Will the Anti-Locavorism Never End?

A blog post from a few months ago — titled “Do We Really Need a Few Billion Locavores?” — upset many eat-local fans. Among the many sins I committed were:

1. Using food coloring to make sherbet. (Hey, sorry, but I was just following the directions on the ice-cream maker one of my kids got as a present; sue me.)

2. Seeming to equate making sherbet with eating local. (I didn’t mean to; it was one story that led to another. But since so many people got the wrong impression, I’d consider that a failing less of locavore fundamentalism than of my writing.)

3. Being the kind of grump who hates all good things including nature, children, puppies, etc. (Believe that if you must; I hope it is not true.)

Anyway: If you are part of the camp who thinks all these things are true, you may not want to read any further. What follows is an assessment of locavorism that lays out, more patiently and measuredly than I did, the reasons why it is not the environmental panacea its supporters may think.

The author is James McWilliams, a historian at Texas State University, and the section below comes from a book he’ll be publishing next year called Just Food. Thanks to James and to his publisher, Little Brown, for letting us jump the gun a bit.

On Locavorism

by James McWilliams

A Guest Post

The argument that we must relocalize the nation’s distribution networks to accommodate small growers ultimately runs into a really inconvenient question: should every region even have a local food system?

The query, however much it causes locavores to grit their teeth, is a critical one to ask. Regions with climate and soil conditions poorly suited for diversified agricultural production must dedicate substantial inputs to fossil fuel and water.

This is true whether the operations are big or small, mom-and-pop, or franchised. Should regions that are seeking self-sufficiency in environmentally stressed locations be accommodated with a custom-designed distribution and processing system (not to mention a community willing to engage in the massive contradiction of sacrificing precious local resources to support a supposedly environmentally friendly ideology)?

As Jennifer Wilkins, a scholar at Cornell’s Division of Nutritional Sciences, writes: “In the long run, of course, and increasingly in the short run as well, significant food production may not be possible in these regions.”

Locavores will often respond to this line of attack by arguing that people should not be moving to these areas in the first place. But again, that kind of logic sends us back to never-never land. Unless one can envision the government in a place like the United States telling citizens and corporations that they cannot settle in a particular region because the resources do not conform to a locavore vision, we’re back to the thorny reality that some places simply cannot justify, on environmental grounds, a localized food system.

Ever been to Phoenix?

Call it an inconvenient truth. Moreover, it’s one that has implications well beyond the obvious water-stressed regions. Even in locales that have great potential to provide a region with considerable food, there are reasons to be skeptical that locavorism is an achievable idea.

Consider fruit and vegetable production in New York. The Empire State is naturally equipped to grow a wide variety of fruits, including pears, cherries, strawberries, and some peaches. But none of these compare to its ability to grow apples and grapes, which dominate production (accounting for 94 percent of all fruit grown).

At current levels of fruit production, apples are the only crop that could currently feed New Yorkers at a level that meets the U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowances. Every other fruit that the state produces is not being harvested at a level to provide all New Yorkers with an adequate supply. Other fruits such as bananas and oranges are not produced at all because conditions are unfavorable for growing them.

What does this situation mean in terms of feeding the state with the state’s own produce?

In a nutshell, it means citizens would have to give up tropical fruits altogether; rarely indulge in a pear, peach, or basket of strawberries; and gorge on grapes and apples — most of them in processed form (either as juice, in a can, or as concentrate).

Eating state vegetables poses its own problems. Of all vegetables produced in New York, only 9 of the 80 which are most consumed cannot be produced within state. This statistic is encouraging for the prospect of local consumption. Not only is the region naturally conducive to growing a diversity of vegetables, but it’s already doing so to such an extent that it could provide enough beets, cabbages, onions, pumpkins, snap peas, and sweet corn to feed the state populace an adequate diet of vegetables.

So what’s the trouble? Why not go for it? The devil, as usual, is in the details.

