Interesting interview about the downsides of local food

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.

Read the rest of the interview on Grist


  1. It definitely does depend on where you live, and how many people there need work – or will accept the kind of work that mid-scale produce farming generates. If you’re in Northern California, sure, it’s perfect – the techniques scale, as the more than 350 mid-size farms and selling co-ops up and down the I-5 corridor prove. But in Minnesota, and maybe 40% of the united states, I agree with the author – it can’t scale, the labor isn’t there, and it won’t work for long except as a niche.

    1. Living in Northern California is awesome for all the great local(ish) produce. But you’re right, it’s really not something that works everywhere, and obviously, “everyone move to California (or similarly temperate, fertile areas) ” isn’t exactly a solution.

    2.  Northern California is a big place; it’s almost 4 hours just to get to I-5 from here. And our climate is less than perfect, as it’s almost impossible to grow any fruiting vegetables or fruit in our cave like ( 55 degrees year round)  temperatures. Chard and spinach grow great, but if we can get ripe tomatoes by the time the rains come in October we count our blessings. You might think that “Northern California” is ideal, but this Nor Cal resident knows otherwise.

    3.  In Cuba after the collapse of the USSR they lost their source of cheap fuel and subsidies the entire island had to convert to self sufficient organic farming. It was a difficult conversion (made more difficult by the embargo), but they figured out how to survive.

  2. I haven’t read all this yet but I suspect my thinking runs in the same general direction. I’m a 20 year vegetarian and take food just seriously enough to not want to put trash into my mouth but I am also a science type and as such know that there can be good food science and good mass production. It’s just that it’s all gone in the wrong direction – fucking profit mode like everything else.

    Indeed, folks should buy local AND know that industry is also necessary in the food chain BUT they should demand more from it and take it seriously. Mass produced crap food just makes companies rich and consumers fat and cranky. There’s no reason why we can’t have good, healthy mass produced food. I guess beans in a can is a pretty good example, but more processed foods don’t have to be junk either. 

    I eat Quorn products sparingly because I just can’t view it as a whole food kind of thing but I’m glad it’s there nonetheless.

    I think as far as the majority of food the food industry forces on us a good response is to quote J. Rotten – “do you ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

  3. Now, could that be used as an argument that living in Minnesota itself is less sustainable than living in a more temperate climate, due to the higher energy costs of the agriculture necessary to survive?

    1. The more temperate climes may not have the water needed to sustain large populations or agriculture. And if they do, deforesting them to make room for human use may make them dry up.

      1. But it really should be noted that that certain climates are substantially less sustainable than others, when we all have the same idea of what a city should look like and what conveniences it should have.

        Even if Masdar actually becomes a “zero energy” city, the ongoing embodied energy costs for materials and water management will make it less sustainable than many other, older cities with far less fancy technology.  

        You can live sustainably in many different climates, but you have to make sacrifices/change your expectations. So no glass-walled skyscrapers in the desert, for instance…

    2.  You do need to heat your house in the winter, but the local agriculture is really efficient at producing large quantities of grain and dairy products, and fishing is another option (if we don’t mess up the Great Lakes too badly.)   So if you’re a locavore, you’re going to spend the winter eating a lot of bread and cheese, and some meat, and long-storing vegetables like cabbage and onions, and going ice-fishing on the weekends.  And your ancestors are probably Scandinavian who moved south to Minnesota, so they taught you how to cook things that grow in a climate like that.   (Except for coffee, of course, which is an essential part of the Scandinavian diet that you’re not going to mess with just because of some silly ideas like locavorism.) 

  4. Read some Michael Shuman, Maggie. Or some Wendell Berry. Local food isn’t just about the carbon footprint, it’s about self-sustaining community-based economies. Locally spent dollars stay local, while dollars spent at the types of large businesses that would allow for hyper-efficient energy use/transport would filter to the top of a corporation located far outside the area where the food is grown. The reason this is important ecologically is: local communities protect local environmental interests. The frog does not pollute the pond from which it drinks. 

    Also- let’s do a bit of true cost evaluation here. Where I’m from, a farmer can sell me her product without having to provide excessive amounts of packaging. Your canned green beans may be more efficiently canned, but the can isn’t reusable like my ball jars are. And they hold VASTLY LESS. And they come with paper glued all over them, with branding that was developed on energy-sucking computers and printed on giant printing machines. So I think the local folks come out ahead on this one in more ways than one.

    1. It is pretty silly to buy local canned beans, though. The whole point of buying local is for freshness.

      1.  Not entirely. I always hate it when people include hothouse farming in their anti-locavore argument — preserving food to eat off-season by freezing, canning, drying etc. is totally locavore and doesn’t involve any greenhouses.

        Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle does a nice job of getting into the details of preserving local food for off-season eating.

      2. Read it again Eggy – “reusable like my bell jars are” means home canned not local canned.

          1. Her preserves always give me gas.

            She’d have been 80 this year. That’s kind of freaky.

      3. Exactly. I rarely see canned local food. It’s usually fresh, and indeed small scale. The small scale of the thing is one of the major reasons to choose local foods. It’s exactly the large scale industrial stuff that leads to excesses, and most importantly, requires lots of transportation.

        Of course not everything works well locally. Some things (canned foods, presumably) work better large scale. That doesn’t invalidate local food in any way, it just means you’ve got to keep thinking.

