The Locavore’s Dilemma

Nova Scotia apple farmers are increasing profits by growing specialty in-demand apples like the Honey Crisp (Photo: nyapplecountry.com)

I’ve always had questions about the local food movement.

I’ve been trying to eat local for several years now. I changed my ways in two stages: first, I stopped eating most processed foods, and then I tried switching to more local alternatives. Sometimes it works fine. For example, I eat frozen berries in the winter, so I make a point of buying wild Nova Scotia blueberries instead of imported raspberries. To the extent I can afford it, I bake with honey or maple syrup instead of cane sugar.

I suppose my issue with locavorism is that my area’s fresh produce is so limited. We have a short growing season that can only accommodate plants hardy to zones 5-6. In the winter, I would be limited to stored root vegetables, frozen foods, and preserves. My ancestors survived on salt cod and salt pork! It’s all very well to be a locavore if you live in California. But even then, there are so many regional “absences:” my coastal area doesn’t grow any grains, whereas on the Prairies, they wouldn’t have any ocean fish.

The Locavore's Dilemma by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu

The Locavore’s Dilemma by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu

I stumbled across a book called The Locavore’s Dilemma, which sounded like it would irritate me and challenge my assumptions! So I made a list of things I wondered about, and set to reading the book.

The rest of this post is a bit of a theoretical exercise….

Some of my nagging thoughts were:

  • If everyone ate local food, and all farmers grew food for only their local markets, what would they do with surpluses? They could no longer trade/export them outside the area because people elsewhere would be eating only local food, too.
  • Would we adapt to eating only local, in-season food, and rely on preserved and dried local food for the rest of the year? Would this be as healthy as the year-round imported produce available now?
  • How could food remain affordable in areas where the cost of land is high, soil quality is poor, or there isn’t enough water? Would there be any agriculture at all in Arizona without long-distance water?
  • Wouldn’t the price of food rise because growers would have a “captive audience”?
  • How could farmers make a living in areas where the population is low?
  • To keep local farmers in business, even more government support might be necessary, such as subsidies and guaranteed prices.
  • If we grew organic and chose foods that thrived in the local climate, what would we do if there was a crop failure due to weather or pests?
  • How much food could we stockpile for these events, and how long would it maintain its quality?
  • Wouldn’t there be competition among farmers to offer novelty products and bring them to market first, at a greater cost to the environment? For example, maybe a local farmer would rely on heated greenhouses so they could get their strawberries to market early.
  • Aren’t farmers importing their farm machinery, fuel, tools, animal feed, and sometimes even seeds?
  • If there are more farmers with smaller operations, wouldn’t they use up more land and resources (such as equipment) which would be worse for the environment?
  • If we eat only what is grown locally, we are depriving farmers in developing countries of any income they might make from exports (such as coffee or bananas).
  • If one area is perfect for growing pineapples and another is perfect for growing rice, isn’t trade better?
  • If my area is famous for its hot dogs and potato chips, should I support them just because they’re local?

Some related questions I thought of are:

  • Why do we want a relationship with our farmers but not with the people who sew our clothes or manufacture our bikes?
  • Why don’t we try to buy locally sourced computers or cell phones?

So, as you can see, I am lying awake at night worried about the state of modern agriculture, LOL!

The book, as I expected, was very one-sided in favour of global trade and big agriculture. But it did make some good points. First of all, like modern western medicine, agri-business developed for a reason – not just profits, but for its benefits to people.

Agri-business and globalism:

  • allow us to buy a huge variety of fresh and inexpensive foods year-round;
  • create efficiencies through economies of scale;
  • have led to improvements in pest control and soil amendments;
  • increase yields;
  • prevent starvation, except when there is political interference;
  • allow farmers to increase their profits by selling to wealthier clients elsewhere; and
  • allow most people to specialize in a career they like rather than foraging for food.
Decidedly not local soy field (Photo: agriculture.sc.gov)

Decidedly not local soy field (Photo: agriculture.sc.gov)

Because I already support big agriculture through my buying habits, whether I like it or not, the book didn’t change my mind about anything. But it did help me pull my thoughts together:

