The Locavore's Dilemma

In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet


By Pierre Desrochers

By Hiroko Shimizu

Formats and Prices




$19.99 CAD



  1. ebook $14.99 $19.99 CAD
  2. Hardcover $26.99 $30.00 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around June 5, 2012. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

A new generation of food activists has come to believe that “sustainable farming” and “eating local” are the way to solve a host of perceived problems with our modern food supply system. By combining healthy eating and a high standard of environmental stewardship, these locavores think, we can also deliver important economic benefits and increase food security within local economies.

But after a thorough review of the evidence, economic geographer Pierre Desrochers and policy analyst Hiroko Shimizu have concluded these claims are mistaken. In The Locavore’s Dilemma, they explain the history, science, and economics of food supply to reveal what locavores miss or misunderstand: the real environmental impacts of agricultural production; the drudgery of subsistence farming; and the essential role large-scale, industrial producers play in making food more available, varied, affordable, and nutritionally rich than ever before in history. At best, they show, locavorism is a well-meaning marketing fad among the world’s most privileged consumers. At worst, it constitutes a dangerous distraction from solving serious global food issues.

Deliberately provocative, but based on scrupulous research and incontrovertible scientific evidence, The Locavore’s Dilemma proves that:

Our modern food-supply chain is a superior alternative that has evolved through constant competition and ever-more-rigorous efficiency.

A world food chain characterized by free trade and the absence of agricultural subsidies would deliver lower prices and more variety in a manner that is both economically and environmentally more sustainable.

There is no need to feel guilty for not joining the locavores on their crusade. Eating globally, not only locally, is the way to save the planet.


To Ferenc ("Ferko") Csillag (1955–2005),
dear friend and mentor.
You are sorely missed.

[T]he time has arrived . . . when the various portions of the earth will each give forth their products for the use of each and of all; that the over-abundance of one country will make up for the deficiency of another; the superabundance of the year of plenty serving for the scant harvests of its successor . . . Climate, seasons, plenty, scarcity, distance, will all shake hands, and out of the commingling will come enough for all . . . God provides enough and to spare for every creature He sends into the world; but the conditions are often not in accord. Where the food is, the people are not; and where the people are, the food is not. It is, however . . . within the power of man to adjust these things . . .
—THOMAS SUTCLIFFE MORT, Speech delivered on
September 2, 1875, Lithgow Valley Works (Australia).
Quoted in "Mort, Thomas Sutcliffe (1816–1878)"
in David Blair. 1881. Cyclopaedia of Australasia.
Fergusson and Moore, Printers and Publishers,
pp. 245–247, p. 247.

Experience keeps constantly adding to our knowledge of the special advantages of each locality, and every free movement of trade and industry increases the sum of their usefulness to the human race. Scarcity of food can no longer exist among nations that have kept abreast of this economical revolution . . . Those who doubt the advantages of this universal, worldwide intercourse and exchange are bound in consistency to advocate the reversion of society not merely to any earlier stage in its development, but to that state of things which preceded its initiation—that is, to pure and simple cannibalism; for an argument that is good against one step in this march of progress is equally good against another.
—J. J. MENZIES. 1890. "The Localization of Industries." The Popular Science Monthly 36 (February): 454–460, p. 455.

Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu should not have had to write this book. In a more rational world, their defense of what is so clearly true would not be needed. History, theory, common sense, and the most cursory observation and thought about the subject of food and how and where we grow and buy it would lead most of us to the conclusions drawn by the authors. However, our world is not rational, and most of what passes for thinking about food is as full of air as an elegant French pastry. Hence, the need for this valuable contribution.
Desrochers and Shimizu take the idea of local food to the back of the barn and beat the holy livin' tar out of it. The idea of food miles will never again rear its ugly head in polite company, nor should we have to hear about how far farmers are from their consumers. Now, I've no doubt that food miles will continue to be mentioned, and farmers at farmers' markets will still have those little signs measuring how far their wares have traveled, but everybody will know it's just horse manure, in the same way that we know we won't get to take the prettiest girl home if we drink Bud Light. We Missouri farmers will still drink Bud Light, and I have no doubt that people will continue to patronize the Ferry Market in San Francisco, but one can hope those programmers and executives in Northern California will never again take local food marketing claims seriously. That's how important this book is.
According to surveys I've seen, only about 5% of the consuming public will pay more for local, organic, or sustainably grown food. That statistic is no surprise to my wife and me. We grow vegetable starts and flowers at our small greenhouse in rural Missouri. Our customers are extremely price sensitive: the fact that we are local and employ local people matters not a whit to our typical buyer. We survive by offering the newest varieties of flowers at competitive prices. We've tried to carry a line of heirloom tomatoes as well, but we've yet to have a repeat buyer. People will read an article trumpeting the wonderful taste of German Johnson or Brandywine tomatoes, buy a few, and lose them all to blight. The next year, they ask for hybrids with blight resistance.
Now, other growers have had better experiences branding themselves as local and selling traditional varieties. After all, our part of Missouri is notably short on upscale, trendy consumers. We live in a farming community, where people are careful with their dollars. They typically grow the latest and most technologically advanced hybrids on their farms, and the thought of paying extra for a tomato variety that is more susceptible to disease and yields less strikes them as crazy.
If local food is just a lifestyle choice made by people with money aplenty, and if the adherence to local food is the latest example of the human need to preen, why should a book like this one need to be written? Why, indeed, should we care what Michael Pollan eats for lunch?
We should care because ideas have consequences. Many, many more people will pledge allegiance to the local food movement than will actually pay a premium in price or inconvenience for local food. They'll support politicians who pay fealty to the latest trends and complain about conventional food to pollsters. Consumers and voters are willing to show support for local food while letting others pay the bill for their good intentions. The notions that the past was better, local is important, technology should be feared, and trade is bad are powerful, and extremely dangerous.
After the January, 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the biotech company Monsanto donated 475 tons of seed to Haitian farmers. Monsanto is not known for being nimble in its relations with the public, but the company made sure that none of the donated seed was genetically altered. That gesture wasn't enough; protests quickly erupted all over Haiti and the U.S. You would have thought Monsanto was passing out free cigarettes to teenagers. "Peasant groups" in Haiti marched under banners of "Down with GMO and hybrid seeds." Hybridization has been around since Gregor Mendel experimented with peas in the 1850s. Hybrid crops have saved the lives of billions of hungry people. Farmers in the U.S. began adopting hybrid seeds in the 1920s, and hybrids have increased yields for every crop that lends itself to hybridization. Donating hybrid seeds is not exactly pushing the envelope of food or farming technology, but breeding and producing hybrid seed is a complicated process typically done by large firms and never by individual farmers. That was enough to set off the protests.
The Organic Consumers of America sent 10,000 emails damning Monsanto. Doudou Pierre, the "grassroots" National Coordinating Committee Member of the National Haitian Network for Food Sovereignty and Food Security, said: "We're for seeds that have never been touched by multinationals."1 U.S. writer Beverly Bell explains: "The Haitian social movement's concern is not just about the dangers of chemicals and the possibility of future GMO imports. They claim that the future of Haiti depends on local production with local food for consumption, in what is called food sovereignty."2 Church groups in the U.S. donated some 13,300 machetes and 9,200 hoes to, I guess, encourage traditional agriculture in Haiti. It's worth noting that defenders of "traditional agriculture" are usually several generations removed from its practice. The romance of swinging a hoe or a machete is largely lost on people who've actually spent some time on the business end of those "traditional" technologies.
One in four Haitians was hungry before the earthquake: local food for local people was and is sentencing Haitians to a life of misery, disease, and all too often death. The position of the groups protesting Monsanto's donation is that brown people should starve rather than plant seeds touched by the hands of multinationals. Desrochers and Shimizu write not because it matters what the residents of Berkeley or the Hamptons eat, but because it matters that the residents of Haiti don't eat. It is the worst kind of cultural imperialism for wealthy and well-fed Americans to sentence their neighbors to a life of hunger and machete swinging. Bad ideas can have terrible consequences, and hopefully this book will help to put some of those bad ideas to rest.
Only three countries in Africa allow the use of biotechnology because of the reluctance of international organizations to approve the technology and the fact that the European Union will not buy most genetically modified products. While U.S. yields are increasing at 2% a year and Asian yields have quadrupled over the past 50 years, African yields haven't increased at all. There are many reasons for Africa's lagging yields, but the refusal of most of the continent to adopt biotechnology explains much of the disparity.
On my farm in Missouri, we use genetically modified seeds that control insects. African farmers have not had the opportunity to plant similar genetically modified varieties, and can't afford insecticides. Consequently, each year African farmers lose a large portion of their crops to insects.
