Ever since researching Before the Lights Go Out, my book on energy in the United States, I've been a little skeptical of the locavore movement. Sure, farmer's markets are a nice way to spend a weekend morning, and a good way to connect with other people from my neighborhood. There are arguments to be made about creating local jobs and contributions to local economies. But I see some holes in the idea, as well—particularly if you expect eating local to go beyond a niche market or a special-occasion thing.
Think about economies of scale—the cost benefits you get for making and moving things in bulk. That works not only for cost (making non-local food often cheaper food), but it also works for energy use. It takes less energy for a factory to can green beans for half the country than it would take for us all to buy green beans and lovingly can them at home. When our energy comes from limited, polluting sources—that discrepancy matters. Plus, you have to think about places like Minnesota, where I live. In winter, local food here would require hothouse farming—something that is extremely unsustainable, as far as energy use is concerned.
Basically, I think there are benefits to local food. And I don't think the problems with local food mean we shouldn't change anything about our food system. But we have to acknowledge that the locavore thing isn't perfect, and maybe isn't as sustainable as we'd like it to be. That's why I like this Grist interview with Pierre Desrochers, a University of Toronto geography professor and author of The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet. Desrochers talks about some of the problems he sees with the sustainability of local eating and explains the nuance of his argument. It's not "local eating" vs. "change absolutely nothing, hooray for Monsanto!" And that's what makes it interesting, and important.
Q. Was there anything that surprised you as you got deeper into the issues?
A. I was surprised by the number of local food movements I discovered in the past, but I was not surprised to see that they all failed. There was a local food movement in the British empire in the 1920s. And it turns out that even the British empire was not big enough to have a successful local food movement. The first world war cut Germany off from the rest of the world, so they had to revert to local food. And of course people starved there, and they had a few bad crops, and all the problems that long-distance trade had solved came back with a vengeance.
Nobody would bother importing food from a distance if it did not have significant advantages over local food. [In the book] we talk about food miles, but I’m sure you’re familiar with the arguments — transportation is a tiny thing [in terms of climate impacts], and if you try to cut down on transportation, then you need to heat your greenhouse as opposed to having unheated greenhouses further south. Then your environmental footprint is actually more significant.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.