This essay draws in part on Pierre Desrochers’ new policy paper The Myths of Local Food Policy: Lessons From the Economic and Social History of the Food System (Fraser Institute, October 2019). Readers looking for additional references and supporting evidence on the subjects discussed in this essay are invited to consult the policy paper.
Nearly everyone has heard of local food, yet few agree on what it means, exactly. In practice, “local” or “locally grown” may describe: food with low “food mileage,” as in food produced within a certain distance from its consumers (commonly, a 100-mile radius, or a 400-mile radius as legislated by the U.S. Congress in 2008); food sold directly to consumers without intermediaries; or, more interestingly yet, food produced within a certain coherent ecological environment regardless of how far away from the consumer the food originates.
One supply chain industry source explained the term as follows: “As it turns out, there is no official definition of ‘local food.’ … In the end, consumers will decide what local food means to them.” While this sounds empowering, it also leaves a number of questions in its wake, particularly since most proponents of local food do agree on one thing: local is always best.
For several years, activists and policy makers have promoted a wide range of local food initiatives. Many of these have been unsuccessful or have experienced significant setbacks. For instance, urban vertical farms in such hotbeds of locavorism (a catchy term meaning commitment to eating local food) as Vancouver, Sweden, and the Netherlands went bankrupt. Backyard chickens showed up in increasing numbers in animal shelters.
Participants in community-supported-agriculture arrangements suffered from “supermarket withdrawal” syndrome and failed to renew their memberships. Cases of fraud were uncovered at farmers’ markets. Even more problematic, intermediaries spontaneously emerged between middle- and upper-middle-class consumers and local producers of expensive niche products, a far cry from the uncomplicated and more affordable food for all once promised by activists.
These outcomes were unavoidable because the approaches promoted by local food activists (re)created the problems that had historically motivated the development of modern agricultural production practices and of the globalized food supply chain. By promoting the increased production of local food that does not offer a compelling quality/price ratio while shunning modern production and processing technologies, activists ensured that our food supply would become more expensive, environmentally damaging, and hazardous to our health than is presently the case. This is because their prescription is based on five myths.
Myth #1: Locavorism nurtures social capital
The locavores’ arguments:
Direct connections between final consumers and local food producers are said to mend local community ties eroded by the soul-destroying nature and faceless personae of the globalized food supply chain and large retailing operations. Knowing your farmer(s) promotes camaraderie, informal conversation, greater understanding, and good will between urban consumers and agricultural producers. This results in greater trust and collaboration among local actors and more resilient communities.
While there might be some truth to these claims, conventional food practices also generate much social capital, such as when urban teenagers get part-time jobs working in grocery stores and come into contact with the complexity of the food system and the diversity of customers. There is also no evidence that locavorism nurtures the development of more or better social capital than is created in its absence.
Another problem for the locavores’ claim is their promise to improve food value and quality by eliminating the intermediaries. However, intermediaries in the conventional food supply chain create value by delivering lower costs by ruthlessly looking for the best deals among several suppliers, greater convenience through closer geographical proximity to consumers (built-in locavorism!), and less waste by providing consumers with the option of buying just the amount and level of processing of food they need when they need it. By combining all these, intermediaries deliver more flexibility, convenience, and better value overall than direct marketing approaches such as farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA). While farmers’ markets and CSA might result in genuine new friendships, spending more time and money to acquire food means fewer opportunities to nurture social capital in other ways, from charitable giving to volunteering.
Much evidence also suggests that direct marketing has been and will by necessity remain insignificant in terms of overall food retail as it is simply too inconvenient for both producers and final consumers. Indeed, from the beginning of markets and civilization, intermediaries have been engaged in the assembling, grading, packaging, processing, storing, transporting, financing, distributing, and advertising of food products of all kinds. Plato thus described over two millennia ago a class of “retailers” who “sit in the market-place [and] engaged in buying and selling.” These individuals proved useful when a farmer brought “some production to market … at a time when there is no one to exchange with him.”
Closer to our time, the Swiss-French writer Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) praised the useful role played by the “middleman class” by observing that these intermediaries “can study better the needs they undertake to meet. They free the farmer from having to get involved in speculations which absorb his time, divert his resources, and drive him into the middle of towns.” True, Constant observed, these “middlemen have to be paid for their trouble. But the farmer himself has to be paid for this same trouble, which he takes less effectively and skillfully.” Far from being parasitical, Constant argued, the intermediary possessed a unique knowledge base and skill set that resulted in lower prices and greater convenience for the consumers. The traditional problems inherent to retailing activities that have always resulted in the emergence of intermediaries in the past will result in the emergence of intermediaries between alternative local food producers and geographically proximate consumers in the future.
