by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu
PublicAffairs, 2012, 288 pp., $26.99
s recently as a century and a half ago most humans lived as locavores, a new term with an old provenance, which means simply those who depend largely on food produced within a hundred miles of where they live. Today much of humanity in the poorest developing countries remain locavores, not by choice but necessity. Yet since the late 19th century, the food supply of the developed world has allowed victuals from faraway places to become regular parts of the daily table. In the developed countries and in elite circles elsewhere, processed and unprocessed fruits and vegetables, fish, meat and poultry are sourced from everywhere on earth.
This development has a long and rich history. The desire to consume food from afar is hardly new, especially among the affluent of any age. Ancient civilizations, from Egypt to Greece to Rome, regularly traded spices, oils and grains over thousands of miles in the Mediterranean-Asian cultural zone and along the Silk Road and maritime routes to India. Cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and turmeric made their way along these routes from the time of Christ until the 7th century, when the rise of Islam closed off the overland routes through Egypt and Suez. Arab traders took over much of this commerce via the Levant and Venice until the Ottoman Turks seized Constantinople in 1453. The so-called Age of Discovery, made necessary largely by the Ottoman overland trade blockade, opened a new way to trade that now linked New and Old Worlds, as well as far-flung destinations within the latter. As economic historians Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson observe in Globalization and History (1999), the invasion of Europe by North American grain in the late 19th century was in a sense the culmination of the European discovery of the New World in 1492, eventually increasing the potentially arable land attributable to each European by a factor of six.
In Nature’s Metropolis (1991), his study of the history of Chicago and its relationship to the hinterlands of the upper Midwest, William Cronon discusses the dramatic transformation of the food supply chain resulting from refrigerated rail transport and the rise of packaged pork and beef consumption in the 1870s. Gustavus F. Swift began butchering steers and selling them door to door on Cape Cod. In 1875, he moved to Chicago and began shipping beef carcasses hung in rail cars with boxes of ice and brine at each end, vented so as to maintain a uniform coolness even in summer. This technology was swiftly adopted by his competitor Philip Armour. By the 1880s, Swift was using 450,000 tons of ice a year, cut from lakes in Wisconsin and stored in packing houses on Chicago’s south side, a process Cronon described as “storing the winter.” Shipping mainly eastward, Swift maintained a chain of icing stations to replenish the cars on their way to market. Each ton of refrigerated beef required a ton of ice and 700 pounds of salt to make the journey.
By the 1890s, local consumption of meat due to fears of spoilage in transit was overcome by the fact that dressed beef was about 5–10 percent cheaper than the fresh local product. The reason: It did not require transporting the other parts of the steer, which accounted for 45 percent of total body weight. Cronon notes that the success of Swift, Armour and others eventually “brought the entire nation—and Great Britain as well—into Chicago’s hinterland.” The non-edible part of the steers generated additional industrial activities in Chicago, such as glue from hooves, leather from hides and fertilizers from bones and blood, consistent with positive externalities in industrial zones.
urther specialization and industrialization of food production since World War II resulted not only in increasingly globalized supply chains but a growing reaction against the entire system. So-called locavores have built their case on minimizing the number of miles food travels to the consumer (“food miles”) as a reaction to Food, Inc. and globalization. Most locavores believe that if we eat food sourced locally, we will not only be better off nutritionally and aesthetically but also far nobler global citizens by greatly lessening the carbon footprint involved in processing and transporting so much food. One noticeable development partly induced by this reaction has been a major growth of local farmers’ markets in American towns, cities and, especially, affluent suburbs, creating a system in parallel with the supermarket chains. This has clearly enlarged the domain of consumer choice, which advocates of consumer sovereignty should applaud. It also helps a lot of small-scale farmers, who now can sell to a bigger market directly, cutting out a host of middleman costs.
