Locavores aren’t loved by everybody

 

In the last 20 years, the amount of locally grown foods consumed in the American diet has tripled, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it now comprises 2 percent of the food consumed in the country. As with anything thats popular, some have seen fit to attack this trend. Why do they do this? Do they find locavore talk of terroirpretentious and therefore annoying, or do they seriously believe, as some critics argue, that local food enthusiasts pose a threat to the planet? 

One frequent complaint is relatively minor and concerns the fraudulent claims made by some restaurants. Thanks to the farm-to-table movement, menus have become dense with information, as chefs detail the life histories of every ingredient in every dish. San Diego Magazine did some investigating and documented cases of straight-up menu fraud: Chefs will come look (at what were selling that day), write down notes, leave without buying anything, and then say theyre serving our food at their restaurants,said Tom Chino of Californias Chino Farms.

The main argument against the locavore movement, however, revolves around the purported energy savings of growing food locally. In The Locavores Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet, economists Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu argue that if everyone focused on local foods, agriculture would damage the environment even more than it already does. Their case rests on a widely circulated statistic: that local production adds up to a lot more food-related carbon emissions than the 5 percent accounted for by the transportation of food. Greenhouse tomatoes grown in the United Kingdom, for example, have been shown to produce three times the greenhouse gas emissions as tomatoes imported from Spain.

This criticism is not new. Stephen Budiansky wrote about it in a 2010 New York Times editorial, "Math Lessons for Locavores," and several books have made the same argument, including Just Food, An Economist Gets Lunch and Food Police. Their arguments, based on economic concepts such as efficiency, comparative advantage and the economics of scale, assume that all advantages and disadvantages of a given food chain can be accounted for. But is this true?

Taken to their logical extremes, the economics-based arguments would label almost all gardens as inefficient. Most gardeners would agree that it would be more efficient, and even cheaper, to spend a few extra hours at work and buy all their food than spend that time crawling through the dirt. But they choose to garden just the same. Quality of life is hard to quantify. 

An article published last summer by two economics professors, Anita Dancs and Helen Scharber, rebuts the efficiency arguments in the economistsown language. While California can grow a lot of produce, they point out, the economic calculations dont account for the states dwindling aquifer. Florida may also grow cheap tomatoes, but that economic efficiency doesnt account for the near-slavery conditions in which some of the workers toil. 

I cant believe that people are trying to argue that communities feeding themselves is a bad thing,says Josh Slotnick, a farmer in Missoula, Montana. Growing food in just a few places and shipping it around the world from there doesnt sound like efficiency.

Eating locally, he argues, makes you a better citizen. “Food is a medium for creating culture. Its a medium for people falling in love with their places. And when people love where they live, all kinds of great behavior follows, very little of which is economically rational. Its a red herring to say that, because the industrial food system is so efficient and its carbon footprint is so small, that its a good thing. Agribusiness isnt about making food and places better. It will make us better consumers, but not better people or better citizens.” 

Anyone whos raised chickens will surely concede that it is more efficient to buy eggs at the store. But try telling that to my 2-year-old, whose first words in the morning are get some eggs,as he stumbles toward the coop in his sagging diaper. Should I tell him how inefficient that notion is? Ill let you explain it to him, if it means that much to you. But I dont think its an argument youre going to win.

Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He writes about food and food politics in Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.