Producers and retailers in short supply chains have also fewer incentives than large food producers and retailers to tell the truth about their offerings. For one, they are less worth, or simply not worth, suing. Also, they do not have a recognizable brand that they wish to nurture and protect; a brand’s reputation is a valuable commodity that tarnishes easily yet is challenging to build and maintain. Without that kind of an investment, short-chain retailers and producers are — incidentally — rather anonymous and forgettable. If activists were worried about large corporations being faceless, they should worry more, not less, when dealing with the small-time producers who, while on the whole great human beings, may be harder to track and bring to justice.
Myth #2: Locavorism promotes economic development
The locavores’ arguments:
Additional local food purchases improve the economic circumstances of mostly small-scale farmers who otherwise struggle against international competition. Money spent locally stays in the community and generates additional employment in other lines of work rather than ending up in the distant headquarters of large retail chains, shipping companies, and corporate farms.
In a market economy, retailers will always display local food that meets their specifications for quality and volume when it offers the best quality/price ratio. Such local food creates value and jobs not because it is local, but because it is the best option available at the time. Wholesalers and retailers do not bother importing food from distant locations unless it is a superior alternative to local products.
Cheaper imports leave more money in the pockets of consumers to spend on other things, thus creating more jobs overall, both locally and elsewhere. While some painful personal or regional adjustments are required as a result of imports, in the medium to long term this process raises living standards, including those of agricultural workers, many of whom will be offered other employment alternatives as a result.
The high cost of land and other inputs in cities, along with inherent technical limitations, makes urban agriculture in the form of urban rooftop greenhouses and especially vertical farms extremely expensive to build and operate. As such, their potential market niches are limited to expensive high-end products (herbs and leafy vegetables in the case of vertical farms) targeted at middle- and upper-middle-class consumers who share vertical farm owners’ beliefs as to the unsustainable character of modern agriculture.
The recent bankruptcies of many vertical farm projects suggest the model is inherently unprofitable. Where it survives, it is often because the operation of the farm is either subsidized by another division of the same business or is not subject to cost/profit accounting, as in educational urban farms.
Economic development has never occurred without urbanization, and urbanization has long been impossible without substantial food imports from distant locations. This fact was obvious over 2,000 years ago to Plato’s characters in his Republic when they stated that to find a city “where nothing need be imported” was “impossible.” Like all predominantly rural societies, the world envisioned by locavores would unavoidably use scarce resources less productively and deliver lower standards of living than an urbanized one.
Myth #3: Locavorism is tastier, more nutritious, and safer
The locavores’ arguments:
Because locally grown food is fresher, it is tastier and more nutritious than items that have traveled long distances. Food contamination is also more likely in central processing facilities where vast quantities of food from diverse geographical origins commingle and are exposed to contaminants. By contrast, the small scale of local food production ensures that problems are smaller and remain localized.
Major advances in the preservation and transportation of food in the 19th century marked a decisive break with the more monotonous and less nutritious local diets of our ancestors. When nutrition did improve for common people, it came at the price of a growing distance between producers and consumers.
The locavores’ claim that freshness is key to superior taste and nutrition is both self-defeating and mistaken. Barring massive investments in heated greenhouses, fresh food is only available for short periods of time each year in temperate climates whereas the globalized food supply chain delivers “permanent summertime” in the produce sections of supermarkets. Produce grown specifically for freezing and canning by large concerns is typically picked in its best state, and, depending on the commodity, freezing and canning processes often preserve nutrient value better than refrigeration.
For instance, canned peaches are just as nutritious as fresh items while canned tomatoes are more nutritious because the cooking process makes them more easily digestible. There is no simple correlation between freshness and nutritional value, but there is one between long-distance trade and the year-round availability of fresh produce.
Small farms and processing operations can never possibly assemble the same quality of equipment and food-safety know-how as larger firms that can invest in sophisticated technologies and protocols to deal with the dangerous bacteria, viruses, and microbes that are all around us (e.g., salmonella, listeria, norovirus, campylobacter, E. coli O157:H7).
Our modern food system is by far the safest in human history. Perceptions to the contrary are driven by the greater ease with which problems of various kinds can now be detected, acted upon, and reported in the media. Large supermarkets are also inherently safer than farmers’ markets, which are, in most cases, temporary outdoor affairs with few facilities and whose vendors have, in general, received only the most basic training in food hygiene.
Export operations established by, or working in, collaboration with producers from advanced economies in poorer parts of the world typically implement state-of-the-art technologies that are then adopted by the domestic market. Paradoxically, food produced by small operators and sold at local farmers’ markets in advanced economies rarely undergoes the same level of scrutiny.
