August 11, 2012

The Locavore's Dilemma, by Pierre Desrochers and Hirozo Shimizu

'The Locavore's Dilemma' is a response to the local foods movement as embodied by Michael Pollan, author of 'The Omnivore's Dilemma', the title Desrochers and Shimizu choose to imitate. Desrochers and Shimizu ask why, if local agriculture is preferable, the agricultural system has developed into the globalized, corporate behemoth it is today. Their conclusion, as one might guess from the title, is that such development is due to economic forces that are still present, and thus present disincentives to move towards a more local agricultural system. But they go further, and attempt to dismantle each argument for a local agricultural system. While not all the arguments are persuasive, on the whole the book presents serious problems that the local foods movement does not address.

Desrochers and Shimizu structure their argument around debunking five "myths", or arguments for a local agricultural system, but I will comment on only the two better arguments for local foods, those based on local economic and environmental considerations. In response to the idea that a primarily local agricultural system would boost the local economy, Desrochers and Shimizu are at their strongest, and though many of their arguments are fairly standard defenses of globalization, it is worthwhile to examine them in the context of food production. Economic specialization allows for better expertise, and farming is no exception. Economy of scale is also important. Together, these pressures make massive technically advanced and specialized farms more economically viable. Small farms growing a variety of crops are at a significant disadvantage. Neither side of the issue doubts this. The question is whether such "family" farms should be protected, and the answer, purely in terms of what will help the local economy, is no.

Small farms inhabit a romantic place in the modern psyche, of a time before our effect on the environment was manifesting itself in obvious and deleterious ways, a time before Wal-Mart and McDonalds conquered the globe, a seemingly more reflective time. This nostalgia is selective, however. The blessings of technology are, of course, mixed, but it is difficult to argue with the fact that we now lead longer, healthier lives thanks to scientific progress.

While I could argue that technological innovation in agriculture should be embraced rather than shunned for the same reasons that most scientific innovation should be pursued, technological progress and agriculture are linked in a more fundamental way. The Neolithic Revolution was the transformation of societies of hunter-gatherers to sedentary societies that cultivated crops. This change limited the percentage of the population that needed to be dedicated to farming in order to feed everyone. This, in turn, allowed more people to spend their time doing things other than worrying where they would find their next meal. These forces are still in effect.

Protection of small farms, then, stands to slow not just of agricultural innovation, but scientific progress. Is it worth this cost? To answer this, we must examine the reason small farms are supposed to deserve protection. Most arguments usually end up invoking an example of a farmer whose family has farmed that piece of land for decades, and is now being pushed out of business by bigger and/or foreign competitors. We end up conflating our empathy for the farmer, and concern for his economic well-being, with the notion that he has a fundamental right to make a living by farming. This error comes from an era when occupation-specific skills were not typically eclipsed by technological advances in a single lifetime. We should be concerned with this farmer's financial viability, not as farmer, but as a member of society. We should provide the educational resources for him to transition to an occupation that is in demand, and social services to support him during education or while searching for a job. This is the type of shift agricultural innovation allows, and will boost the local economy in the form of cheaper food and a more educated, urban labor force.

We turn now to environmental concerns. Here the answers become less clear, and Desrochers and Shimizu do not help matters by exhibiting brash overconfidence in scientific innovation. However there are still some key ideas behinds the environmental argument for local foods that need to be discarded. Small farms using old "natural" pesticides and tending polycultures are not more "in harmony with nature", whatever that means, than large corporate farms. Agriculture fundamentally transforms the landscape, and the only way to avoid this would be returning to a society based on hunting and gathering. Species as widespread as we are transform the planet. It is quite arrogant of us to believe that we are the first species that has done so (we are not), or that we will be the last. We cannot, therefore, conclude a priori that change is bad.

There are, however, perfectly legitimate reasons to be concerned about climate change. Firstly, we evolved to live in a certain climate, and if we cause that climate to change too quickly, we may not be able to keep up. Secondly, our emotional attachment to the current biodiversity is a legitimate reason to be concerned about threats to that biodiversity. But this emotional attachment should be centered around empathy, and science can direct us our concern by telling us what beings are more likely to experience suffering similar to the way we do. Such an emphasis would lead us to be less concerned than typical environmentalists with plants, and more concerned with animals, particularly complex animals (and, of course, the plants upon which their lives depend). A much deeper discussion of science and morality is important, but will not be covered here.

The question then becomes how best to limit the effects of climate change. And here is where local agriculture once again falls flat. More efficient farming as practiced by large farms that embrace agricultural science requires less land and less energy to produce equal amounts of food. The energy required to transport food from farm to table provides one of the most common arguments for local foods. But long-distance transport of large quantities of food consumes comparatively little energy. Approximately half of the energy put into bringing food the consumer's table is the energy it takes the consumer to travel to and from the grocery store. And even including this, energy put into transportation is dwarfed by the energy required for food production. Over eighty percent of the energy required to put food on the table is consumed in the stages of food production. In terms of energy consumption, local agriculture is not a solution.

I will momentarily digress to note a problematic argument put forward by Desrochers and Shimizu with respect to energy consumption. They assert that we need not be concerned with consumption of fossil fuels, because economic incentives will produce the necessary technological innovation to replace fossil fuels if they become scarce. This is a common and bizarre line of argument. Economic analysis indicates that as fossil fuels become scarce, their price will rise, and incentive will indeed grow for development of an alternative source of energy. Economics tells us nothing about when or whether scientific innovation will make such alternatives possible. Desrochers and Shimizu go so far as to claim that thanks to human innovation, finite resources do not exist, a claim that simply cannot stand. However, this only makes it more important that farms are as energy efficient as possible.

Now that the authors' egregious error has been addressed, we can return to ideas of theirs that stand on firmer ground. There is no question, they admit, that large monocultures are more prone to disease, and that pesticides are more often required. But large-scale farms have the resources to research scientific solutions to crop disease to a greater extent than small farms, and by applying these resources, they mitigate much damage. In this case, we need not rely on blind optimism in scientific progress, as the history of industrial agriculture demonstrates. There is, however, a less easily addressed problem with pesticides. There can be no doubt that we must guard against the poisoning of our air, streams, and soil, and it is highly doubtful that economic incentives are sufficient to prevent these environmental tragedies. But small farms are not inherently better in this respect either. Farmers who claim to use more "natural" pest-control methods typically are just using older, less effective pesticides. This means they must either use more quantity or produce less food, or both. Our focus, then, should be to farm as little land as possible, as efficiently as possible, with pest-control methods that target the problematic pests as specifically as possible. Small farms do not do achieve any of these goals, and despite their problems, large monocultures seem to be our best option.

Desrochers and Shimizu address and refute, with varying success, three other proposed benefits of local agriculture: that it nurtures social capital, increases food security, and brings us food that is tastier, more nutritious, and safer. But even if the local foods advocates were correct about these issues (and they probably are not, particularly on food security and quality), they come at great economic and environmental cost. This book, on the whole, successfully identifies problems with the local foods movement, problems that need to be addressed for us to develop a better idea of how the food production system should look.

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