As with fruit production, to move vegetables from New York fields to New York forks would demand, in Wilkins’s terms, “a rebuilding of the processing industry.” Whereas the global economy’s infrastructure allows the importation of fresh produce all year round, consumers — again, given the extremely unlikely prospect that they would tolerate a radically reduced menu of options — would have to accept only processed fruit and vegetables in the off season.

Since the stuff would not be exported, it would be frozen, canned, juiced, or pickled. Whereas the conventional system of production and distribution has in place a series of large-scale processing centers capable of handling these tasks in a handful of isolated locations — not so for localities.

Herein lies the rub. As three scholars writing in the British Food Journal explain:

In recent decades large scale food processing and production has been undertaken in factories on industrial estates, but a return to small units within communities may well bring environmental problems such as smell, pollution, waste disposal, visual intrusion, and nuisance for those communities.

Localities might be thrilled with the prospect of a sprawling farmers’ market in their hood, but what about a small fish-processing plant designed especially to meet local needs? One imagines it wouldn’t be long before a “defensive politics of localism” became a “not in my backyard” point of contention, punctuated with “Eat Local, Process Elsewhere” bumper stickers.

Moreover, given that the New York case study is one that covers a relatively large area of production (it’s 400 miles from New York City to Buffalo), these problems would be exponentially compounded for locavores who want to keep their diets within a 100-mile radius.


Andrew

@34 (A E Pfeiffer), I doubt that you are supporting current agri-business practices in order to feed poor people around the globe. You do it because it's most convenient for you - you and no one else.

Someone has already said it - it's a problem of population (aren't they all?). Here in my Canadian province, we could probably feed ourselves, but we'd obviously have to get very creative when cooking squash, potatoes, and apples.

And as another posted said, this type of basic diet was the norm until only a few generations ago.

How soft and self-indulgent we've become.

The people who post on this site and claim "efficiency" need to define their terms: I feel as though they only care about economic efficiency.

At some point, these Free-Market folks might have to realize that there are other ways other than the $$ to measure the success of a system/process.

Eat as much local/sustainable/vegetarian as you can, please. Everyone will benefit.

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Nick Gavey

A quick example how locavorism can be bad on a micro as well as on a macro scale:

British consumers became concerned about "food miles" - the distance their food travelled to reach them. This was obviously a concern to NZ lamb farmers who saw their meat being passed up in favour of local produce. So Lincoln University in NZ did a study to examine the total carbon footprint of NZ lamb vs. locally produced British lamb. They found that NZ lamb had a substantially lower carbon footprint, even including the carbon cost of shipping the meat around the world. This is because NZ animals eat grass and live outside all year round, rather than eating grain and spending winters in barns.

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_miles#Food_mile_calculation_problems, http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PA0609/S00340.htm)

This illustrates that location is a poor guide to the environmental impact of foods. Eat local for the taste if you want, but make sure you double check your facts before telling me that you're also saving the environment.

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A E Pfeiffer

James McWilliams claims that a locavore diet would mean that we "would have to accept only processed fruit and vegetables in the off season". Would that be instesad of the current insipid and tasteless fruit and veg that's mass-produced to withstand being transported huge distances?

The economists' cook book is probably one of the shortest books in the world - or at least it should be for the sake of all our palates.

BobC

To all locovores, organic people, and vegans I have one question...WWMPD?

What would Michael Phelps do?

Can any of these diets, or the combination of all three, support Michael Phelp's 10,000-12,000 calorie diet?

NOt the best example because he gets a lot of carbs from non-meat sources.

I ensure my diet consists only of factory farmed, genetically engineered crops. I will continue to eat that until I see a peer-reviewed study demonstrating how these systems can feed 7 billion people. That includes a billion people living on less than one dollar a day.

Emmett

Interesting post-- good thoughts to toss around.

