Should Food Come from Near or Far?

PIERRE DESROCHERS ARGUES FOR THE 10,000-MILE DIET

Is local food better? People will spontaneously buy local food when it tastes better or costs less than alternatives. Food activists, however, urge us to go beyond “local when sensible” by invoking five myths that don’t withstand scrutiny.

Myth #1: Buying from local farmers mends community ties eroded by large retailers.

Local food activists typically describe intermediaries (e.g., wholesalers, retailers) as parasites that fleece farmers and consumers. Their favourite alternative is community supported agriculture (CSA), through which farmers deliver pre-paid items on a regular basis. CSA participants “share the risk” with farmers, meaning they receive more when things are good, and less when things are bad. Unfortunately, CSA exhibits several problems. Consumers are constrained by the farmer’s schedule and must make unexpected trips to the supermarket when the volume, variety or quality of food delivered fails to meet expectations, resulting in a higher grocery bill and more time spent shopping. CSA food may exceed the expected volume, it may be of poor quality or its preparation may not fit into participants’ schedules.

It turns out gathering, sorting, cleaning, preparing and packaging are services worth paying for. Food intermediaries save time, effort and money by providing convenience.

Myth #2: Money spent locally creates local rather than distant jobs.

The only reason to import food is that it delivers more value for money. Forcing people to spend more for food only delivers more poverty and overall job destruction, as consumers have less money available to spend on other things. In addition, local agriculture creates few highly skilled and competitive jobs.

Myth #3: Local food is good for the environment.

Transportation of foodstuffs represents but a tiny fraction of the environmental impact of food production (from planting seeds to drying crops; from grazing livestock to processing meat). Producing food in the most suitable locations and delivering it over long distances, especially when using highly energy-efficient container ships, is much greener than growing vegetables or making 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 pasture.

Importing perishable food from different latitudes at different times of the year also harms the environment less than keeping local products in cold storage for several months (e.g., using higher than normal CO2 concentrations; controlled temperature; higher losses to spoilage).

Local-food activists invoke five myths that don’t withstand scrutiny.

Myth #4: Local production delivers greater food security.

Because people can’t be sustained on a single staple, the local food systems promoted by activists would be inherently more diversified than our present large-scale monocultures. More crop and livestock diversity, we’re told, means greater resilience in the presence of pests and diseases. Furthermore, local farmers can be counted on in times of rapidly rising commodity prices, political turmoil, all-out war or sudden decline in demand for a particular agricultural commodity.

Putting all of our food security eggs into one geographical basket, however, has always been a recipe for disaster because of unavoidable destructive natural events (e.g., droughts, floods) and diseases and pests that affect a wide range of crops and livestock. Widespread malnutrition and famine were only defeated by the development of cost-efficient long-distance transportation (e.g., railroad, steamship, container shipping) that allowed surplus food production from regions with good harvests to be shipped economically to those in need.

Currently there is much food to go around because of the vast productivity of monocultures, and the ability of global trade to distribute their output. Moreover, monocultures provide financial incentives to invest in scientific research into more-nutritious crops with greater disease resistance. Monocultures can only be a threat to food security in the absence of long-distance trade. Positive side effects of monocultures include freeing people from hard farm labour, providing inexpensive staples and releasing marginal lands from cultivation; downsides to monoculture arise only when broader economic development fails to provide other income possibilities and migration opportunities, or when agricultural subsidies encourage excessive use of costly inputs such as fertilizers.

Myth #5: Local food is fresher, tastier, safer and more nutritious.

All other things being equal, activists tell us, local food is picked ripe, ensuring superior taste and nutrition. But what about most of the year, when local products aren’t in season? Isn’t the “permanent summertime” of our supermarkets a superior alternative then? In most cases, export operations in countries with lower overall health, safety and environmental standards implement state-of-the-art production while their offerings undergo significant scrutiny along the food supply chain. Paradoxically, local operators who sell their produce through farmers markets or CSA rarely encounter this level of control. This is concerning, because the real threats to our health are “natural” and ubiquitous pathogens such as salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli. The significant economies of scale in food safety is why our modern food supply is the healthiest in history. These can’t be duplicated in a cost-effective way at the local farm, increasing the risk of local food being contaminated with waste or fertilizer.

