Why Locavorism Doesn’t Make Us Happier, Healthier, or Safer

Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu defend the health, safety, and economic benefits of our global food-supply chain.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Food activists are nowadays busy denouncing the alleged unsustainability of our food system—or as they describe it, our genetically modified “corn-utopia.” Though this system might provide plentiful and cheap “nutritional simulacra,” it is, they claim, soaking up a rapidly vanishing petroleum pool while delivering junk food, rural poverty, agricultural pollution, soaring cancer rates, and unnatural mutations. They further claim that the way out of this wasteland is a carbon-fuel detoxification diet known as “locavorism” through which we will produce an ever-increasing portion of our food supply closer to where we live rather than importing it from further away. In doing so, we will simultaneously heal the planet, create jobs, ensure a more reliable and nutritious food supply, and improve physical, spiritual, and societal health.

If only this were true. To be certain, the people who buy into the romantic idea of locavorism are well meaning. However, it is vital that we step back and take a critical look at this popular movement, starting with the five most-dangerous myths of the locavore philosophy.

Myth No. 1: Locavorism improves social capital.

Locavores argue that purchasing as much of one’s food as possible from “beyond the barcode” rather than from “brand bullies” improves a community’s social capital as consumers come to know personally how, where, and by whom their food is grown. They seem to be unaware that the development of food brands and grades was largely motivated by the need to assure customers that their purchases had not been adulterated (say, by adding water to milk, or grain filler to ground beef) and that, by contrast, a not-insignificant number of small operators at farmers’ markets have turned out to be resellers who peddle distant and conventional products under false pretences (“organic and local”) because they know they can get away with it.

While in lauding community interconnectedness locavores find no redeeming qualities in wholesalers and retailers, recurring problems with direct farmer-to-consumer delivery schemes known as community-supported agriculture (CSA) remind us of the usefulness of middlemen. In CSA, consumers must make advanced seasonal purchases to be picked up at (often inconvenient) times and locations of the farmer’s choosing, or else the food gets donated to charity. Consumers must further “share the risk” of agricultural production by accepting whatever is sent their way, which in practice can mean pest- or weather-damaged produce or inconsistent volume. When the kids are gone for a few days or extra guests show up, participants must either throw produce away (or compost it) or make additional purchases at the local grocery store. Gathering, inspecting, sorting, packaging, and delivering food items where and when they are sought after, it turns out, is actually a service worth paying for, because it reduces waste and ultimately saves consumers more money than direct relationships with producers.

Local food initiatives that result in higher grocery bills, inconvenient pickup arrangements, and less selection in terms of processed food ultimately leave consumers with less money and time to build local social capital in other ways.

Myth No. 2: Locavorism delivers a free economic lunch.

Long-distance trade historically has allowed producers the world over the opportunity to specialize in the crops and livestock for which their local area is best suited, resulting in significant improvements in the volume, quality, and affordability of global food production. But local food activists bemoan the fact that purchasing nonlocal items benefits the distant headquarters of large retailers, shipping companies, and mega-corporate farms, whereas money spent on local products would create more hometown jobs as nearby farmers patronize local businesses.

Purchasing more-expensive local items, however, leaves less money in peoples’ pockets. Other producers of other products suffer lower sales as a result. Consumers may have fewer resources available to purchase goods and services other than food made wholly or partly in the locavores’ community. Higher prices always and everywhere mean greater poverty and a lower standard of living for all.

Locavores are further oblivious to the fact that no sustained economic development has ever occurred without significant urbanization, for cities provide a host of economic benefits ranging from a transportation hub to a wide array of suppliers and skills. Urban agglomerations have also always been essential for agricultural advances by offering large and concentrated markets for rural goods. Unfortunately for locavores, as Plato observed in his Republic over two millennia ago, to find a city “where nothing need be imported” has long been “impossible.” If adopted on a large scale, locavorism can only re-create the misery inherent to subsistence agriculture.

Myth No. 3: Locavorism is greener.

Because locally produced food travels a shorter distance between production sites and consumer plates, activists tell us that greenhouse-gas emissions are lower than when we import items from more-distant areas.

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Several rigorous studies have shown, however, that “food miles” are not a valid environmental indicator. In the United States, the long distance transportation of foodstuffs is approximately one twentieth as significant in terms of environmental impact as food production itself (from planting the seeds to drying the crops). In this context, producing food in the most suitable locations and delivering it over long distances, especially by highly energy-efficient container ships, is much greener than growing vegetables or manufacturing dairy products near final consumers when these operations require energy-guzzling heated greenhouses instead of natural heat, massive amounts of irrigation water rather than abundant rainfall, and large volumes of animal feed to make up for less productive pastureland.