Even so, the case for extreme localism is based on some very dubious claims, and it is the purpose of The Locavore’s Dilemma to expose them. According to Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu, a geographer and an economist, respectively, who both now teach at the University of Toronto, local sourcing is neither necessary nor sufficient to provide adequate foodstuffs except in the poorest of subsistence cases. The Locavore’s Dilemma is in essence a detailed elaboration of this point, made by academics who know that shopping at a local farmer’s market on Saturday is as much an experience in pleasant (and conspicuous) consumption as it is a hard choice about food prices and nutrition. In the process, they show that you don’t have to love agribusiness and its lobbyists to be skeptical of many locavore claims.
In many respects, however, Desrochers and Shimizu’s petulant critique of the innocuous farmers and consumers who choose (at higher cost) to produce and buy locally detracts from their more general argument, reducing an otherwise well-researched and interesting exposition of food markets to a screed. For example, they generally overstate the threat of “coercion” posed by locavores, whose political and social influence is more or less that of birdwatchers (probably less). They write, “By forcing people to buy more expensive local food, locavorism impoverishes consumers who will then have less money to spend on other things, including locally produced goods and services.” Two things are wrong here. First, locavores aren’t forcing anybody to do anything. Second, the consumers who choose locavorism, by the authors’ own assertion, are not generally impoverished.
Desrochers and Shimizu find, on the one hand, that locavores reflect the tastes of the petty bourgeoisie, who demand local food at higher prices. But in general Desrochers and Shimizu celebrate the magic of the food marketplace. This suggests the wisdom of leaving ideology at the door and focusing on the facts, which they do reasonably well most of the time. Substantively, there is little question that local sourcing as an absolute prescription for eating is retrograde and ignores the upside of the extraordinary network of global food markets that has emerged over the past century.
The heart of the book is the section on “The basic problems with food miles”, where the authors show that the notion of “food miles” is indeed a silly indicator. They marshal a number of studies showing why the distance traveled by food fails to capture comparative advantage or the relative costs of diverse transportation modalities. Adam Smith wrote famously in 1776 about the absurdity of growing wine grapes in glass houses (we now call them greenhouses) in Scotland when wine could be bought from Iberia for a thirtieth of the price. Recent research replicates his findings in terms of carbon emissions. Spanish tomatoes require total emissions of 630 kilograms of carbon dioxide to be delivered to English markets compared to 2,394 kilograms for UK producers. Local sourcing does not necessarily entail the benign reductions in energy use that many locavores imagine, even if one factors in the energy used for the processing and packaging sometimes made necessary not by the distance food travels but the time it takes to travel without spoiling. As Desrochers and Shimizu point out, “A UK consumer driving six miles to buy Kenyan green beans emits more carbon dioxide per bean than does flying the vegetables from Kenya to the UK.”
Desrochers and Shimizu also score points on land use, noting that agricultural production has concentrated in areas most favorable to output, so that strict localism, if widely applied, would usually result in inevitable productivity losses, as well as more habitat destruction:
Turning our back on the global food supply chain, and, in the process, reducing the quantity of food produced in the most suitable locations will inevitably result in larger amounts of inferior land being put under cultivation, the outcome of which can only be less output and greater environmental damage.
Perhaps the best chapter is on food security. Ironically, most locavores imagine that local sourcing is the path to such security. Desrochers and Shimizu show why this is not true: Globalism allows food surpluses in one region to become stores for regions in deficit. An integrated global system is far more secure for most of the world’s inhabitants, a judgment made palpable by the fact that all recent famines have been man-made—the result of wars and distribution malfunctions—not the result of genuine mass scarcity. Their analysis of the Irish potato famines in this regard is particularly good.
By positioning themselves as radical contrasts to the Michael Pollan school of food consumption habits, however, Desrochers and Shimizu are likely to diminish the number of locavores who might actually listen to them. Without proof, we would submit that most locavores are intelligent but somewhat misguided, at least when it comes to the agricultural sciences and economics. (They might still have good and possibly more important political, cultural and personal reasons for advocating various locavore pursuits.) Had The Locavore’s Dilemma taken a more agreeable, less contentious tone, perhaps as “a guide for locavores in a global economy”, it might have expanded its readership beyond those already skeptical of locavore claims.