The Locavore Debate, Revisited

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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. Read More >