To answer the rhetorical question "Ever been to Phoenix?", I'd point to Gary Paul Nabhan's book about his year of eating food from within a 250 mile radius of his Arizona home. So, yes, there are still things to eat in places that seem desolate--even if you can't eat tropical fruit. The book is called "Coming Home to Eat" (http://www.amazon.com/Coming-Home-Eat-Pleasures-Politics/dp/0393323749)

As far as processing facilities go, I've talked with an ag. marketing specialist in NY state who has started to see more processing facilities returning in-state--or at least thinking about it--since after fuel costs started to skyrocket. So maybe it's not such a pipedream to imagine a rebuilding of the processing industry--if resource scarcity tilts the playing field that way.

I live in California, I rarely eat tropical fruit, and I don't feel at all sorry for myself.

Emmett

http://farming101.wordpress.com

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Gary

tddoog - $10 per gallon gas might do the trick... of course, it might instead cause people to flock to cities, leaving even less greenspace, and even more people to feed from less local land.

Would eating local even be an issue if Florida oranges were being shipped up the coast daily on mag-lev trains? Many tout the freshness of local produce, because it spends less time in transport... did you know Wal-mart gets milk from the cow to its shelves often in less than 24 hours?

Matt

"The problem with the analysis is that an economist understands that a thousand currencies are all different, but can only see one tomato."

Right on!

Peter

I think the problem with locavorism is the extent to which it moralizes. I don't think how much energy is put into a product has any inherent moral value.

I don't think that large scale food production has any externalities inherent to it apart from the possible under-pricing of energy in general for it's pollution content.

I do however think that localism has a problem of being bad for the environment insomuch as it is less efficient.

Some areas are very good for some crops, mediocre for others, and horrible for yet others. Given that people will continue to want similar amounts of food to what they consume now, a large scale movement to localism will probably result in a good amount of land being converted from its best yielding crops to more mediocre ones (but not horrible ones).

Given that people like eating, a few things will likely result, none of which are mutually exclusive

1. More land taken from being wilderness and put into production as cropland

2. Food prices will rise

3. People will have less variety of diet (since they'll be limited to crops which aren't horrible to grow in their area)

4. More energy will be expended on processing of foods to preserve them for non-growing periods, particularly in long winter areas (like Montreal, where I live).

1 and 4 specifically are bad for the environment.

I would beware the law of unintended consequences in all of this.

Assumo makes the point that we shouldn't ban local food operations, and as long as they don't produce severe externalities which can't be taxed away, I'd agree as a libertarian. My comments are directed at the social movement towards locavorism.

I think that there are reasons for eating food which happens to be local, such as freshness and quality, but I dispute that there's moral content in whether my vegetables come from a multinational corporation or a local independent farmer.

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aaron

Oops. That should read miles driven has gone down quite a bit more than fuel consumption.

Auralee

One of the appeals of eating local is the access it affords to fresh heirloom variety vegetables which are otherwise largely unavailable. Whatever locavorism gives up in terms of exotic produce it certainly makes up for with the nuanced flavors of these heirloom varieties (equally exotic to the modern consumer).

Additionally, farmers’ markets allow the money to go directly to the farmer and also avoid all of the aesthetic regulations imposed by supermarkets which result in wasted crops. I would also challenge the idea that growing produce in Chile and shipping it to North America is more efficient than growing it here in season (most people I know who grow out of season do so indoors, often with table-top greenhouses requiring no extra heating).

Furthermore, what about all of the externalities that go into growing and shipping from so far away? Surely if one took into account the total costs of such a system rather than simply the very narrow case of energy consumption alone one could not make such a claim.

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Cornman

I just want my local farms to grow some else besides corn. Please, if you want to talk about the extreme in locavore agriculture, we should talk about the other extreme, and the corn industry fits the bill.

A. M.

@ #23: The majority of foreigners get their food from local markets similar to our farmers' markets. They'd more than likely approve of locavorism.

Justin

Locavorism is a wonderful concept -- it's great to get in touch with your food production at least in a small fashion, to meet the farmers that grow your carrots and greens, meet the ranchers that grow your beef and lamb, get a feel for making food. The plausible extreme of this ideal is to generate food yourself, grow a garden, maybe keep some chickens if you can swing it, etc. This concept of locavorism enriches the spirit and the human condition. It's a wonderful thing to eat food you grew yourself in the proper season. In that respect, you might say that I was raised as a locavore in Maine. My mother would grow a huge garden every year and can large amounts of food for the winter season. So we ate large amounts of food from our own garden year round -- canned green beans, tomato sauce, potatoes, onions, squash.

