A Paradox For Locavores

I was reading through Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu's provocative book The Locavore's Dilemma (I highly recommend it to readers interested in giving their critical thinking skills a workout) when I stumbled onto a fascinating question. I'm paraphrasing:

If we decide to embrace locavorism across the country, how many millions of acres of forest and wildlife habitat should we therefore sacrifice to do so?

I never really thought about this aspect of the local food debate, but this is a serious paradox. It's a terrible conundrum for locavores who also care about the environment.

Here's why: You don't want to use land that just happens to be located within 100 miles (or whatever arbitrary distance you choose) of a given major population center. You want to use the most productive and most efficient land you can for farming. By using the most productive farmland available, almost regardless of where it is, you'll be able to use less land per unit of food.

Think back to 200 years ago. Back then, we pretty much didn't have a transportation infrastructure to transport anything... anywhere. It's quite striking to read how it could take weeks, even months, to get from, say, Boston to Philadelphia--a drive that you can do today in a matter of hours. And in wintertime, forget about it. (Read, for example David McCollough's excellent biography of John Adams, or his recent book 1776, for striking anecdotes on how impossibly time-consuming travel was in the early days of the USA).

In those days, by definition, all food had to be local. That's why we essentially clear-cut all of North America, denuding it of trees, habitat, whatever. Habitat didn't matter to anyone back then, simply because people needed to use all land--even the most rocky, unfit, and poorest quality land--to feed themselves. And keep in mind: in 1800 we had a measly population of just 5.3 million, 1/58th of our current population of 309 million!

Whether we liked it or not, we were all locavores back then. Every community needed to grow whatever it could to survive.

Enter our transportation system, which started initially with the use of waterways and canal systems, and then with the dramatic expansion of railroads. In a matter of just a few decades, you could begin to get food not just locally, but from practically anywhere across the east, south and midwest regions of the continent. Suddenly, that crappy, rocky soil in Vermont, with its short growing season and unpredictable early and late frosts, just wasn't worth plowing any more.

This is why, when you drive across Vermont, New Hampshire, and Upstate New York, you see a tremendous amount of forest. Everywhere. That's land that long ago was completely stripped of trees to be farmed, but has since fully returned to basic forest habitat. Yes, of course, there is also some agriculture in these regions, but it's centered mostly around foods that these regions produce best (to give a few examples, apples, dairy and sweet corn among many others). There's no longer any necessity for each of these regions to grow everything they eat, and that's why they no longer use all the available land to do so.

Instead, we can use far more productive farmland in the midwest, in California--or in other places all over the world--to grow far more food with far less land.

So what's important to you? Locavorism? Or prudent, efficient land use? Are you willing to sacrifice forest and habitat in order that you and others can eat local?

Readers, please share your thoughts!

Related Posts:
Ending Overeating: An Interview With Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler
Interview with Jayson Lusk, Author of "The Food Police"
A Cup of Morning Death? How "Big Coffee" Puts Profits Before People
Consumer Empowerment: How To Self-Fund Your Consumer Products Purchases

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
Easy. Do all your shopping at Amazon.com via the links on this site! You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.


Steve Tallant said...

Given the infrastructure efficiencies, essentially the entire United States is "local", and being a "locavore" is generally useless. The argument is really between "corporate" producers versus "artisan" producers. Corporate producers create great volumes of consistent, largely standardized product. What the "locavore" is really looking for is what the Artisan producer is putting out there - much lower volume, more differentiated and unique product. And given our distribution efficiencies, this artisan product is generally accessible widely. "Locavores" want Berkshire pork, heirloom tomatoes, organic/pesticide free fruits/vegetables, grass-fed American Waygu, etc. All stuff that the big boys can't/won't produce in sufficient volume for their requirements. I love "local" Farmers Markets, but if you look closer at many of them, the actual products sold are these artisan products that are decidedly not from the micro-locale.

Daniel said...

Great comment Steve, thank you. I hear you on the artisan products, and I also wonder what will happen even to non-artisan products like your basic Macintosh apple: it doesn't travel or keep very well, it bruises easily... but man, if you eat a fresh one here in Northern NJ or in Upstate NY it is an unforgettable, delicious experience. The best apple in the world in my opinion.

Except that it doesn't travel or keep very well, and it bruises easily! Which means that scale producers are going to want to replace this amazing apple with something that *does* travel and keep well and *doesn't* bruise easily. That's why you see more and more Granny Smith apples or crossbreeds like Jonamac apples in the grocery store year round. And it's not like Macintosh apples are exclusive artisanal products only eaten by hipsters either. Yet they are probably going to be displaced, eventually.

So this is another issue I struggle with on the pro/anti locavore debate (even though admittedly this point contradicts the point of the post!). Non-local, scale-produced foods are successful in the market for reasons like cost, storage potential and sturdiness--factors that usually have little to do with taste. Yet another paradox.


chacha1 said...

I think locavorism and prudent, ethical land use are not mutually exclusive ... as long as people stop thinking of "agriculture" as something that is done only on wide horizontal tracts of land. :-)

Hydroponics and vertical gardening seem to me to be the best options for the person who wants to grow as much of their own food as possible without having to own forty acres and a mule.

New realities only become a "problem" when people try to apply old solutions to the new realities.

chacha1 said...

and p.s. on artisan or "heritage" produce etc. ...

that is what food tourism is all about.

mm1970 said...

I read a book several years ago that touched on this. I am not sure what book it was, but I kind of think that is was The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (Peter Singer and Jim Mason).

One of the things that really struck me was the following anecdote: you can buy rice grown in the central valley of California (I live in California), which is "local", or you can buy rice in Asia that is shipped to California.

It actually uses less energy to buy the rice from Asia, because the rice is grown where it's natural to grow rice (as opposed to Central California where you have to pipe in a LOT of water). Shipping energy is less than production energy.

I like to eat local to support my local farmers - when it makes sense to do so. It's easy to grow strawberries and broccoli here, and there are several ranches with cattle. But bananas, I'm out of luck - and apples don't grow terribly well. I'm fine with Washington apples.

Brian said...

I agree with the principle of questioning the large scale utility of locavorism, but; your presentation of America in the eighteenth century is fairly hyperbolic. The mere fact that there were settler colonies in what is now the States should show you that transport was commonplace. Britain exported huge quantities of food to the Colonies and America would have also imported food from other nearby colonies.

Which is all to say that even at a time when transport was a detractor people still depended on food imports to a large degree.

Daniel said...

I think the issue with transport was the sheer time required. A trip by ship from Europe to the USA then could take many months. The simple fact that almost all settlers to the New World *had* to take up farming goes to show that it wasn't possible to depend on food shipments from Europe or anywhere else in the way we can rely on our transport infrastructure today.

Your point is a reasonable one, but it still doesn't obviate the land use question in any way.