Rice varieties genetically modified to prevent blindness have been tied up in the regulatory equivalent of purgatory for 13 long years. The Swiss biologist who invented the technology is furious, as well he should be. The delay, according to him, has been "responsible for the death and blindness of thousands of children and young mothers."3
African farmers are aware of what is happening to them, and they aren't happy. Matthew Ridley, writing in the Wall Street Journal: "In Uganda, where people often eat three times their body weight in bananas a year, a GM banana that is resistant to a bacterial wilt disease, which causes $500 million in annual losses and cannot be treated with pesticides, is being tested behind high security fences. The fences are there not to keep out anti-GM protesters, as in the West, but to keep out local farmers keen to grow the new crop."4
It's clear that something more than a debate about health and science is going on here. The EU recently allowed the planting of a genetically modified potato, and even though this tuber was intended for paper production and not for human consumption, the Italian Agriculture minister protested, vowing to "defend and safeguard traditional agriculture and citizen's health." It is no coincidence that the mention of "traditional agriculture" was given precedence in the Minister's statement. The reluctance of much of the world to adopt biotechnology is not about the safety of the seed, but rather the preservation of "traditional agriculture" and what the Haitian protesters called food sovereignty. In large parts of the world, local trumps science, and people suffer as a result.
The Obama administration has had much to say about local food. The First Lady has planted a garden, organic, of course, and the Department of Agriculture is spending 50 million or so on a program called Know Your Farmer. The effort is likely to disappoint: in fact, a suburban housewife determined to know this corn farmer is likely to be mortified by my looks, the way I smell, and my opinions. I can't imagine why any resident of Manhattan would want to know me, and, trust me, some of my neighbors are even worse.
This is all right with us. There's a certain comfort that comes from never having to make a sales call. I raise #2 yellow corn, and it's worth no more or no less than any other farmer's corn. As a producer of commodity corn and soybeans, the fact that I'm wearing bib overalls and am the antithesis of charming doesn't affect my success at all. One of the assumptions implicit in all this local food stuff is that we farmers are dying to make a connection with our customers. In many cases, nothing could be further from the truth. All we want is to sell corn and be left alone.
Political leaders are telling farmers to grow and sell local, traditional, and even organic foods, and the culture and the intelligentsia are telling us much the same. As the authors point out, Michael Pollan is a rock star, and Oprah Winfrey spent a lot of time criticizing our present food system. Food Inc. was nominated for an Academy Award and has become part of the curriculum for an untold number of college courses. Everybody that matters advises me to find a farmers' market and set up a stall. I should concentrate on marketing directly to consumers, including computing the food miles I have to travel to reach that market. Perhaps Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) would be just the thing—I'll arrive on your front porch once a month, with corn, soybeans, and maybe even a geranium or two.
There is a problem with this plan. "Think local" may be what the culture prescribes, but the market is sending a markedly different message. Farm income was up 28% in 2010, topping 100 billion dollars for the first time. There's no better way to make a farmer mad than to accuse him of making a profit, so please don't quote me, but many "industrial" farmers are thriving. Corn and soybean exports are booming; beef and pork exports are at record highs. It is a very good time to be a monoculture growing industrial farmer using genetically modified seeds. Come to find out, the world desperately needs what we industrial farmers produce, and doesn't seem to care very much how we raise it.
This is exactly the opposite of so much of what we read about farming. One of the mainstays of the literature on the corruption of our present food system is that we farmers are mere grit in the gears of the industrial food system, ground to nothing by the ring gear of corporate greed and the pinion gear of concentrated markets, ruthless advertisers, and a political system controlled by Big Food. Michael Pollan spends a few days with an Iowa corn farmer in one of the early chapters of The Omnivore's Dilemma. By the end of the chapter, I felt like sending the farmer a bus ticket to the nearest homeless shelter. The combination of monopolistic purchasers of his products, price gouging suppliers, and the general tendency of everyone in our economy to stick it to the small farmer made Pollan's aggie quite a sympathetic character. Except the book gives just enough information for me to estimate his income in the past year, and if he didn't make $150k in 2011, I'll eat my hat.
The long-term trend for food demand is up. The U.N estimates that we'll have to increase food production by about 70% by the year 2050 in order to keep pace with the expected worldwide growth in population and income. Increases in food production will undoubtedly occur where it's most efficient to produce that food, which is often not where the hungry people live. International trade will have to grow and grow rapidly. Food is destined to become less local, not more. This book makes the important and irrefutable case for why all these things are so, and marshals fact, quotation, and anecdote in a relentless march toward that inescapable conclusion.
The following beautifully written excerpt from Rod Dreher's book, Crunchy Cons, perfectly illustrates the idealized, romantic vision of farming that has captured the imagination of so many well-educated, high-income consumers:
When you've seen the face of the woman who planted it, and shaken the hand of the man who harvested it, you become aware of the intimate human connection between you, the farmer, and the earth. To do so is to become aware of the radical giftedness of our lives… Learning the names of the small farmers, and coming to appreciate what they do is to reverse the sweeping process of alienation from the earth and from each other that the industrialized agriculture and mass production of foodstuffs has wrought.
It's almost impossible to read this passage without breaking into laughter if you've ever actually had to grow food, and deal with "the earth" in anything more than a metaphorical sense. Thanks to Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu for helping bring some hard truths to the conversation about food. I hope their book is read far and wide.
Blake Hurst
Tarkio, Missouri
Blake Hurst farms in Northwest Missouri with his family on a four-generation family farm. He and his wife Julie also own and operate a greenhouse business selling flowers in four states (Hurst Greenery He is currently President of the Missouri Farm Bureau. His essays have appeared in The American, the Wall Street Journal, Readers Digest, PERC Reports, The Wilson Quarterly, and several other national and regional publications.

