Le Québécois Libre, March 15, 2010, No 276.
The 100-Mile Diet, inspired by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon who participated in a one-year experiment in local eating, led thousands of individuals to change the way they eat. “Eat local” has become a mainstream mantra of those who claim that increased local food production and consumption have significant economic, environmental, and social benefits. Although its original goal was to support local culinary and agricultural initiatives, this movement is now promoting increased local food purchases by public institutions such as schools, hospitals, and prisons as well as banning the conversion of agricultural land to other purposes. While no one denies that local farmers’ markets are pleasant places, the alleged larger benefits of the locavore philosophy are mythical.
Myth 1: Eating locally produced food reduces our environmental impact
Facts: Productivity differences: Locavores ignore that some locations are better suited to produce certain types of food than others. Peru, for example, is the largest fresh asparagus exporter in the world because of warm weather, loose soil, and abundant agricultural labor. As a result, Peru's asparagus yield is 2.5 and 3.7 times higher than in China and the United States. This insures that while Peruvian asparagus are air freighted to the United States, their overall input and energy requirements are actually lower than that of the U.S. grown asparagus displayed next to them.
Production technologies matter: “Food miles” refer to the distance food travels from farms to retailers. In the American case, the food production stage (planting, irrigating, harvesting, using heated greenhouses, applying fertilizers and pesticides, etc.) contributes far more greenhouse gas emissions (83%) than the food miles segment (4%). Therefore, the resources needed to produce food matter a lot more than how close a production venue is to consumers. As a rule, the alleged energy savings attributable to increased local purchases is dwarfed by the additional inputs required in less productive locations. Turning our backs on the global food supply chain for increased reliance on less efficient local producers implies a huge waste of resources.
Myth 2: Local food is inherently safer
Facts: There is safety in numbers: Locavores tell us to put all our food sources in one local basket. All types of agricultural productions and locations, however, suffer from bad years because of factors ranging from poor weather to pest or fungus infestations. Relying on multiple foreign suppliers insures a more stable and affordable supply than would otherwise be the case.
Food safety and quality lay golden eggs: While locavores typically distrust big agri-producers, distributors, and supermarket chains, no business can survive without delivering safety and quality. Not surprisingly, big supermarket chains that buy directly from producers insist on rigorous standards in both the developed and less developed world. Paradoxically, most of the food sold at local farmers’ market does not undergo the same kind of scrutiny.
Myth 3: Local food promotes economic growth and social justice
Facts: Expensive local food harms the local economy: The number of U.S. farmers’ markets has almost doubled in the last decade, but most of the items sold in these venues are much more expensive than in regular grocery stores. In our modern economy, nearly 99 percent of people are food consumers, not producers. The more money is spent on expensive local food, the less money is available for other items and services. Vibrant local economies are not built on “feel good” charity, but on their capacity to produce marketable items.
Buy local policies harm the development of less advanced economies: Encouraging the purchase of uncompetitive local products benefits some farmers in advanced economies at the expense of agricultural producers in less developed countries whose economic development depends on their capacity to export agricultural products. Furthermore, farmers in less developed economies typically use less inputs (other than human labor) than their competitors in advanced economies, thus ensuring that their products have a lower carbon footprint.
In short, the best way to reduce the carbon footprint of agricultural production is to produce food where it can be done most efficiently and to engage in international trade. Selecting food based on its affordability, availability, and quality is a better way to help the planet than focusing on food miles.
* This article was first published in PERC Reports: Volume 28, No. 1, Spring 2010. ** Hiroko Shimizu is a visiting research fellow at PERC and the coauthor with Pierre Desrochers of “Yes We Have No Bananas: A Critique of the ‘Food Miles’ Perspective.”