BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Locavore’s Dilemma’: Flaws Revealed in Attempts to Grow, Eat Locally

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Locavore's Dilemma': Flaws Revealed in Attempts to Grow, Eat Locally

What could be possibly wrong with the locavore movement, advocating “sustainable farming” and “eating local”? Plenty, say Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu in “The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet” (PublicAffairs, 288 pages, notes, index, $26.99).

Countering the views of Michael Pollan and others who want us to eat locally produced food, the Canadian husband-wife writing team of Desrochers and Shimizu describe  the flaws of locavorism  with a scrupulously-researched deconstruction of the “eat local” ethos — and how it distracts us from solving serious global food issues.

By the way, “locavore” was the word of the year for 2007 in the “Oxford American Dictionary”. It was the creation of Jessica Prentice of the San Francisco Bay Area at the time of World Environment Day, 2005.

Wikipedia defines a locavore as “… a person interested in eating food that is locally produced, not moved long distances to market.”
The locavore movement in the United States and elsewhere was spawned as interest in sustainability and eco-consciousness became more prevalent — forgetting that variants of locavorism have been tried and found seriously wanting.

After a thorough and rigorous review of the evidence, Desrochers and Shimizu conclude that claims that “sustainable farming” and “eating local” will solve a host of perceived problems with our modern food supply system are mistaken.

Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu

Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu

In “The Locavore’s Dilemma” they explain that the history, science, and economics of food supply reveal what locavores miss or misunderstand: the real environmental impacts of agricultural production; the drudgery of subsistence farming; and the essential role large-scale, industrial producers play in making food more available, varied, affordable, and nutritionally rich than ever before in history.

They show how eliminating agriculture subsidies and opening up international trade, not reducing food miles, is the real route to sustainability; and why eating globally, not only locally, is the way to save the planet.

Taken to its extremes, attempting to attain agricultural “self-sufficiency” or autarky in 1920s Italy under the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini resulted in  “converting a lot of the Italian landscape from profitable export crops such as fresh produce, citrus fruits and olives to grain production, resulting in a more monotonous and costlier diet for Italian consumers.” (page 127). In the 1930s, they write, Nazi ideology under Adolf Hitler promoted both agricultural autarky or self-sufficency “and Lebensraum — the required vital space of Eastern Europe from which inferior races were to be cleared and food produced to supply the German Fatherland.” Another dictatorship, the Soviet Union, practiced agricultural autarky until 1973 “when confronted with a severe domestic grain shortfall that forced them to open up to food imports from their main competitor” — the U.S. (also page 127).

In other words, autarky or locavorism has been tried and found to be a failure in a world of global trade. It’s the height of inefficiency to practice what amounts to medieval mercantilism when countries like Mexico, for instance, can supply mango lovers like me with cheap fruit of outstanding quality, thanks to modern transportation. I don’t know of any part of the U.S. that can produce mangoes or bananas or similar tropical produce as efficiently as the countries that currently supply American supermarkets.

A thought: I wonder if locavores extend their views to their choices of wine. I think not! I love a good German riesling, for instance, and I can find several brands competing for my dollar. Similarly, Australian and Chilean wines are also excellent choices, as are wines from California and Texas. Why limit yourself to what’s produced locally?

The authors point out that:

• Our modern food-supply chain is a superior alternative that has evolved through constant competition and ever-more-rigorous efficiency.

• A world food chain characterized by free trade and the absence of agricultural subsidies would deliver lower prices and more variety in a manner that is both economically and environmentally more sustainable.

• There is no need to feel guilty for not joining the locavores on their crusade. Eating globally, not only locally, is the way to save the planet.

Summing up, this is a book that everyone who has been tempted to promote locavorism should read. “No man is an island”, as English clergyman and poet John Donne (1572-1631) pointed out in “Meditation XVII” — and no country is a self-sufficient “island” either. The passage also includes the famous quotation: “And never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

About the authors
Pierre Desrochers is an associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto who writes frequently on economic development, globalization, energy, and transportation issues. He was a senior research fellow at Duke University Center for the History of Political Economy.
Hiroko Shimizu majored in Chinese history at Gakushin University and holds a master’s of public policy from the University of Osaka. Desrochers and Shimizu have both been research fellows of the Property and Environmental Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, and the Institute for Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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