        By the way “Northern California” is not local. My country is much smaller than northern California, and I try to get food that is really from my area, and not the other side of the country. (Though from the other side of the country is still better than the other side of the world. If it’s non-industrial, at least.)

    2. Dollars don’t magically filter anywhere by themselves according to some law of physics. They are grabbed from the top where they do not get recycled.

      1. If you buy a hammer at a mom and pop hardware store, the majority of those dollars will get respent at other businesses in your community or collected as tax by your local government. The mom and pop owner might be leasing land from a local owner, getting various insurances from a local branch, banking locally, in additional to spending whatever the upper management and owners of the business actually take in as income locally (homes, etc…).

        Whereas if you spend the money at a store owned by an out of state or out of country company, the only money that sticks around is the percentage of total sales that is embodied in employee earnings at the location and some limited local taxation (companies pay most of their taxes to the locality that their headquarters is in).IIRC the average difference is about 4 to 1. 

    3.  – RE “filter[ing] to the top of a corporation”: Industrialization and globalization are not the same thing as inflationary capitalism; if there’s truly no viable framework for sustainable, pro-horizontal economic coordination among distant markets, our civilization’s survival prospects for the next century go from shaky to practically nonexistent. Unfortunately, we’ve created planet-sized problems that require planet-sized survival strategies, and wanting self-sustaining community economies doesn’t make them generally possible.

       – Nothing you argue pertains uniquely to food, firstly in the sense that all of your stated points are reasons to prefer locally buying any possible products. I can’t see any reason to arbitrarily limit their scope, other than an unwillingness to follow through past a certain point in terms of lifestyle and comfort. Moreover, you ignored the problems with food localism that are actually specific to food  – the ones that all boil down to the threat of starvation. Sedentary life without an industrial food surplus is really not that fun, especially when probably-unstoppable climate shift and global freshwater scarcity will make seasonal variations and weather patterns wildly unreliable – in many or most regions, not just Bangladesh and the Sahel.

      These are concrete, salient issues, not blue-sky “put your white paper in that stack with the others” abstract arguments. At this point in history, the stakes are too high, imminent, and universal for any of us to settle for thinking inside a stable comfort zone.

      1. I agree that the stakes are too high to allow for mistakes, such as the solution you propose. Planet-sized survival strategies are the problem, not the solution. Planet-sized problems paired with planet-sized solutions can result in planet-sized mistakes: monocultures, soil depletion, large-scale corruption. The reason we got to this point in the first place has everything to do with abusing our local resources beyond their limits. Continuing to cut corners in order to pursue excessive growth is not a strategy for anything but eventual burnout. You can let efficiency be your crutch, until you’ve cut so many corners that you’re left with nothing. If you’re driving toward Canada but want to go to Mexico, slowing down isn’t going to help. You have to turn around. 
        Nature doesn’t offer universal solutions. If you think otherwise, you are making yourself eligible to be outsmarted. There is a viable framework, which is why I recommend reading Shuman.

  5. In the rest of the interview, he acknowledges that fuel-efficiency is a small part of why most people are into local food, but then basically dismisses the rest of the reasons as bourgeois.

    A big part of my interest in local food is supporting local businesses.  A bunch of local restaurants went out of business in my town when the economy slowed down, and that made me want to support them.  They also served more local food, and often healthier food in more reasonable portions.

    More than anything, I felt like I’d fallen into an unhealthy rut — being overweight, driving everywhere, eating high-calorie overprocessed crap from the same national chains everywhere I went.  And it made me want to find something new, bike/walk more often, eat better, and look for interesting local options.  And I’ve generally been happy with the results.  I drive long-distance a couple times a year to visit family, and generally try to lookup local independent restaurants on UrbanSpoon, and have found tons of great places that way.

    I’m not an activist or a zealot about local food — there are lots of imported foods I like a lot.  And some foods (peas are an example that come to mind) are a lot better frozen and shipped.  But I think it makes sense to enjoy and promote the food production where you live.

  6. Not to mention… the farmer I buy from probably cares a great deal about her land, and seeks to protect and preserve it. The same can scarcely be said for a large corporate holding concerned only with profits in dollars. 

    1. Objection! Assumes facts not in evidence.

      Your local farmer *might* be taking care of the land for the long-term. Or might be trying to maximize short-term profits, and sell the farm to a developer five years down the road. You know enough to tell the difference?

      1. You obviously know next to nothing about farming, or rural land development. There are no profits to be made in this way. And yes I know enough to tell the difference, because I actually KNOW the farmer I buy from, and the FACTS are as such: she does it because she believes in it.

        1. I’m sorry; I’d have replied sooner but I was too busy helping make lunch at the family farm.

          The same farm that is bordered on one side by a failing development project. The same farm where our travelling supplies salesman told us he was losing a farm per week off his delivery route as people sold out and in most cases walked away with a million or more. The same farm where we’ve seen our neighbours go “organic,” and then watched the pesticide truck roll onto the fields.

          But hey, I’m glad we have you to explain how things REALLY are. And full points to the farmer you buy from: She clearly knows exactly what story will get the most money out of idiots like you.

  7. [quote]The reason this is important ecologically is: local communities protect local environmental interests. The frog does not pollute the pond from which it drinks. [/quote]

    This is a nice sentiment, but it is going to need a citation.  While there are a lot of eco minded farmers who care deeply about the environment, there’s nothing that insures that all local farmers are like that.  A sad fact is that if ecologically sound practices are uneconomical, then farmers either have to stop doing them or get out-competed by their neighbors and put out of business.  “Organic” and “sustainably farmed” are not synonyms either. 