A few years ago, we attended a lecture by a distinguished environmental studies professor that was in large part a hymn to "locavorism." By producing an ever-increasing portion of our food supply closer to where we live, he argued, we would simultaneously heal the planet, create jobs, ensure a more reliable and nutritious food supply, and improve physical, spiritual, and societal health. Strangely, though, he did not address why the globalized food supply chain had developed the way it did in the first place, an omission that we—economic policy analysts who know a little bit about the history of famines and the economic rationale for international trade—found rather myopic.
Had the speaker limited his talk to questionable generalizations about food production and availability, we would have likely not felt the urge to issue a detailed rebuttal. At one point during his speech, however, he opined that Japan was the most "parasitical" society on Earth because of its unparalleled dependence on food imports. Suddenly, the discussion was getting personal, as one of us was born and raised near Tokyo. True, her people made their home on a few crowded islands whose limited agricultural potential is periodically subjected to natural disasters and therefore had no choice but to rely on others to help them obtain a decent diet. Were they to revert back to the insular self-sufficiency of their ancestors, present-day Japanese citizens would have to get by with minute quantities of rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, and vegetables, and would periodically struggle with malnutrition, hunger and starvation.1
Fortunately, the Japanese people have had the opportunity in the relatively recent past to specialize in other types of economic activities and to trade whatever they produced for food grown elsewhere. As a result, they developed new technologies and products that increased living standards the world over and enjoyed a much more abundant, diverse, and affordable diet in the process. What was wrong with that? Should the Japanese people have instead committed hara-kiri on a societal scale because nature had denied them the prime agricultural land that Americans, Brazilians, New Zealanders, and Frenchmen have in abundance? Or perhaps the distinguished professor would rather deal with the military backlash that might ensue if Japan had its access to foreign resources curtailed? After all, in the early 20th century the proponents of Japan's imperialistic drive often justified their actions, such as taking over Manchuria in order to grow soybeans, by invoking the risks of relying on foreign food producers and the unwillingness of other nations to open up their markets to Japanese goods. As the old saying goes, if a man misses his meals one day, he will lie. If he misses his meals two days, he will steal. If he misses his meals three days, he will kill.
So, admittedly inspired by having been insulted, we took a closer look at locavorism. We learned that its main critics were, by and large, scholars based in engineering schools who had painstakingly documented why the movement's key concept of "food miles"—the distance food travels from the location where it is grown to the location where it is consumed—was a worthless measure by which to assess the environmental impact of agricultural production. Among other findings, they reported that transportation accounts for only approximately 2% of total American energy use. Moving things from farms to distant retail stores, it turns out, was only one-twentieth as significant in terms of overall environmental impact than other stages of food production, such as preparing the ground and planting seeds; mining, manufacturing and spraying fertilizers and pesticides; irrigating fields; harvesting, drying and preserving crops; and powering the necessary machinery. Producing food in the most suitable locations and then delivering it over long distances, especially by highly energy-efficient container ships, these scholars argued, made more environmental sense than growing vegetables or manufacturing dairy products in nearby locations that required energy-guzzling heated greenhouses, massive amounts of irrigation water, and large volumes of animal feed to make up for pastureland of poor quality.2 More food for less money and reduced environmental impact—what wasn't to like about international trade?
Unable to counter the facts regarding food miles, committed "locavores" instead claimed broader economic, health, and security benefits for their prescription, but these struck us as old biological myths and economic and political fallacies. Yet, no one had systematically challenged the locavores' expanded rhetoric. With Japanese pride at stake, we set other projects aside and got to work on what we originally planned to be a brief policy memo on the subject.