Where locavorism fails is when people try to cook up scientific arguments in favor of locavorism. It just doesn't wash very well a lot of places. As the Phoenix commenter above illustrated in a lovely fashion, just because it's local doesn't mean it is environmentally friendly. Growing stuff in Arizona requires huge amounts of irrigations water, which has completely destroyed the riparian ecosystems of the lower Colorado River basin. Just try to level the economic playing field and see where we wind up -- you'll still wind up importing much of your diet in most places. I'd argue that freshness and time of transport is more critical to the economics and environmental impact of your food than the fossil fuels consumed in their transport. That's what might give some local foods an advantage. The fraction of the food that ultimately gets wasted is critical to the overall environmental impact of the food. That's one of the wonderful things about farmers markets -- they cut the time from vine to consumer down to a day, rather than a week or more.

If you want to cut your environmental footprint, there are better places to look than the origin of your vegetables. Switching to grass-fed meat makes a much bigger difference.

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O

Sometimes I wonder if articles like these are written in order to appease some sense of guilt. Of course locavorism isn't possible everywhere or even always more efficient.

Yet what are you discouraging? Are you discouraging people to compost their food and use that to grow tomatoes on their porches? As it was already stated, isms are never fool proof but eating locally (so long as you use a little brains) is a valiant way of improving your quality of life. If you are looking to change locavores, a goup that has made a moral decision to due information, what are you telling them that they don't already know? If you are trying to inform those of us less informed I feel like you fail to fulfill journalistic responsibility of even mentioning the virtues of locavorism. Oh well.

aaron

This is the same as the proposed carbon caps and taxes. Sure, it puts disincentive on inefficient consumption, but people just aren't smart enough to know the difference between efficient and inefficient. They'll do more inefficient things and do other things less efficiently and wonder why they're spending more time driving, buying more gas, and they're not doing anymore driving. Or that they have to do more driving because their profit margins are down and they need to get more deliveries and jobs in to keep up.

See how the miles we drive has gone down quite a bit less than our fuel consumption recently.

You can put incentives on simple things. You can even put incentives on being smarter. But you can't just make people smarter.

tddoog

All that really needs to be done is to raise the price of gasoline to the appropriate level (~$10/gal) and the problem should take care of itself.

Mike

Great post!

I think this really does highlight the problems with locavore fundamentalism, but not with the concept of locavorism in essence.

What needs to happen is that aspiring locavores conform their diets to the existing conditions, rather than propose that the food delivery and processing industries conform to aspiring locavores' diets. This is the essence of the movement, or should be: conform YOUR dietary needs to reduce environmental impact, and/or increase nutrition. If you expect society to conform to meet your needs - at an environmental cost - then you've turned your whole agenda against itself. Indeed: wasn't Ouroboros the greatest of all locavores! ;)

Obviously, an aspiring locavore should stay well clear of Phoenix.

fb

Seems like he's knocking down a straw locavore. Are there really many people who advocate the extreme position he attacks?

Anyway, there are milder forms of the idea that you should try to consume more of what's in season in your region and less of what had to be shipped long distances (especially for foods that don't travel well).

Shirley

tddoog, another way in which the problem will solve itself: when Lake Mead runs dry and climate change starts stressing the U.S. Southwest (and other parts) even more, we won't need the government "telling citizens and corporations that they cannot settle in a particular region because the resources do not conform to a locavore vision." No one will want to -- or be able to -- live in a place without water.

Will

Actually, locavorism isn't necessarily good for the environment.

It is far more efficient (carbon-wise) to grow tomatoes in Chile and then ship them via containership to New York than to grow them in propane-heated greenhouses in New Jersey.

Likewise, organic farming isn't necessarily good for the environment. Organic farmers plow to control weeds. That breaks up topsoil and contributes to erosion.