    You can’t put a sticker on the product for everything either.  A “Farmed with ecologically sustainable water practices” sticker is not going to convince enough people to pay an extra $1 per apple in the long run I don’t think.

    1. Compare anything local farmers can do with the kind of ecological devastation caused by standard practices in industrial agriculture.  I’ll wait if you have to do some reading.

      1. While likely true in the general, this is certainly not a universal. If your only criterion is whether a farm is a family-owned or an industrial one, you’re failing hard.

    2.  Funny you should mention ecologically sustainable water practices.  I’m currently eating rice, which was probably grown here in California on land that’s supposed to be a desert, fed by a canal/dam system that not only provides irrigation and flood control, but also causes a lot of habitat destruction by breaking up the natural stream systems.

  8. I have a micro farm on my .14 acres of land. I do tend to eat things produced by myself, local friends and acquaintances who are also homegrown fans. Having said that, I am first a scientist and therefore (I hope) a practical person. I buy my flour and sugar at the market. I buy taco shells, pre-grated cheese and even loaves of bread once in a while (gasp!).

    I have found that the old chestnut of “moderation in all things”, is a lovely and stress-preventive motto to live by. Also, it helped me to get where I am today. I started with one zucchini plant 10 years ago. If I had even considered having chickens and canning pasta sauce then, I most likely would have given up. 

  9. There are economies of scale in food safety, too. In a large processing plant they have safety procedures along the way. Small farmers, no matter how well-intentioned they are, don’t have the knowledge and the capacity to have safety measures at every step of the way.

    As supermarket chain owner Galen Weston remarked, “Farmers markets are great. One day they’re going to kill some people though.” Hippy heads exploded across the country.

    I’m not sure I agree! I guess I’m a localvore, even though I don’t seem to fit into the upper-class hipster stereotype that buys into it as a philosophy – it’s just a slightly cheaper and more varied diet if I buy from locals. Even in the grim Ontario winter, I get by on root veggies I hadn’t heard of until I started hanging out with the upper class hipster-farmers.

    My job at a food distributor a few years back didn’t make me any more trusting of the supply chain. Many workers are temps, often illegally in the country and didn’t have much interest in keeping the place clean. Smashing up pallets was common. Rats and bugs were a problem, air quality was a problem, and for several months we worked without a custodian. It got worse after the 2008 financial crisis, when the company stock pirces dropped even though sales were steady. And this was a natural/organic food warehouse. Never did see an inspector in the year I lasted there.

    Anyways, I’ll certainly agree that factories are necessary for large-scale food production, and it’s not like I’ll ever be totally localvore (where would I get my durians?), but I really have a hard time swallowing some of his assertions, like this one. In an era of deregulation and inspection agency cutbacks, plummeting stock prices and vast pools of cheap labour, I don’t see much pressure on industries to play it safe; quite the opposite.

    1. I, too, have a hard time with the assertion that economies of scale are better for food safety. Economies of scale and processed food are nearly synonymous, and if I’m not mistaken it tends to be processed food — even lightly processed food, like ground beef or trimmed, pre-washed spinach — where safety problems crop up most often.
      That said,  I will readily admit that I don’t have any statistics at hand. Perhaps I just notice problems with processed food because it strikes on a larger scale and makes headlines. Maybe if a small farmer sells something tainted, only a couple of people get sick and the health department never notices. I don’t know.

      As for Galen Weston, I don’t really think he had a good point with his remark. Processed food purchased at the supermarket or fast-food restaurant provably gets some people killed every year.

      1. We actually have plenty of evidence that the food safety claim is, at the very least, highly suspect. Remember the Salmonella spinach recall of 2012? 16 states affected. Good luck finding a farmer’s market that has that sort of reach. Further adding to the confusion is the fact that the product is frequently marketed under multiple brand names.

        How’bout the E. coli spinach recall of 2006? 26 states with illness cases. Failures at large facilities are more rare in absolute terms, but the comparison is nonsensical. First of all, there simply isn’t room for too many such massive producers and second, each of these large-scale failures has the potential to impact far, *far* more people than any small farm ever could.I’ve run into this attitude in food safety before: No, smallholder farms won’t have the sophisticated lab facilities or foolproof access control procedures in place — but in many cases, having such makes no sense whatsoever a small operation. Do you think a farm with a total of 8 employees really requires keycards and managerial sign-offs on chemical storage?

  10. The other advantage not mentioned in the blurb (but may be in the larger book) is food variety. I grew up in Minnesota and if you ate locally, you’d generally be stuck eating corn for every meal. As it is, I can find artichokes for cheap in the local store, even though they’re basically only grown in California in the US.

    However, the other advantage to doing a mix is that you can see a real cost savings. When blackberries are in season, they’re very cheap. Same with asparagus, corn, and so on. If you want to eat blackberries in December, they’re going to cost more, and they’re usually from somewhere far away and they’re not going to taste very strongly. However, when the prices drop on fresh produce, that means it’s in season somewhere and there’s a surplus and you should buy it, not only because it’s cheap but because it’ll probably taste better. It doesn’t matter if it’s in season 100 miles away or 1000 miles away, as long as your local market stocks it, because food isn’t grown in one place only — there’s tons of farmers growing the same food in a region.

