Is the Localvore Movement a Folly?

Pierre Desrochers, Canadian economic geographer and Mercatus affiliated scholar makes the case that the Localvore’s drive to get people to “eat-locally” is based on fanciful notions of economics and agriculture, in his book, The Localvore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile diet, co-authored with wife Hiroko Shimizu.

The book goes to the heart of an apparent motivation for food activists, that “sustainable farming” and “eating local” will help the planet. Desrochers and Shimizu disagree. They show that subsistence farming is unsustainable, back-breaking and not environmentally-superior to large-scale methods. Rather than reducing “food miles” (the distance the banana travelled into your cereal bowl) the authors instead make the case for eliminating ag-subsidies. The takeaway: eating globally gets you to a better place, environmentally, than limiting your consumption to the downtown farmer’s market.

I don’t disagree. But this review by Emily Badger at The Atlantic contains some food for thought. She suggests reading, Urban Farms, by Sarah Rich who went out and interviewed urban farmers to understand this growing movement. Here’s one of her findings, quoting Badger’s article:

Politics are all but absent from Rich’s interviews. She visits one urban farmer in Detroit who comes the closest to voicing revolutionary motives. He is concerned about a trash incinerator in his neighborhood, and he views his backyard farm partly as a defiant form of environmental remediation.

“That’s what he’s thinking about, his local garbage system and how messed up it is,” Rich says. “He wasn’t talking to me about Monsanto, or industrial agriculture.”

Throughout her 16 urban farm profiles, Rich found what she describes as very local initiatives, where agriculture just happened to be the medium for doing something positive in the city.

Rich documents many non-political motives for urban farming: a social anchor for the community, beautifying blight, jobs for the unemployed, places for children, opportunities for school kids to learn about plants and science, fresh produce in food deserts.

Does the Localvore movement have to be an either/or proposition? I’m intrigued that Rich went into the field and talked to urban gardeners to see what is driving them. Based on Ms. Badger’s article it isn’t green ideology or government subsidies, but something much more ‘organic and human.’

The pleasures and rewards of a backyard garden.

I think the policy problem Desrochers and Shimizu identify is a real one.  The more idealistic members of the “Food Activist” movement assert that local farms can (at least partially) replace global production to sustain the current population. They insist that large-scale food production is bad for the environment and take an overly romantic view of small-scale subsistence farming. That is folly. But free trade in food should not imply that urban gardening doesn’t have virtues of its own.

I confess my prejudice. Growing up in suburban north Jersey we benefitted from a subdivided acre of land that we shared with my grandmother. My siblings and I helped tend a large vegetable garden, fruit trees, berry brambles and my mother’s ever-expanding herb garden. For a period my father experimented with growing grapes for wine (a project he abandoned upon sampling the results). We learned how to grow, care for, and cook the fruit of our labors.

There is an indescribable gulf between the Jersey tomatoes we grew and the tasteless rubber ball I reluctantly buy in the grocery. We canned, froze and shared the yield of our garden with neighbors. I learned to appreciate food (i.e., not waste it), how to recycle (compost), how to cook, how to propagate raspberries, currants and gooseberries; and for a few summers to stomp on grapes.

Before I was born, my grandmother (who was raised on a farm in Białystok, Poland) kept two chicken coops. I imagine that turned into more trouble that it was worth but nevertheless it was the source of my grandparents’ dinner for a brief time. The exercise of gardening not only taught basic science and refined our palates, but imparted lessons in self-sufficiency, responsibility, stewardship, familial cooperation, gave us spells of serenity, a place of respite and imagination, and the opportunity for generosity. Non-quantifiable.

We managed to grow enough to eat well during the summer and have some to spare for the winter. It would have been tough (impossible) to survive on it alone. And, we made frequent trips to the grocery store for everything else: to buy food that was produced everywhere else. We tended to skip over the produce section between June and September and never bought a tomato.

So, yes to the economics of global food production and subsidy-free agriculture. And yes to the non-quantifiable benefits of working the land no matter how modest the effort.