In Defence of Locavores

Photo by doc(q)man |

In a recent op-ed column in the Globe and Mail (click here to read the article), Margaret Wente exhorts us to “Take the romance out of farming”, and launches into a confusing and short-sighted offensive on the local food movement. A self-avowed gardener and organic farmer whose “idea of heaven is a ripe, fresh-picked tomato still warm from the sun” she nonetheless believes that “locavorism is the most wasteful way to feed the human race [and] it’s also bad for the environment”. I and – judging by reactions posted to Twitter and Facebook – many others disagree vehemently. Faulty logic and weak or non-existent evidence aside, here are my top four “No, you’re wrong” moments from the article:

1. “Not only does long-distance trade maximize output and lower prices, it’s also good for the environment”.

No, you’re wrong. Let’s leave aside for the moment the assumption that wringing as much as technologically possible out of the land without regard to future generations is a good idea and focus on the fact that long distance trade is absolutely not environmentally friendly. Whether it’s the gallons upon gallons of fossil fuels required to ship, cool and store the food that travels internationally (the strawberries I bought while living in Dublin were uniformly grown in Israel, a distance of about 4000 kilometres) or the harsh chemicals needed to preserve and maintain produce during the journey, the less distance your food needs to travel, the better it is for our planet. And as for lowering prices, it’s true that locally grown, organically produced food is more expensive. But (and it’s a big but) the reason industrial produce is relatively cheaper is that it is subsidized to the tune of billions of taxpayer dollars by our government, requires much less manpower because of the use of massive gas-guzzling machines and the farming methods are land-intensive, eking out maximum profit with the minimum amount of stewardship or concern for the future. Your potatoes might be cheaper at the big-box store, but the damage they have done en route should make you think twice about labelling them environmentally friendly.

2. “Locavorism makes no more sense for food than it does for clothing or computers.”

Uh, what? If I could grow an iPad patch in my backyard or pick a new pair of shorts from my apparel-tree then yes, you might have a point. But you’re wrong, because I can’t do those things. The materials needed to construct the laptop I’m writing this post on must be mined, refined and assembled by the combined efforts of thousands of workers from across the world and the cotton needed to fashion the denim for my jeans requires at least a few acres to grow. You know what I can do with my backyard garden, though, all by my lonesome? I can feed my family, and, like you, produce enough surplus each year to supply my neighbours with all the tomato sauce and chutney they can eat. Locavorism makes sense. Period.

3. “In fact, the globalization of the food supply is nothing new, and the more of it there is the better off we have become.”

Globalization of the food supply is new, which is why we’re still trying to muddle through and find a more sustainable way of living for us all. I’m not sure how the family farms displaced or bought out by agri-business giants, the local green grocers shut down because of big-box distributors, and whole swaths of the developing world’s population forced to switch to growing cash crops to pay down sovereign debts instead of subsistence farming for themselves  would feel about your blasé pronouncement of utopian globalization. I’d imagine they’d laugh to keep from crying.

4. “Modern mass-produced, globally distributed food…is cheaper, more nutritious, safer, higher-quality, more reliably available and far less wasteful than the local kind.”

If you do some research, you’ll swiftly discover just how many things are wrong with that statement. The fact is that our modern food system is actually producing food that is less nutritious, more expensive in the grand scheme of things, less reliable and of poorer quality  than if it was locally grown and distributed. Did I mention that our supposedly ideal global food system has also radically narrowed the diversity of crops available ?  

So Ms. Wente, to sum up, you’re wrong about pretty much everything in your article. I’d love to try your tomatoes, though. Fancy inviting me and some friends over for dinner? We’ll bring the pasta and you can provide the sauce.

Danny Brown