    But big corporations have the same amount of interest interest in preserving their land because it’s an asset for them. If they screw up their land, they need to buy new land or spend more on fertilizer. Big food corporations don’t work in some fantasy land that ignores the normal growing conventions implemented by every farmer. You rotate crops based on what you can sell for the most money that will work with your soil and land based on future planting schedules. It’s no different from how the paper industry went from being villainous to being sustainable, because they realized it’s cheaper to buy a few relatively small plots of land and grow their own trees than it is to constantly buy new land.

    1.  But big corporations have the same amount of interest interest in preserving their land because it’s an asset for them

      Sort of like how the bank that owns the abandoned house on my block has just as much interest in maintaining it as the family that used to live there.  I mean, it’s the bank’s asset!  If they let it get all rotten and broken-windowed, then they’d have to buy a new house, wouldn’t they?

      Try to remember: corporations are people.  And not just people, but good, responsible people who have the same interests, concerns, and goals as you.  Only better.

    2.  Big corporations do not feel tied to a particular plot of land the way a small multi-generational farmer might. If it is cheaper to over-fertilize instead of rotating crops, or to not have any ground cover outside the growing season and slowly erode all the soil before moving on, they will happily do so.

  11. I think Eric has a great point, some parts of the country have higher resource costs per person ie: too cold, too hot, too dry. But,  if  local food is important enough people will figure out better solutions to some of the problems without relying on profit hungry corporations for a solution. It is called local culture.

    1. “It” being the magical faculty for producing a stable food surplus that exceeds what an environment is physically capable of yielding?

  12. Yeah, Isn’t a big part of locavoration to eat what is in season locally?  and not nessecarily eat 100% local all year long?

    I think its a bit of a straw man to suggest folks are advocating locally grown fresh tomatoes and bananas in Minnesota in January.

    What about the local tomato in august, rather than the California tomato at the same time?

    1. I would add on the Germany starvation thing…   Yes local crop failures can cause local famine when all food is local and there is no option, but couldn’t global fuel prices cause local famine when almost no food is local?

  13. Is it anti-local day or something? I just got done reading another article about this, and I’m sensing some kind of meme floating in the intellectual atmosphere.

    On a personal level, I refute all anti-locavore assumptions, based on my own eating habits and lifestyle. I am a small-scale farmer, and in terms of vegetables, meats, dairy, and eggs, I eat almost 100% of these foods from my own land land. The main food I do not produce at this time is grain, and therefore bread, pasta; carbs basically. But I will pursue growing my own grain very soon. My wife and I also provide our customers a whole lot of organically grown, sustainable local  food.

    I live on 39 acres, and 12 or so are tillable. I believe that small farmers like myself could easily produce enough food to feed at least 30 people a full diet, more likely 100 people. No I don’t have algorithms or case studies to support this assumption, I just have an educated perspective on it.

    So right now we have around 310 million people living in the USA, and about 1 million claim they farm, yet there are over 2 million farms, according to the census. So if we recreate the paradigm of food production and employ over 3 million farmers on small acreages to feed 100 people each, we could create a truly local food economy.

    There are some things that can be gained by the mass production  and huge shipping costs of food, but I would say that any current preference to commodity goods  can be discarded in deference to the fresh flavor trump card , and we would all be healthier happier people with a relationship with our farmers and food. Locavores can be anybody, not just the elite middle class.

    1. But here’s the central question: how are farmers like you going to feed Chicago?  There are three million people in this city, requiring between six and ten billion calories per day (plus all the commuters for lunch!).  How are those economies of scale working out in the farmers’ markets?

      Or, heck, how are you going to feed Providence, or Boston, or New York?  How many hours away can a fleet of trucks drive before the food is no longer actually “local”?  You shouldn’t confuse small-farm production with local-farm production.

      Going localvore is all well and good for people with access to land, but the farmers’ markets around here are luxury splurges, not dietary staples.  The fruits and veggies bought at the stand are double or triple what I pay at the supermarket, and I’d go bankrupt if I wanted to eat meat once a day.

      Finally the “fresh flavor trump card” is quintessential upper-crust thinking. When a mere aesthetic appeal overrides your cost controls, you’re thinking like a comfortable upper-middle-class pedestrian, not an impoverished family storing pennies for school books.

        1. I know right, false dilemmas seem to be growing in abundance here. Surely urban communities and individuals can offset some of the need to import food from long distances or from unscrupulous big ag companies. I don’t see why it has to be either/or..

          1. Straw-man vs straw-man in a pointless battle to the death.   Is local food Jesus reborn as a cure to all corporate and global warming issues or an environmental nightmare created by rich self-important socialists.

            The most time wasted discussing farmers markets since the beginning of time….

          2. I agree.  Both of my parents were raised on farms.  +75% of what they ate came from the farm, or friends/family.  Tomatoes in the winter didn’t come from Mexico…they can from a jar they canned that summer.  Same for green beans.  Potatoes keep well in the cool, so those were available most of the winter.  Dried beans were always in season…  Obviously the scales of economy work great of things that keep well, like flour and sugar (and they obviously bought those staples as needed.)

            Sure I eat salads in the winter, but frankly part of making things more sustainable is about shifting people’s perception of available food.

