Guest Blog Post: Pierre Desrochers

In Agriculture, Commentary by Lenore Newman7 Comments

My last two blog posts have both been responses to The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet, and can be found here and here. Dr. Pierre Desrochers, one of the co-authors of this book, has been kind enough to engage with my critique. This blog post was originally posted as a comment to my last entry, but in the interest of fostering a dialogue on the value of local food, I am pleased to have Dr. Desrocher’s responses to my critique here as a guest blog post.

Sand & Feathers: Firstly, the authors construct a “locavore” straw man that bears little relation to the actual local food movement…

Pierre: Respectfully, have you read the several hundred comments to Wente’s piece and to the other pieces excerpted from or about our book in the last few weeks (for various links, see www.globavore.org)? The radical fringe is significant. At any rate, our problem is with local food that “is deemed desirable simply because of its geographical origins and is not more afforddable, nutritious, safer, or better tasting than alternatives produced further away.” (p. 13) I wouldn’t call this a strawman.

S&F: Secondly, the locavore movement tends to shine a light on subsidies for giant monocultures, on the actions of lobbyists, on the interference by governments around the world to expand export agriculture. The authors don’t talk about these subsidies, or mention that the success of local agriculture has occurred within these market distortions, and often in the face of government barriers to local production and in particular local processing.

Pierre: Chapter 7 is entirely devoted to agricultural market distortions and the specific topic of subsidies is discussed from pages 179 to 182. Granted, we didn’t delve into much detail, but that was because this would have put the targeted audience to sleep. We conclude that section with the following remark: “Regulated and distorted markets reinforce the political powers of beneficiary groups such as subsidized commodity producers, prevent or hinder the reallocation of scarce resources from less efficient producers to more efficient ones, generally discourage innovative behavior, and encourage the wasteful use of subsidized inputs while protecting polluters from sanctions. As such, they can never – in contrast to liberalized markets – simultaneously deliver greater output, lower prices, and reduced environmental impact. The road to food insecurity, higher prices, and greater environmental damage is paved with well-meaning policies” (p. 182). Local food activists didn’t add anything to the long standing critiques made by proponents of agricultural market liberalization.

S&F: Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the entire book is based on the false idea that locavores want to return agriculture to some romantic past… The local food movement, however, is increasingly a movement that embraces high technology. … The facile counter-argument that only giant businesses can drive innovation is so obviously false that I am surprised they tried to advance it.

Pierre: Sorry, but you’re the one setting up a strawman here. We never argued that all locavores are luddites, although many are (again, please go back to the thousands of comments on our work published in the last few weeks). The fundamental problem of any consistent definition of locavorims is that it doesn’t believe in economies of scale from regional specialization and trade. This is really the key issue. And for the record, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on technological innovation in small firms. I would never say something as stupid as what you imply.

S&F: I know from my own work that Japan has a thriving local food movement, called Chisan-Chiso, and so I got curious about how much food Japan produces domestically. It turns out this number is roughly 40%, which of course means the speaker the authors was listening to should check his facts, but it also points out that the straw man Desrochers and Shimizu are setting up is pretty weak.

Pierre: 60% is actually pretty high by any standard, but of course our real point is that Japan would be better off if it imported even more of its food than it does at the moment (say, more rice from California). Most Japanese consumers have no problem eating a lot of that stuff when traveling to Hawaii and only protectionist policies prevent them from bringing large amounts of the stuff back in their luggage. And Chisan-Chisho is a local food movement like countless others – misguided in its aims and irrelevant in terms of its real impact.

S&F: This is the first point where the broken window fallacy they use to hinge a major argument upon is conveniently overlooked. They discuss how squid caught in California are sent to China for processing and then returned to California. Now, imagine if the money used to subsidize and pay for transport and the time the freighter crew uses moving the cargo was used for something else “unseen” instead, wouldn’t that be a better use of resources as in the Bastiat example they give?

Pierre: No. In a world without subsidies of any kind, transportation would remain a rather minuscule part of the overall energy expense of food production, processing and distribution. There would be plenty of “food movement” the world over as there was in the (relatively inefficient) “coal age” of the late nineteenth century.

S&F: Firstly, they ask, why are we healthier than our ancestors if our food system is so bad for us. Well, we could simply answer that we are not looking to create the past but rather to move food to the next stage, but also they are drastically overlooking the changes in just about every component of our lives, from medicine to changing social conditions.

Pierre: We do not overlook these advances, but as we state on page 146: “none of the technological advances that made current living standards possible would have taken place in the absence of long-distance trade and urbanization.” This is again the key point of our book.

S&F: The next unanswered question, how can local food provide food for the expected future population, given it is less efficient. Well, I would challenge that the industrial system hasn’t met that need yet either, and if some of the doomsayers are right, it won’t.

Pierre: Not sure I follow you here, but again the key point is whether or not you believe in economies of scale in food production.

S&F: They don’t discuss the environmental losses due to industrial agriculture, which really is a big oversight, and is exactly what they accuse their detractors of doing. .. Now I’m the first to say that no-till could dramatically improve the condition of large monocultures, but there is no reason small plot agriculture couldn’t use no-till techniques as well. Also, not all land is created equal; an acre of rainforest lost to oil palm production is much more biodiverse and valuable (even economically, as a storehouse of genetic material) than an acre of highly disturbed farmland near a major urban centre.