In the last century and a half, concentrating agricultural production in the world’s best locations has allowed much low-quality agricultural land to revert to a forested state; while the increasing concentration of people in cities has reduced our disturbance of wild areas.

Myth No. 4: Locavorism increases food security.

Locavorism, we are told, makes us more food secure in times of wars and economic crisis, and more-diversified arrays of local products are less likely to succumb to diseases than export-oriented monocultures. As a strategy to reduce risk, however, locavorism essentially amounts to putting all of a community’s food-security eggs in one regional basket as opposed to relying on multiple distant suppliers. As such, it actually increases risk, whatever the problematic situation may be.

For instance, if military hostilities are looming, nothing prevents a country from stockpiling large quantities of food and agricultural inputs purchased on the international market while ramping up local production. By contrast, promoting local autarky in peaceful times exposes local population to a range of potential agricultural calamities caused by everything from floods and droughts to omnivorous pests and diseases that can affect a broad range of livestock. Historically, the integration of agricultural markets was an essential prerequisite to the gradual eradication of famine as the inhabitants of regions that had experienced bad years became increasingly able to tap into the surplus of those that had good ones. Furthermore, highly productive monocultures provide the means to support the work of specialists who can rely on the whole globe to find solutions to specific local problems (say, when the solution to a fungus problem in banana production in Central America is found in New Guinea).

True, some export-oriented monocultures will eventually go the way of abandoned mines and the horse-carriage industry. This outcome, however, can only be an existential threat in the absence of broader economic development, scientific and technological advances, trade, and labor mobility. The true key to food security is to ensure that as many resources as possible are invested in the development of the profitable activities of tomorrow rather than squandered in a vain attempt to cling to those of yesterday.

Some locavores also argue that the imminent peak of our supply of “cheap petroleum” will force us to adopt their prescription. Mistaken doomsday forecasts about carbon-fuel availability, however, have been proven wrong for more than a century and a half while technological advances in the exploitation of oil sands and shale oil and gas deposits have once again put those fears to rest. Furthermore, locavores forget that it was relatively inefficient and expensive coal-powered railroads and steamships that paved the way to our modern globalized food-supply chain and that we have several centuries’ worth of coal reserves that could nowadays be used much more efficiently than in the past.

Myth No. 5: Locavorism delivers tastier, more nutritious, and safer food.

All other things being equal, activists tell us, local food is picked in a more ripened state, ensuring superior taste and nutritional value than food that has traveled long distances in various forms of storage. But what about the times of year when local products are not in season and only available in preserved form? Eating better food for a few weeks and lesser quality food during the remainder of the year cannot deliver a more pleasant and nutritious diet overall. Another consideration rarely addressed by locavores is that the fortification of food items ranging from milk to flour can be accomplished much more effectively and cheaply (especially if vitamins and minerals are produced in large volumes) through large-scale facilities that serve a significant customer base.

Many locavores also raise the specter of food produced in countries with lower overall health, safety, and environmental standards. Paradoxically, however, export operations established by producers from advanced economies in poorer parts of the world typically implement state-of-the-art technologies and undergo significant scrutiny along the food-supply chain, something which is often not the case for the small operators who sell their production at local farmers’ markets. The issue is especially worrisome in light of the fact that the real dangers to our health are completely “natural” pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella, and listeriosis, which are all around us. There are actually economies of scale in food safety, both in the production and the processing phases, which is why the food supplied by “agri-business” is safer now by far than at any time in human history.

In the end, the claim by locavores that our current food supply is not as nutritious and safe as in the good old days is impossible to square with the available evidence. In the words of Nobel laureate economist Robert W. Fogel, “in most if not quite all parts of the world, the size, shape, and longevity of the human body have changed [for the better] more substantially, and much more rapidly, during the past three centuries than over many previous millennia.”

Because it would result in a less diversified, more expensive, and less safe diet, locavorism can only deliver the world of yesterday. As any subsistence farmer in any of the poorest regions of our planet can attest, it is a world where chronic hunger, malnutrition, and famine are always just one spell of bad weather away. Locavorism, far from healing what ails us, is a recipe for widespread human misery and ecological disaster.