        2. I said nothing about all-or-nothing, in much the same way the authors of this book are not advocating all-or-nothing.  In fact, they specifically say in the interview that local farmers should produce high-quality local food fit for the regional environment, then trade it around the country for food not well-suited for local production.  Sounds like a great idea to me.  The only all-or-nothing arguments I’m seeing are coming from Team Local, especially via “So if we recreate the paradigm of food production and employ over 3 million farmers on small acreages to feed 100 people each, we could create a truly local food economy.”

          1.  So what’s wrong with that exactly? Would you rather people be employed by McDonalds or Starbucks? Do you really think people are happy there? That’s what I’m getting at, people need to be nourished not only by their food, but by their life, their jobs. Every corporate job, when you’re low on the totem pole and are not in charge of anything whatsoever, sucks. How about people gainfully employed in a self-reliant way? I would love to see hundreds of thousands of people growing food for the millions of people here in this country, and actually making a living. What, pray tell, is wrong with that? I think you’re jealous.

          2. “Would you rather be employed by McDonalds or Starbucks?”
            I’m going to guess you’ve never harvested produce by hand for a living. I know a lot of people who would very much rather work for Starbucks than do farm work (a handful of them actually do farm work now). Plus, farm work is seasonal, so you’d have X million farm workers unemployed for several months per year.
            Try not to project your idyllic rural farm fantasy on other people. We have our own fantasies, thanks.

          3. I suppose if you skip the titles and first paragraph the article does seem to take a fair two sided position… But if you do it just reads like they make sensationalist contrarian headlines and then fail to back them up when the dragon turns out to be a windmill.

          4. Well, Mr. French, I don’t think “recreating the food paradigm” is a rational place to start, for all the reasons I’ve outlined already.  And I think, given the farm labor shortage down south, Starbucks and McDonalds are pretty darn appealing to most people when compared to picking crops.

            I get that you’re on a mission to recreate the world.  But I don’t think you can build sensible, sustainable, efficient feeding systems on hope and dreams.  Your position seems to lack practical application, which is why I’m so very skeptical of it.

      1.  Well I would suggest getting a small chest freezer and buying a half a pig or cow. Then you achieve micro-economics of scale, but then you have to use all the parts of an animals, rather then simply those bits you like.
        Let me assure, I am not upper-middle-class pedestrian, nor am I even well-educated, i.e. indoctrinated. I am simply an auto-didactic dirt farmer who knows a little bit more then you about how to feed myself.

        I’m not saying I can feed Chicago, I’m saying thousands of small-scale farmers can feed Chicago, and millions can feed America. If you farm bio-intensively, you can grow way more food per acre then any mechanized vegetable production farm. It’s a matter of scale. You’ve heard of that word, right?

        I would also like to address Maggie’s and others ill-informed assertions that the only vegetables to eat in the colder months here in the Midwest are grown in fueled hot houses ( I am originally from Minneapolis, now I am a happy Wisconsinite).  Let’s address Fall first. By utilizing succession planting, I can have new radishes, greens, bok choy, spinach, and other cold tolerant plants harvestable and fresh in Sep-Oct. There are alot of plants that actually like a little coolness, and dislike the hot days of summer. Not to mention all the fall goodness like potatoes, pumpkins, corn, squash, the last tomatoes, etc. You can then overwinter a lot of greens in a low tunnels in the hoophouse, and also some roots like carrots can stay right in the ground over the winter as well. In the spring I have a hoophouse (plastic covered, not heated) that I can start growing in by about late March I also can have spinach, onions, and kale growing by April from last years plantings. So really what we are talking about is how we can’t eat our favorite tropical plant fruits in the winter.

        Hey, I’m just saying this is all possible. Factory farming is young, headstrong, and stupid , and relies 100% on shipped in petroleum based inputs, and would not survive outside of a government subsidized playpen.

        1. The localvore solution to a meat-friendly diet is to become an amateur butcher and to change my tastes in food?  Sounds delightful.  I can really see this catching on.  And by the way, where am I going to stick my meat freezer inside my 700-square-foot apartment?  Where will my neighbor fit his inside his 300-square-foot studio next door?

          If a small-scale farmer requires 40 acres to feed 100 people (as you proposed), we’d require 1.2 million acres of farmland within a distance of Chicago that could honestly be called “local.”  I don’t know about you, but I cut off “local” Chicago somewhere between Barrington and Woodstock, so call it a 50-mile radius.  I’ve got to find 1,800 square miles of farmland inside a 3,900 square-mile semicircle (because we’re up against Lake Michigan), and then convince 30,000 “teams” of farmers (how many farmers are required to work that 40-acre farm to produce food for 100 people?) to find gainful employment on my community of farms.  Then logistics, distribution, et cetera.  And that’s just the city proper – what do we do about all the surrounding communities?  There are hundreds of them, with millions of residents.  Where are we going to pack all this local food production without radically changing the definition of “local”?

          Look, this isn’t a criticism of small-scale farming as it exists, nor a claim that local farming has no place in food production.  Clearly it does.  But the idea that we ought to entirely restructure American civilization in an effort to introduce small-scale farming as some sort of moral duty is clearly fraught with unaddressed challenges, especially when we think about the complications posed by cities significantly less well-suited for farming enterprises than Chicago (I mean, we’re practically swimming in farmland out here).  It’s even more challenging when we stop pretending that everyone in America can just stick food in some cupboard in their house or buy a storage freezer.  I just don’t buy the feasibility of this solution.