KRIS VESTER ARGUES FOR THE 100-MILE DIET

As a farmer who’s spent the better part of 20 years producing food for local markets, I believe in the superiority of local food over industrial food commodities. But what, exactly, is local food? The definition guiding my involvement in our foodscape, both as farmer and educator, is the following: local food is produced using local resources, both in space and time, and doesn’t negatively affect either future generations or the delicately balanced systems which maintain all life on earth. In other words, both the inputs and the outputs, whether intended or not, are localized.

It’s overly simplistic to believe that food is local purely as a function of geography. Even though something may come from a nearby farm, there’s the question of where the inputs used in its production come from. Is an apparently local egg still local if the corn and soy, which make up the largest portion of most chickens’ diet, come from 1,000 km away? An agricultural product can’t honestly be called local unless the resources used in its production are equally local.

To protect our biosphere and future generations, local food producers must recognize locality of time and space. This means using resources available to us here and now: sunlight; soil; water; ecological systems which support life on earth; domesticated livestock; a diverse supply of domesticated plants; 12,000+ years of experience as agriculturalists; and our human ingenuity, energy and capacity to reason. It means very few or no inputs can be drawn from our finite and extremely costly ancient reserves of fossil fuels. Truly local food has minimal or no negative impacts on future generations and distant cultures.

While the environmental benefits of food systems emphasizing locality of space and time in both inputs and outputs are perhaps the greatest argument for eating truly local food, they are by no means the only ones.

Much evidence supports the nutritional superiority of local produce over commodities that travel great distances before ending up on a consumer’s plate, with some data showing that up to half of a fruit’s or vegetable’s nutritional value may be lost in transport. This is to say nothing of the superior flavour of local produce, a factor totally removed from the calculus of industrial agriculture when considering what will stand up to prolonged periods of storage and transportation.

Local food also offers the social benefit of building bridges between urban consumers and rural producers. While familial connections to farms are quickly vanishing, choosing to buy from local farmers allows eaters to re-establish connections to the agricultural community and to build relationships with the humans who grow their food. In contrast, despite expensive PR campaigns and corporate advertising, industrial, globalized agriculture alienates eaters from producers, making each group anonymous to the other and resulting in social cleavages where the importance of the interdependent relationship between the groups is completely ignored.

Dig a little deeper. What isn’t included in the price? The true costs are massive.

Cultural benefits of a truly local foodscape arise naturally from a strong commitment to local food. These manifest in a pride in local food culture, give us a local culinary identity and are a de facto declaration of food sovereignty. A local food culture and culinary identity can also have significant positive economic impacts through agri-tourism and culinary tourism.

Economic benefits arising from a vibrant local foodscape extend well beyond the benefits of bringing in visitor dollars. Due to the economic multiplier effect of purchasing locally grown food, each dollar spent this way results in economic activity that benefits our local economy. Almost the entirety of the potential economic benefit arising from the purchase of a given food is lost to Albertans when a non-local food is chosen over one produced locally.

Given the many advantages that eating local food offers us both individually and collectively, why are so few of us choosing to make eating local food a priority?

The usual reason is price. But dig a little deeper into what isn’t included in the price of industrial food commodities, and you’ll discover the true costs are massive. In a 2004 study, Iowa State University economists calculated that the annual externalized costs of US agricultural practices in the areas of human health, natural resources and wildlife and ecosystem biodiversity add up to $20-billion. The UN’s World Health Organization and Food & Agriculture Organization and the World Bank have noted that the costs to human health arising from our industrial food system are staggering. Obesity, malnourishment, antibiotic resistance due to overuse in livestock production, exposure to the 5.6 billion pounds of pesticides used globally each year, and failures of food-safety measures, most prevalent in packaged and processed foodstuffs, add trillions of dollars annually in hidden costs of industrial food.

On top of this, direct and indirect global public subsidies to agriculture total $500-billion per year according to the OECD, with the US spending $30-billion and Canada about $7-billion. Include the costs incurred by governments for social programs to support low-wage fast-food workers, farm labourers and big-box retail employees, and $100-billion is added to the cost of cheap, industrial food in the US alone.

As a farmer, an advocate for local food and especially as a parent, I think one of the most pressing questions of our time is how can we afford to continue to buy artificially cheap food, knowing that we’re paying for it by sacrificing the health of individuals, communities and ecosystems, and that future generations will carry the real costs for centuries to come.