Like everybody else, we came to the subject with a few preconceived opinions, such as a conviction that small subsistence farmers the world over should be given the opportunity to pursue whatever aspirations they might have, especially if these go beyond mere survival and backbreaking labor. Another was that in a system as complex as our modern economy, the law of unintended consequences often rears its ugly head and even derails the most well-intentioned interventions. We also had a few nagging questions, such as: Why had countless individuals worked so hard and for so long to create our globalized food supply chain if things were so great when most food was produced and consumed locally? And why did earlier generations of consumers so readily purchase items produced far from them? Looking for answers, we quickly realized that there was little in the policy agenda of the present generation of food activists that hadn't already been argued over, tried, and convincingly disproved many times.
Our short memo quickly turned into a more substantial piece of work that was published in the fall of 2008 by the Mercatus Center, a public policy think tank based at George Mason University in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, where some researchers study the African agricultural exporters who have become the main victims of locavorism.3 To our knowledge, it was the first, and remains the only, policy primer that succinctly addressed all the main arguments put forward by local food activists in recent years.4 Because locavores roam over very large intellectual pastures, however, neither our supporting evidence nor our arguments were as broad and detailed as we wished them to be, but we thought our key facts and conclusions unassailable. Locavorism, we argued, is "at best, a marketing fad that frequently and severely distorts the environmental impacts of agricultural production." At worst, it constitutes "a dangerous distraction from the very real and serious issues that affect energy consumption, the environmental impact of modern food production, and the affordability of food." If pursued on a large scale, it would result in greater environmental damage, reduced economic growth, and significantly more food insecurity than is now the case. The road to agricultural, economic, environmental, and food safety and security hell, we concluded, was paved with allegedly fresher and more nutritious local meals.
To our delight, the piece received much attention in the Canadian media as well as press coverage in the United States, Latin America, and Europe. In time it would also be referred to in a number of policy papers and government reports. Even more amazing, much of this coverage was positive! Clearly, we weren't the only people who felt that locavorism was too simplistic a concept and that it created unnecessary anguish among grocery shoppers.
Our publication, in turn, led to numerous debates with local food activists. These experiences confirmed our prior impression that locavorism couldn't be dissociated from romantic beliefs about nature, food, rural life, and self-sufficiency that had been coupled with a profound disdain for the anonymity and profit-driven nature of long-distance trade and large corporations. Most locavores we encountered were quite taken aback that anyone might sincerely challenge their convictions that nature is inherently wholesome and that tampering with it can only result in catastrophe; that "happy peasants" should forever remain restricted to subsistence farming; that using vast amounts of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers for quick profit will kill the fertility of the land; that the nutrient-depleted and cancer/heart attack/diabetes/obesity-causing offerings of agribusiness kill more people every year than the shortage of synthetic fertilizer in sub-Saharan Africa;5 that everything "local" by definition implies greater care and community benefits; that a shortage of usable energy resources is just around the corner; and that local soil (wherever it might be) has the surprisingly universal quality of being uniquely beneficial. Several locavores further argued that their physical and mental health had improved significantly after their adoption of a chemical-free/organic/vegan/local diet that supported nearby producers who had also become good friends. How dare we be opposed to all these good things and efforts to promote them?
Trained as economic policy analysts, we brought up statistics, contemporary case studies, historical parallels, discussions of standard research protocols, and some personal anecdotes. Especially frustrating was how quickly many activists resorted to challenging our motives rather than our arguments. We were told that we were in the remunerated service of agribusiness, Big Oil, the logistics industry, and even the New Zealand government. (Strangely, though, our mortgage debt is still significant.) Based on the volume of hateful correspondence sent our way, we sometimes felt that questioning the existence of God at a revival meeting would have elicited more measured and polite responses.


On Sale
Jun 5, 2012
Page Count
288 pages

Pierre Desrochers

About the Author

Pierre Desrochers is an associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto who writes frequently on economic development, globalization, energy, and transportation issues. He was a research fellow at the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University.

Hiroko Shimizu holds a master’s of international public policy from Osaka University. Desrochers and Shimizu have both been research fellows of the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, and the Institute for Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Learn more about this author