  • I like preparing and cooking real, whole foods as much as possible.
  • I do want to know where my food comes from and know that farmers are getting a living wage.
  • I do like to buy from farmers’ markets and farm stands, and visit u-picks and vineyards!
  • I like knowing how long it takes to grow or produce food and what goes into it.
  • I want my supermarket food to be labelled – with its country, region, organic status, GMO status, and what supplements are in it – so I can make an informed choice.
  • Everyone should know what it’s like to grow an edible plant! But growing an animal and slaughtering it is beyond most people. (See the movie: Animals: Friend or Food?)
  • If a food is available in a local version or an imported version, I want to buy the local.
  • If I can preserve local foods, such as tomatoes or cranberries, I will; rather than buying preserved imported food.
  • I like to think that I support fair trade and organic farm practices when I buy international foods. But I do think that fair trade, organic coffee, tea, sugar and chocolate are largely symbolic foods that make us feel better about our shopping. What about all the other international foods I buy?
  • I am still buying numerous imported foods such as oranges, avocados and nuts all year; produce in the 8 months of the year that local is not in season; and tropical goods such as coffee, chocolate and spices. I have no expectation that this will change.
  • I would, in fact, like to know more about who makes my clothes and my car and everything else.

I see now that I am very much a centrist in the local/global debate.

I haven’t gone grocery shopping since I finished the book. I think it would make my brain hurt 🙂

Do you think about these things? Does it change your buying habits?

12 comments

  1. The local ‘argument’ hasn’t really latched onto my brain (yet). I do think there’s a lot to be said for things growing where they grow well, and trading. I’m concerned about all the weird tariffs we put on things that disturb ‘natural’ trading – I think Australia categorically will not import apples, which I’m not sure is creating a fair price for apples. We start to prop up markets (car manufacturing is another one too). I say go for the hot dogs and potato chips if they are local! I’m 100% behind indulgences – provided you like them of course

    • Canada wants access to world markets but has all kinds of protections in place – which are under negotiation now as Canada meets with the EU about free trade. In particular, the dairy industry is strictly regulated. I’m all for indulgences – in fact, the farmers’ markets don’t have fresh produce year-round because the growing season isn’t year-round, so we go there to buy locally made treats instead!

    • And we refuse to import bananas – remember when the cyclones wiped out all the banana crops and the price went up to $12 a kilo!

  2. Fiona

    So many good points, Dar! A very interesting subject.

    I used to be more intent on trying to stick with local foods, but an article I read last year has made me think twice. It’s called “The good oil on food miles: It’s a bit of a myth” published in the Sydney Morning Herald, April 2012. (http://tinyurl.com/6oxvz29) I haven’t followed up to read the research cited in the article, but I’m far less likely now to automatically think “local = best.”

    We buy all our produce from a local farmer’s market, but I still read the growers’ boxes and wonder what the practices are on that exact farm. Are the correct amounts of fertilisers and pesticides used? What are their land management and erosion practices? etc.

    The point about animals and slaughtering is interesting. As a child, I was taught how to kill small animals by hand (chickens, rabbits, birds, fish: all for food) and we had larger animals butchered professional on our farm. I should write a post on this; it’s left me quite ambivalent and probably contradictory in my thoughts!

  3. Thanks for deconstructing the consideratin process so thoroughly here! Certainly the clothing factory fire last week in Bangladesh opened some (many?) eyes to the need to become better informed–and more thoughtful–about where their nonedible items originate and und what conditions.

    Also, coming to a centrist view after such careful consideration sounds positive, rather than the unconsidered centrist who would rather fence sit than decide. Again, thanks for exploring the process of your thoughts here!

  4. Great questions! You know, with this sort of dilemma, I’m always left feeling like a huge part of the problem is that the way our crazy society is set up, the true cost of an item (in terms of environmental and human impact) is virtually never reflected in the actual price! I mean, if corporations actually had to pay for their pollution, and trade agreements required a more level playing field in terms of how workers were treated and paid, then I think these kinds of questions would be so much easier to sort out. As it is, there are just too many factors muddying the waters for the average consumer to have any hope of making informed decisions.

    • That is so true! I think most people pick their favourite cause and go with it – they choose whatever is best for the environment, or whatever costs them the least, or whatever causes the least animal suffering – but it seems like you can’t have it all.

  5. Unfortunately I’m not currently in the position where I can afford to buy organic or local fruit and veggies. At the beginning of the year I was looking into getting a box of local and insecticide free fruit and veg delivered, but decided I couldn’t fit it into the budget.

    What I do try to do though, is buy ingredients and make most things from scratch. I figure this at least saves some food miles because the ingredients don’t have to be delivered to the factory to make the food. Not sure how much this helps, but I like to think it does!

    I agree that more information should be on the labels so we can make informed decisions 🙂

    • I don’t buy a home delivered produce box either, for the same reasons mentioned in my post – I don’t want to be limited to root vegetables and cabbage from November to June! I think “from scratch” food is healthier and you can make it according to your own tastes.

  6. Pingback: 12 Months of Celebration – Month 4 – April | An Exacting Life

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