DESROCHERS RESPONDS TO VESTER:

In a market economy, producers have to constantly do more while using fewer resources. In time, competition ensures that consumers are the true winners as they benefit from better products at lower prices. Those of us old enough to remember a Radio Shack catalogue with its many devices can thus only marvel at how much more versatile, powerful and inexpensive today’s electronic products are. And this was achieved, as Mr. Vester will agree, not by cutting corners or mortgaging our future, but through “our human ingenuity, energy and capacity to reason.” And by outsourcing the production of countless components to the best producers worldwide.

I suspect Mr. Vester didn’t write his argument using an old typewriter and mail his text using an envelope and a stamp. I further doubt his computer was manufactured in Alberta. In a modern economy, people specialize in what they do best and trade with each other, in the process delivering higher standards of living and using fewer resources overall than if everyone did everything themselves inefficiently.

Somehow, though, Mr. Vester doesn’t want the same logic to apply to our food supply. His main selling point is that paying more for food ensures greater environmental care. There is simply no evidence for this. Indeed, the higher price of the type of food promoted by Mr. Vester is primarily the result of how inefficiently it is produced. True, he and others like him might use fewer inputs, but their yields are also much lower than farmers who buy a whole array of inputs from other locations.

And no matter how one looks at the issue, providing an adequate diet to over seven billion human beings using less-efficient methods will ultimately require a significantly larger surface area devoted to growing food than a world in which farming is practised in the most suitable production zones using the latest technologies and inputs from all over the world. When the world’s population reached 7.4 billion in 2016, some 815 million people were undernourished (or 11 per cent of humanity). This percentage has been decreasing since 2003, according to UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The same organization reports that as recently as 1990, nearly 19 per cent of the world’s population was undernourished. Over the same time period, forests and natural areas have been rebounding in the developed world.

If you love nature, don’t turn it into cropland and pastureland. Moving ever closer to a world dominated by the most recent agricultural technologies and international trade will not only provide more food for less money, it will also drastically curtail our environmental impact.

VESTER RESPONDS TO DESROCHERS:

Industrialized agriculture’s dependence on hydrocarbons—not only for horsepower but for all inputs—refutes that model’s claim to be the pinnacle of efficiency. One calorie of plant-based food energy created through industrial food production typically requires a minimum of 30 calories of finite fossil-fuel energy. This negative return on energy invested gets even worse when we include the “embodied energy” in fertilizers and pesticides, transportation, processing, storage and the inefficient conversion of plant-based food (e.g., grain) into animal-based food (e.g., meat).

This dependence on fossil fuels matters because of its significant greenhouse gas emissions, the costs of which have long been ignored but are beginning to be internalized into pricing mechanisms via carbon taxes. Our industrialized food system is responsible for about 30 per cent of GHG emissions, including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Relying on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change science, economists warn that climate change could eventually cost 5–20 per cent of global GDP. Attributing even just 25 per cent of GHG emissions to industrial agriculture could mean an annual cost of between $1-trillion and $4-trillion by 2050.

But this is just one consequence of “non-local” agriculture. What about shrinking biodiversity, deforestation, poisoned watersheds, dead zones in our lakes and oceans caused by fertilizer runoff? What about the exploitation of agricultural workers across the world in toxic, near-slavery conditions, their children deprived of education and opportunity?

Casting aspersions on the safety of local food is disingenuous. Ask Canadians about food-safety issues and they’ll likely recall the thousands of people affected by Maple Leaf’s listeriosis (including the 22 who died), XL Foods’ E. coli or the frequent arrival in Canadian markets of contaminated produce (produced industrially, abroad).

As for any praise of the “perpetual summertime” of the grocery store, local-food advocates are aware of the limitations of our model and recognize seasonality as a feature, not a bug, of localized food systems. I’d rather have a real tomato or strawberry for a short season than those tasteless, wooden, imported substitutes that pass for food in the winter.

Industrial agriculture doesn’t serve the farmers who produce our food or the people who eat it. Nor does it serve the planet of which we’re an integral part. What it does serve is global capital. The intellectual and moral arguments for internalizing all costs of industrial activity—true-cost accounting—are unassailable. Ending the era of artificially cheap food will reshape our economies and cultures for the better.

Pierre Desrochers is a geography professor at U of T and author of The Locavore’s Dilemma. Kris Vester is the co-owner/operator of an organic and biodynamic farm near Carstairs.

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