          1.  You protesteth without merit. I have a customer who lives in a apartment who bought a small freezer who just bought 12 of our 9 pound chickens from us. She is doing just fine buying our vegetables and meat, and she is using vermicompost in her apartment to compost her food waste, as well as growing mushrooms in her laundry room. I speaketh not of moral duty, only the realities of life. Hell, if you think the big City has to be fed by big corporations, enjoy that thought.

          2. I think you are missing French’s point to some degree.  It’s not just about producing what we all can currently buy in the grocery stores.  It is about producing what is somewhat more viable given regional constraints.  If you really want a fresh tomato in the middle of winter you are going to have to grow it in a hot house environment…or ship it from Mexico (or at least some of the border states).  Even with an army of “local” farmers you don’t really need everyone of them to provide everything you eat everyday.  Lots of staples, like flour and sugar, make sense to grow in specific regions and ship all over.  They have great shelf lives and from a resource standpoint are consuming less by shipping than trying to grow sugar in somewhere like Maine.  So “locally” produced baked products don’t really have to be produced from locally grown flour or sugar… 

          3. It’s not just about producing what we all can currently buy in the grocery stores.

            It’s like trying to make vegetables pretend to be meat, or non-alcoholic beer.

          4. bcsizemo, you make an excellent point and an astute observation.  It also happens to be the position mirrored in the linked interview that is the subject of the thread, and the position rebutted by French.

            French, I don’t know about your customer, but my landlord doesn’t allow large appliances in the apartment.  And wait, your customer has an apartment with a laundry room?  In 700 square feet?  Lucky duck. Bring your model to Chicago, we’ll see how well people are fed by it.

          5. The rule of thumb for a “local” diet is a hundred miles (if the slogan is to be believed).  Within that hundred miles, there are 20.1M acres.  It doesn’t seem so infeasible to find 1.2M acres of farmland within that boundary.

            And “but what about the outlying communities” doesn’t wash either. By your numbers, Illinois (population 13M) could be fed by 5.2M acres out of its 37M acres (14% of its land).

            Where are we going to find all the people to work those 5M acres?  Well, Illinois has a half million unemployed people right now.  That’s not too far afield of the numbers you need.

          6. Bryce, Chicagoland has 10 million residents sitting in 6,400 square kilometers of land, 5,500 of which is the actual city of Chicago.  10 million residents require 1,600 square kilometers of farmland, of which there is only (at best) 900 square kilometers, assuming we’re allowed to level houses, dig up roads, fill lakes and rivers, and then put farms on it all.

            Of course, we already *have* all that space, but we call it “the rest of Illinois” which is not “local” to Chicago per your definition.  And incidentally, this seems to be the position taken by the authors of this book.

            And this math problem isn’t unique to Chicago: it’s worse in New York or Boston, with significantly less available empty space around the cities ripe for growing crops because that space is currently occupied by *other towns*.  But there’s already a solution to those problems: non-local food sources.

      2. Providence is a great place for eating locally grown crops, especially this time of year. There are a number of small farms and community gardens in the city, and dozens of small farms in the surrounding area.

        See here:
        Of course this doesn’t show that all food could/should be sourced locally, but are there really enough people claiming that to make that argument the target of your book?

  14. The things he talks about with importing food- and about bad crops and famines- is really very interesting. There’s an argument (made in a giant and extraordinarily dry book called The Corrupting Sea, iirc) that the food trade- and more importantly, the ability to import/export food- is what lead to the rise, development, and relative sustainability of the many, many, many civilizations that popped up in the Mediterranean in antiquity. It created enough of a margin of food security (at the macro-level) that cities and such were able to grow and thrive, because they didn’t face collapse everything their (local) crops failed. One of the other arguments, of course (and I’m really fuzzy on this, so I may be misremembering) was that the fall of the Roman Empire had a lot to do with crumbling infrastructure (and some desertification, and war and such) that made it hard to import the necessary food to keep complexity, and everything started devolving back towards small little farms and kind of proto-feudal set ups.

  15. In the U.K. the farmers usually live within a 50 mile radius of the market site. They are generally cheaper than the supermarkets and offer more diverse products. Free range wild boar and venison, for instance. Oh, and veggies and eggs and all that other stuff.

    1. You seem to be a tad confused about either the meaning of “farmer” or the meaning of “wild.”

  16. I’m not sure I agree with your assertion that hothouse farming is unsustainable.  There’s is excellent farm here in Maine that is growing outstanding tomatoes, which are widely distributed around the State.

    1. Why don’t they just grow more haggis trees?

      Potatoes and kale has become a regular winter/spring meal at my house too, since we started with the farmers’ markets and food shares. IT’S DELICIOUS.

      1. Yeah, I’m wondering if the intent was to sound unappealing.  My kale just all went to seed.  It overwintered before that, and my housemates were eating it every day by choice (there was plenty of other food available, but the garden kale was so tasty that they preferred it).  I’d be perfectly having kale be a primary component of my diet (assuming I can pack calories in from elsewhere).

  17. All you “skeptical” types should compare this situation to the Big Oil/AGW situation.  Monsanto has a PR department that they probably pump tens or hundreds of millions of dollars into every year.  Some local farmers might have a blog.