The locavores’ fondness for re-introducing livestock in urban environments further presents significant public health risks, particularly when coupled with the recent challenges to our herd immunity caused by lower vaccination rates.
Myth #4: Locavorism increases food security
The locavores’ arguments:
Local producers are more dependable than foreign suppliers in times of political and economic crisis. Diversified local agriculture is also less likely to succumb to pests and diseases than monocultures.
Famines have plagued humankind for at least 6,000 years. Many were attributable to natural factors such as unseasonable heat or cold, excessive or insufficient rainfall, floods, insect pests, rodents, pathogens, soil degradation, and epidemics that made farmers or their beasts of burden unfit for work. As the historical record clearly shows, the crop diversification strategy of subsistence-agriculture communities could never overcome the fact that they were condemned to put all their production eggs in one regional basket and that they would periodically lose most of what they grew to drought, floods, diseases, and pests.
What ultimately delivered most of humanity from widespread malnutrition and famine was long-distance trade and the ability of regions that were experiencing bad harvests to rely on the surplus of those that had enjoyed better than average ones. Because of global specialization and exchange coupled with a mass-transportation infrastructure, humanity currently enjoys its highest level of food security in history. Perennial worries like food shortages and famines are now confined to the least developed and more conflict-prone parts of the planet.
Myth #5: Locavorism heals the Earth
The locavores’ arguments:
Locally produced foodstuffs travel shorter distances between final producers and consumers. With fewer “food miles,” they generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions than food shipped from more distant places. Because they must serve a broader array of needs than export-oriented monocultures, local food production systems are inherently more diverse and therefore more beneficial to the environment. Promoting local food production further helps fight urban sprawl and promotes better environmental stewardship.
Local-food activists never compare today’s agricultural problems with the more serious ones (e.g., land erosion, soil depletion) of the past, nor do they explain how promoting a less efficient use of resources, and therefore greater consumption of land, water, fuels, and other inputs, will prove beneficial to the environment.
The notion of “food miles,” meaning the distance between farms and final consumers, is a meaningless environmental indicator. A key problem with this metric is the fact that producing food requires much more energy than moving it around, especially when significant amounts of heating and/or cold protection, irrigation water, fertilizers and pesticides, and other inputs are required to grow crops in a nearby region, but not in a more distant one. In such circumstances, reducing food miles implies a greater environmental footprint because of the use of additional costly and carbon-intensive inputs.
The distance traveled also matters less than the mode of transportation in terms of CO2 impact. For instance, moving foodstuffs halfway around the Earth on a container ship often has a smaller carbon footprint per item carried than a relatively short ride by pickup truck to deliver produce from an alternative farm to urban farmers’ markets. While imperfect because of subsidies, quotas, and barriers to international trade, market prices nonetheless factor in most relevant environmental trade-offs because of the costs incurred through the use of additional inputs. Thus, cheaper foods usually do align with being less resource-intensive.
Advances in transportation and conservation technologies have also historically produced a shift from producing, storing, and consuming local foodstuffs throughout the year to the consumption of increasingly diverse and fresher products shipped from regions located at different latitudes. This delivers not only greater variety and quality and lower prices, but also less waste and less energy devoted to cold storage. In recent decades, the Southern Hemisphere, where seasons are inverted — meaning that summer months in the Southern Hemisphere coincide with winter months in the Northern Hemisphere — has played an increasingly important role in supplying northern markets when local produce is not in season, further reducing waste and energy expenditure.
Fears of losing valuable agricultural land to urban sprawl are also mistaken, as the increased productivity of modern agriculture has resulted in the abandonment of much marginal agricultural land and significant reforestation and re-wilding in all advanced and most developing economies.
To the extent it takes place in a competitive setting, modern agriculture is always about getting more and better output from fewer inputs. It is puzzling that local food activists believe in the opposite and don’t clamor instead for greater trade liberalization and the end of price-distorting subsidies and quotas.
What many enthusiastic local food activists ultimately fail to understand is that their vision is up against several wake-up calls from reality. One is the existence of undeniable geographical advantages for the production of certain types of food.
Another is the creation of economies of scale and scope in food production, processing, transport, and safety, and the growing demand for developing an ever more sophisticated division of labor through which people are given the opportunity to acquire specialized and useful skills.
These realities have defeated local food production systems in the past and condemn similar well-meaning future initiatives to failure. Locavores should redirect their efforts toward promoting a greater globalization of our food supply with fewer regional tariffs as well as politically motivated subsidies that create cartels.
When we can enjoy a glass of excellent Québec cider made fewer than 500 miles from our home but stopped from getting to our table today by provincial trade barriers, we, too, will offer a toast to effective local-food activism. Until then, we conclude that locavores are harming, not helping, consumers in their search for the best in food.