” land for nature.

This is flawed reasoning for two of reasons.  This first is the widespread and inaccurate assumption that intensifying the use of current agricultural land will in fact spare land for nature.  Research has shown that increasing crop yields actually can lead to an increase of cultivated land, an example of what in economics-speak is called the Jevons Paradox or rebound effect (Alcott, 2005; Rudel et al., 2009).  Many studies which have purportedly demonstrated how agricultural intensification might spare land for nature have ignored the externalized environmental costs of intensive crop production (pesticide runoff, soil erosion, etc.) compared to more “wildlife friendly” farming.  Finally, a growing body of research has demonstrated that agroecological practices which conserve biodiversity can have comparative or even higher yields than conventional farming (Matson & Vitousek, 2006; Vandermeer & Perfecto, 2005; De Schutter, 2010).

The second reason is that the land sparing debate often assumes the innate value of natural forests over other landscapes.  For instance, the intensification and centralization of agriculture in the United States, which has allowed for the afforestation of New England (which Desrochers used as an example), is responsible for the demise of America’s native tallgrass prairie ecosystem, of which only 4 percent remains-representing a shift in burden from one natural environment to another.  Secondly, many species actually rely on human-modified landscapes for their survival-in New England, the decline of an entire assemblage of bird species is the result of the removal of human disturbances from the landscape (Foster et al., 2002).  I’m not suggesting forests aren’t important, but I also think critiques relying on broad assumptions demand clarification.

Food Safety

Another of Desrochers’ critiques is that local food systems are less safe for consumers than globalized food systems with centralized distribution and processing.  His logic suggests that because of the decentralized nature of local food systems (many, smaller farms), it would be more difficult to prevent, track, and control disease outbreaks than centralized systems.  This is misleading for a number of reasons.  Our current U.S. food distribution and processing systems have time and again demonstrated the danger of centralization-the infamous outbreaks of Salmonella and E. Coli 0157:H7 in peanut butter, eggs and spinach in recent years were the result of inadequate safety measures to track and control disease outbreaks within a centralized food system, which is at least in part responsible for turning what could have been localized outbreaks into national ones within days due to rapid and widespread food distribution.  Secondly, it is misleading to assume that tracking illness and disease within a decentralized system would be more difficult if outbreaks were restricted to a smaller locality.  Luckily, the signing of the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act should help improve the FDA’s overall ability to prevent and track foodborne illnesses, though questions of funding persist.

Beyond the “food miles” conundrum

The questions I’ve attempted to unravel are far too complicated to sufficiently dissect here.  And while there isn’t room to address all of the reasons why I believe supporting the development of nested local and regional food systems, I hope I’ve helped disentangle some of the distractions within the local versus global food system critique. Through investigating some of the critical questions facing how we make food consumption decisions it becomes more apparent how important it is for critical research on food systems, inclusive of more than just food miles as a measure of sustainability.

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