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Locavore or Globavore?: The Debate Over Local Food

Guy Hand / Boise State Public Radio

The local food movement is growing in popularity. Back in 2007, the Oxford English Dictionary declared “locavore” the word of the year. In 2009 and 10, the National Restaurant Association called local food “America’s No.1 restaurant trend.”

But popularity breeds polarization. A series of articles and at least one upcoming book have called the local food movement “a marketing fad and a dangerous distraction from the true impact of modern food production.”

From Boise, Guy Hand looks at the growing debate over local food.

Thanh Tan: “We first met in August of 2009 and it was a huge success.”0

Television producer and reporter Thanh Tan remembers when she started a local food dinner group here in Boise.

Thanh Tan: “There was I think about 25 of us who actually showed up and my first dish for the group was Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon, which was hard work, but I used local wine, local beef, local a lot of things, so it just kind of caught on. The group decided this is really fun, let’s try to meet again next month. So we did.”

Tan’s monthly locavore dinner group quickly ballooned to 40 people. That enthusiasm for the local is part of a national trend to source food from roughly a hundred mile radius. It’s, in part, a backlash against what many see as the often tasteless and sometimes dangerous excesses of a highly industrialized, global food system. But recently the local food movement has attracted it’s own backlash.

Pierre Desrochers: “I view, to be honest, local food as a marketing fad that really distracts peoples’ attention from more pressing and I think much more important agricultural issues.”

That’s Pierre Desrochers, an economic geographer at the University of Toronto. He and his wife, economist Hiroko Shimizu, are writing a book with the working title “In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet: A Globavore’s Manifesto.” The book, he says, takes a critical look at the local food movement.

Pierre Desrochers: “I don’t think that promoting uncompetitive local food based on some romantic notion that we should get back to what our ancestors turned their back on is really the way to go or is really what activists should be focused on.”

Desrochers’ book examines the long history of global food production.

Pierre Desrochers: “For several thousand years now the unmistakable trend has been towards globalizing food production, concentrating food in the best possible environments for each food item. And we’re trying to take a long world view beginning with the cavemen and the beginning of agriculture all the way up to the advent of container shipping.”

Desrochers says humanity’s history has been a pragmatic march away from local to global food production. He points to a long-ago failure to grow wheat in Europe.

Pierre Desrochers: “So wheat, for example, was grown in really horrible conditions; hills, slopes, rocky terrain and stuff like that. The result was massive erosion throughout Europe … .”

America, Argentina and Australia were far more successful at growing wheat, says Desrochers, and yields were much higher.

Pierre Desrochers: “And the results, we argue, making wheat much more abundant, cheaper and at the same time much more environmentally friendly as far as its production is concerned.”

Desrochers says the same is true of apples in Chile or milk in New Zealand. He also argues that shipping those products to distant markets isn’t wasteful.

Pierre Desrochers: “Despite the fact that they’re at the other end of the world, the New Zealanders are actually very efficient in terms of producing dairy products and putting them on boats, highly efficient diesel power container ships, it really doesn’t take that much energy in terms of shipping them to Europe.”

Or, he argues, nearly anywhere else in the world. Critics of local food have attacked the notion of “food miles” saying it’s wrong to assume that food shipped the shortest distance has the least environmental impact.

Pierre Desrochers says carbon costs are naturally reflected in market prices.

Pierre Desrochers: I mean, nobody moves stuff around for free and the price often tells you how much energy or how many inputs were required to produce a specific item. So there are a number of issues like that that it seems to us anyway local food activists do not understand.

Craig Goodwin: “I think that when economists jump up and say well really this local food stuff doesn’t make sense, I think they’re missing a big part of the argument for local food and a big part of what is driving peoples’ interest in it.”

That’s Craig Goodwin, minister and local food advocate in Spokane Washington.

Craig Goodwin: “It’s beyond just carbon footprints and economics.”

Goodwin is writing his own book arguing for local food. The book, to be called “Year of Plenty,” chronicles a year in which Goodwin and his family ate only locally sourced food.

He agrees the trend toward globalization is an old one, but says modern industrial food practices are far more recent and have long term consequences that are still unknown.

Craig Goodwin: “This whole industrial food complex has pushed ahead way beyond what we ever imagined as consumers and we didn’t really have much of a voice in that and now we’re trying to reclaim that. And we’re trying to re-enchant food and be reminded that food is more than just a cog in a machine.”

Local food advocates point to a long list of food recalls, environmental damage, ethical issues and just plain bad food that they say is the result of a global food system run amok.

Local food skeptic Pierre Desrochers agrees there are problems with the system, but believes removing subsidies and using other market-driven approaches will help remedy those concerns.

Craig Goodwin counters that the market is simply blind to many important cultural values.

Craig Goodwin: “When we make a choice at the grocery store, we want that to be a responsible choice. We want to have the freedom to have a say in the way that land is used. We want to have a say as to whether certain pesticides are used and how farm workers are affected by that. And so much of the food system is so disconnected from the land and from the people that bring the food to the table that a big part of what we are saying is that we should have the right to be responsible.”

Goodwin says economic efficiency is about the only thing the global food system values — and that’s why the local food movement resonates with consumers who see food as much more than a cog in a cold machine.

Yet, as different as Craig Goodwin and Pierre Desrochers’ upcoming books are likely to be, both authors agree on one thing: the local food movement has sparked a worthwhile debate.

Pierre Desrochers: “We live in an era where most people really don’t have a clue about food production, so what I like about this whole movement is that it has reintroduced urbanites and suburbanites to the realities of food production.”

Thanh Tan, who organizes those monthly local food dinners in Boise, certainly changed her perspective once she began looking toward the source of her food.

Thanh Tan: “I mean I can guarantee you that the people in this group, the next time they go to the store and they make that purchase, to have that understanding of knowing, being able to connect whatever’s on the plate to where it comes from is huge.”

Both Pierre Desrochers’s book “In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet.” and Craig Goodwin’s “Year of Plenty” are due out in the spring of 2011.

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