    1. Not every contrarian is a corporatist. Some are just assholes. Some are future corporatists.

  18. i think the point is that it’s NOT all or nothing.  we live in a time when we can get local food, and still buy oranges.  so cool.  i will continue to be an advocate for buying local, supporting local agriculture and savoring local flavors when i travel.  and i will continue to buy oranges in the winter from time to time.  this article was informative, but didn’t change anything in my mind.

  19. It often makes economic and ecological sense for me to eat local produce, local meat, and in some cases local dairy. Looks at how much cheaper most CSA shares are than going to the supermarket. What you give up in return is control over what you eat, when.
     It almost never makes sense for me  eat local grains. Or to eat fresh local food off-season or in winter. In those cases, it becomes a calculation game: is it better to can the string beans myself in summer, or buy them from California in winter? Frankly, by the time I’ve gotten to the point where that’s the biggest ecological problem I’m trying to solve, I’ve already done a really, really good job and I’d probably be better served spending my time to help other people do what I’ve already done, rather than trying to go further myself.

  20. You’d think there were no such thing as winter vegetables. No, eating local food in the winter in Minnesota does not require hothouse farming. What it requires is a root cellar.

    Now, you may not find that appealing, but then we’re outside of the realm of the word “require.”

  21. Food safety: a small local farmer eats his own produce. It’s all she/he can afford. (Ask a small farmer about farming, they’ll tell you the money sucks, but you eat great.) A guy with 4,000 acres of soy and corn doesn’t eat his own produce.

    Carbon footprint: There are passive-solar (or low-tech active) greenhouses (or even Elliot Coleman’s unheated greenhouses he runs all winter in Maine). You’ve even got Ag Depts that will supply you with plans. 

    Economies of scale: That’s not an automatic argument. How do the (externalized) costs scale? A pastured cow helpfully fertilizes the pasture. CAFO cows emits toxic waste (they’re not supposed to eat that much grain) that must be “treated” and “disposed” of.

    1. I think you missed the point. It’s not ” one cow in a field ” vs a 5000 cow CAFO.
      That treated manure becomes the fertilizer you buy at the garden shop, a pretty good system. Or becomes fuel for a bio generator. Not that I am for mega dairys, but one cow in a field is pretty inefficient . There is a middle ground.
      YOu also don’t much understand cow manure, because if you ever saw cow pies, they pretty much kill the grass. Fresh cow manure is a poor fertilizer.

      I also agree that as far as dairy safety goes, give me the regulated inspected milk over the backyard milker . Just because it’s raw doesn’t mean it’s safe. It doesn’t pay for the backyard milker to be inspected and have the milk regularly tested, but the large raw milk dairys follow rules and produce clean milk. That’s where local is definitely not better, unless the clean inspected dairy is local to you.

      1. Dude, I’ve raised cows. I know cow poop intimately. A grain fed cow’s poop might kill grass (it runs very acidic). Not a grass fed cow. Flatten it out (so flies don’t breed in it) and a couple months later, the grass it thicker and deeper and greener. 

        And a backyard milker is going to feed it to his family his milk. That’s some pretty thorough testing. (You thought milk contamination came from the cow??)

        1. Don’t forget that higher stomach acidity (as caused by corn-based feeds) also produces a more receptive environment for E. coli.

  22. Isn’t the solution to make the extrinsic costs intrinsic (i.e. make them pay for dumping CO2 into the atmosphere, etc)?  That, along with making the seller give honest data on the important things means you just buy the cheapest product that meets your needs.

  23. The argument I’ve heard is, people have gotten used to having access to various foods out of season, and aren’t willing to change their eating habits drastically. So, even if strawberries are out of season, people will demand ‘local strawberries’ rather than forgo them; and to meet that demand, local growers will use imported fertilizers and exotic growing methods which end up having a greater environmental impact than just shipping in non-local strawberries.

  24. I live on Maui, Hawaii and we import approximately 90% of all food here.  There is a growing local farm biz and I strongly support that for many reasons.  The biggest is survival… if for some reason shipping stopped (strike, natural disaster, war, etc) we have at most 5 days of food for the island.  Local war/riots start by day 3. 
    Beyond that, all our imports have to include costs (monetary, carbon, pollution) of shipping.
    And then there is the basic health costs of processed foods.  Desrochers and Shimizu only address the direct costs of food production, maybe a bit on shipping.  The indirect health costs – including those from the pesticides/herbicides produced/used to grow those crops – are ignored.
    Local food is NOT a niche market for the upper crust here.  It is an essential part of society. … and was for many hundreds of years before processed foods became the rule.  With the demise of large plantation mono-crop industry here, there are large areas of land that could be reused for local food production.  Perhaps. There are still economies and toxic waste issues … and business ones. The inter-island shipping company is (or was) owned by the same parent as the vast majority of farmland.  They have a vested interest in imports vs local production.

  25. By all means cast a critical eye, but don’t miss important facts and the systems perspective. Germany’s 1914-1916 food program suffered from nitrogen deficiencies as both pasture animals and synthesized fertilizer were diverted to the war. Don’t forget that Oppau BASF plant would explode after the war. Also, the “efficiency” of industrial food production cannot be separated from the ecological base or the pollution loading – soil depletion, watershed sedimentation and eutrophication, nearshore fisheries collapses are all the result of the “industrial optimization” of food production. From “Sea to Shining Sea” we’ve created networks of dependence that centralizes “Cowschwitz” in California, hog manure spills in the Carolinas, and hypoxia in the Gulf so that we can pave over soils that are seasonally unproductive for more of the year and plant more hungry mouths. Efficiency is a poor navigator.

