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Food security: Eating globally

Nature volume 486, pages 3031 (07 June 2012) | Download Citation

Tom MacMillan gets a taste of the argument against consuming only locally grown food.

The Locavore's Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet

Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu. Public Affairs: 2012. 304 pp. $26.99/£18.99 9781586489403

For all the fanfare about local food, you might think that we eat a lot of it. Yet in the United Kingdom and North America, almost everything people eat comes from far away, shipped from distribution centres and delivered by truck. Only a tiny fraction takes a short cut. So, although about one-third of UK shoppers say that they buy local food, the market share is nearer 2–3%.

In The Locavore's Dilemma, geographer Pierre Desrochers and economist Hiroko Shimizu suggest that even that is too much. They say that it is ignorant to want shorter supply chains and dangerous to achieve them, whether in the developed or developing worlds. “The road to agricultural, economic and environmental hell,” they argue, is “paved with allegedly fresher and more nutritious local meals”. With this spirited polemic they want to nip the 'locavore' trend in the bud.

Local produce is widely praised, but some argue that a reliance on it endangers food security. Image: FOODCOLLECTION/SUPERSTOCK

Desrochers and Shimizu argue that encouraging localized supply, and thus diversified farming, strikes at the essence of agricultural development and socioeconomic progress. Hefting food over long distances allows regions to play to their strengths, unlocking productive efficiencies that release people from farm work. This has brought social benefits by letting people engage in other activities, such as medicine and the arts. Against this backdrop locavore logic looks, the authors say, too foodie, protectionist and romantic.

The foodie fallacy is to assume that the answers to food-related problems must lie in the system. Farmers' markets and small grocery shops may enliven our gastronomic lives but, Desrochers and Shimizu remind us, food businesses don't have a monopoly on social capital. Spending less money and time on shopping and cooking leaves more for things such as community volunteering.

Local protectionism is a misguided way to achieve food security, they argue. The monocultures that make up the modern food system distribute risk across regions, and the associated division of labour has delivered financial means of risk-management, such as insurance and futures markets. By contrast, attempts at national self-sufficiency or autarky have fuelled imperialist expansion, whether in ancient Athens or twentieth-century Japan, as rulers have had to push their borders outwards to realize their ambitions.

To Desrochers and Shimizu, locavores are romantics who pine for a fictional yesteryear of 'natural' food and rustic idylls, whereas in fact, they say, shortening supply chains can push up costs, increase poverty and harm the environment. “If our agricultural past was so great,” they ask, “why were modern animal and plant breeds, long distance trade in food, and modern production and processing technologies developed in the first place?”

The book's strength lies in the cheerful ruthlessness with which the authors challenge sloppy thinking, special pleading and the lazy logic that assumes that 'local' must be 'best'. Many of its weak points are symptomatic of the genre: its critical gaze points one way only, so the authors indulge in their own share of caricature, selective evidence and overstatement.

The biggest failure is that the argument hinges on an economic history that gives the free market credit for every success but blames all problems on political meddling. Given that state intervention has produced notable successes, such as social programmes to reduce hunger, this is simplistic.

The effect is that the authors have little constructive to say about the role of politics in a world in which it inevitably mixes with markets. They fail to ask key questions. For instance, how much has public investment in transport infrastructure and agricultural research and development shaped the marketplace? And what if, rather than being ignorant of the thinking that an ever more specialized division of labour will yield ever greater health, wealth and happiness, locavores are actually challenging it?

For example, Desrochers and Shimizu celebrate the specialization in the food industry that has given us artificial sweeteners to fight type 2 diabetes. But that specialization has also given us abundant empty calories and poverty-wage work, which contribute to the incidence of diet-related diseases. Local food won't solve public-health problems, true, but the authors' critique leaves us no wiser or fitter. If, as they say, “the essence of progress is to create less significant problems than those that existed before”, should we just be thankful that we're fat rather than hungry?

The authors' confidence that the system works sits oddly against evidence that above a certain point, growth in gross domestic product is not correlated with improved well-being. At the core of progressive locavore thinking are efforts to address this by questioning the association between material consumption and prosperity, pushing use of renewable resources and reducing economic inequalities.

By hanging their argument on the advantages that we enjoy over our ancestors, Desrochers and Shimizu give us little more than an entertaining defence of business as usual. The UK government's unlocavorish Foresight unit, which advises on how to future-proof policy decisions, found last year that “nothing less is required than a redesign of the whole food system to bring sustainability to the fore”. Desrochers and Shimizu's prescription not to mess with the market seems a missed opportunity to say something altogether more imaginative and more useful. Locavores don't have a blueprint, but we should welcome the ingenuity and challenge that they bring to this urgent redesign.

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  1. Tom MacMillan is director of innovation at the Soil Association in Bristol, a UK charity that campaigns for planet-friendly food and farming.

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Correspondence to Tom MacMillan.

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