  26. I think it’s all a moot point.  For now most people aren’t going to change to local food.  When the oil runs out, or becomes clearly limited, behavior will change.  I hope we save some oil for important things, rather than use it all up till it’s too late.  In the mean time, I do eat local, because I believe the food is better for me, and better for my local economy.  It means I have to eat different things than I might like.  For instance, there are no local onions right now, but I do fine with green onions and young garlic.  And the only fruit I could buy this week was raspberries and they were so expensive I didn’t buy many.  Come winter I will go back to buying about %50 local, and buy my California produce.  I’m no saint, and I hate canning.  I can get through till January on local produce though.  I also like how it is changing my cooking and influencing my diet.  I know that it is a bit of a luxury, on the other hand I save a lot of money by buying cheap cuts of meat, and ingredients which turn out to be much cheaper than products.

    1. Following the logic of peak oil, we’ll probably always have oil available for the important things; it’s just going to cost a lot more and it can’t be the backbone of our transportation system. For example, plastics are very important to cleanliness in medicine. We’ll probably be able to support that past the point where people can’t afford to drive cars with combustion engines powered by fossil fuels. The question is whether the economy can support that.

      1.  Don’t forget that the Canadian Oil Sands have far more oil in them than the Middle East – and we’re friendly….

        1.  I realize there are alternatives to liquid crude from the middle east, but the oil sands fall into the category of “oil that is able to be claimed, but not as cheap”. Whether it is cheap enough to sustain the transportation sector is a question for an economist. I don’t know, but things will only get worse from there.

  27. Economies of scale go hand-in-hand with corruption of scale.

    A small farmer is going to make ethical decisions balanced by his income.  He might be able to make a couple hundred (or thousand) dollars a year extra by switching to a process that might be harmful to his customers (his friends, his neighbors, maybe even his family, etc).  Assuming he currently makes a decent living, he’s probably not going to put profits above people.

    A manager or CEO of a mega-corp might be looking at hundreds of thousands, millions, or even billions of dollars in additional profits by switching to a process that might be harmful to his customers.  His customers are strangers.  He’ll probably get a raise and high-fives from his coworkers/peers for bringing in that extra profit. It’s a lot harder for him to make the ethical decision in that scenario.

    That is why I prefer to do business locally in general; local food is simply an extension of that.

  28. I’m going to to be a little unreasonable for a second and suggest what’s really unsustainable: living in places that don’t support human life on their own. Like Minnesota, apparently.

    Okay, so that’s kind of hard to fix (there’s probably a lot going for Minnesota), but I think on some level it’s responsible for a lot of the wrongs we do to the environment. Communities, in some cases, are allowed to thrive that are completely detached from their local ecosystems. They get all their food from other places (or through highly industrial farming operations), or they develop a monoculture with one plant that’s especially profitable. They end up squandering their own local resources. It’s easy to do that when you don’t depend on them.

    It isn’t just bad for the environment. Economic collapse with that kind of arrangement actually seriously leads to people starving to death.

    By all means, eat food from far away. It’s fun, you can get lots of variety (though I’d argue that fruits and veggies are more fun when you have the really good ones that are in season), and certainly society has made it to the point where we can move things around fairly easily. Staples like flour, and foods that are cheap to transport, are obviously kind of exempt from this worrying. Of course there’s always stuff that’s easier to grow somewhere else. But when you’re eating odd things like out of season tomatoes, take a moment to think “hey, I’m eating a tomato in the winter!”, because that’s pretty damn cool.

    And if you happen to live in a place that is unable to grow food for its population, I think it’s a good idea to ask why. Outside of a desert, there is no reason that should be allowed to happen.

    1.  Cheap oil is the only way places like Las Vegas can happen. Take away the fuel subsidies and it will empty out pretty quick.

      I try not to think too hard about Los Angeles, same as everyone else. It’s astonishing to me how much infrastructure it takes for people to live there.

      Eating local is really about where we choose to live. Arguments about the value of a mobile labor force run in direct contradiction to the locavore message.

      All of which is just another way of asking,  do people exist to serve the economy, or is it the other way around?

  29. I feel like the writer is missing something pretty basic. Most industrial food isn’t something a person should actually eat. It’s processed, sugared, preserved garbage. I would argue that commercial food production is not sustainable due to the high cost of human lives. With diabetes, cancer, and heart disease on the rise, we would be well served by reconsidering our food sources and intake.
    The problem is convenience. We want to be able to cook and eat what we want and when we want without consideration as to the seasonality of fruits and vegetables. I grew up in the country and live in the city. I can tell you that Texas can maintain a locavor movement. We grow much more food and raise much more beef than we can use and we export much of it to other states and countries. The Dallas farmers market is open 362 days a year and is a massive facility. Of course, to eat locavor means eating seasonally which I suspect is a healthier way to live anyway.

  30. Makes sense if you a) ignore the massive subsidies for factory farming agribusinesses, and b) all the downstream packaging and marketing waste.

  31. “In winter, local food here would require hothouse farming—something that is extremely unsustainable, as far as energy use is concerned.”

    I think something is wrong with your perspective. I think you meant to say Living in Minnesota, year round, is not sustainable. Just like having a ridiculous oasis in the deserts of Nevada is not sustainable (I’m look at you, Vegas).

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