Pierre: Sorry, but no. We are totally in “high yield conservation” camp (if you love nature, stay away from it by concentrating production in the most suitable locations) on this one. What we argue is that less productive approaches must, by definition, have a bigger impact on the landscape (we discuss this at length in chapter 4). There are economies of scale in no-till as with everything else. And Hiroko has actually done fieldwork on palm oil production in Malaysia. We shouldn’t exaggerate the “storehouse of genetic material” argument as plenty of people have been looking for it for a long time. Palm oil is also the highest yielding way to produce vegetable oil while local peasants should have the right to decide what they want to do with their land.

S&F: Also, throughout the text, the authors state that locavores will (gasp!) lobby to force local food onto prisons, schools, and such. Point taken, except many of those institutions currently have given into lobbying to exclusively provision themselves from one large multinational corporation. One of my alma maters, for example, only featured Pepsi. So I’m willing to agree with them that legislating choice is bad, as long as they are willing to publicly back an end to exclusive provisioning agreements of all kinds.

Pierre: My institution (University of Toronto Mississauga) has one of those deals that delivers us a low quality pizza for $18 whenever we try to hold a meeting. I’m all for scrapping those things…

S&F: Chapter two is one of the weaker parts of their text, in that they try to debunk the creation of social capital through local food, and yet make almost no reference to what social capital is.

Pierre: Well, we wish that locavores themselves would define what they actually mean by this. Our main problem is that they never discuss trade-offs. Paying more and spending more time to get your food leaves you less time to do other things. There can be no debate over this.

S&F: It is assumed by Desrochers and Shimizu that transport is practically free, which is of course not the case. .. To give this a bit more rigor, my student Kristi Peters-Snyder footprinted every input into a restaurant in Calgary and found that in summer when local products were used the energy for transport dropped by about half, so it isn’t as easy to sweep under the rug as suggested.

Pierre: Can anyone really expect us to say that? The point is that transportation costs are insignificant in the grander scheme of things, not that they are practically free. And yes, seasonal local food that offers a good quality/price ratio will find a market. We never said otherwise. Rather out point is that locavores are typically clueless about the impact of latitude on the timing of similar productions the world over (pp. 67-72). It makes sense to import produce from the southern hemisphere at certain times of the year.

S&F: I was concerned by the logic in the argument that monocultures are safer because if they suffer a major failure they will find or make a variety that addresses the problem.

Pierre: Well, it’s a lesser problem than putting all your agricultural production eggs in the same regional basket where they can be impacted by everything from frost and drought to flood and locusts…

S&F: The authors also glance over the question potential disruption from an increase in fuel prices and the onset of climate change.

Pierre: Even George Monbiot doesn’t believe in peak oil anymore in light of recent production technology advances (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/02/peak-oil-we-we-wrong). And the inconvenient truth conveniently forgotten by climate alarmists is that most of humanity was severely malnourished and subject to recurring famines when it had practically no carbon footprint. Carbon fuels make us more secure overall by allowing the surplus of regions that have good years to be shipped to those that have bad years, climate change or not. (We address the issue in more detail on pages 138-140)

S&F: To conclude, The Locavore’s Dilemma tries to do far too much and ends up framing a dichotomy that doesn’t exist, and applies arguments in a one-sided way. One has to ask, in the spirit of their book, if the industrial system is so perfect, why did the local food movement arise in the first place, and why has it been successful?

Pierre: We never said that the current industrial system is perfect, but that it is a better alternative to the recurring and misguided romanticism of local food movements over the last two centuries. Again, we are not advocating for the status quo, but for the scrapping of all market distortions and for even more globalization than we currently have.

Comments

  1. Liv Fredricksen

    That was a great dialogue. I enjoyed the original S&F critique, and now Dr. Desrochers has done a fabulous job clarifying (and making more compelling) his positions. Thank you to Pierre for taking the time to do this, and thank you Lenore for so prominently posting and sharing it.

  2. deanbavington

    Interesting debate. What about Capitalism and Food? Isn’t this one of the fundamental differences between these two approaches? Use Value and Exchange Value. This is the fundamental distinction which cannot be “scaled up” and expanded.

  3. Ben

    Interesting stuff. I just read about this book and then stumbled upon this blog. Economics aside… I find that it is nice to be able to meet farmers and talk with them as I am buying produce at the farmers market. There is music and socializing. I can actually go to some of the farms and see what they are doing. Sure it takes more time than going to the grocery store but it is also more satisfying. Going to the grocery store and buying a tomato from Mexico just makes me feel detached from my food. Maybe that detachment is what lead us to all this processed junk food that people eat? Also, as far as I know the workers who grew that tomato worked like slaves and made $3 a day or something. My father raises hogs and owns a trucking company. I have grown up around large confinement farms and food transportation. I have no problem with it. I also happen to enjoy growing my own food and supporting local farmers when possible. I don’t mind if it costs a little more. I’m not wealthy by any means, but food is the one thing I’m willing to splurge on. After all you are what you eat. Of course there will always be a need for imports and exports. I like bananas but they don’t grow in Nebraska. I think there is room for both imported and local food as long as the health of all people is our main intention, not just making money. I feel like Pierre is missing the best part of the local food movement, for me at least, and that is a sense of community. Maybe he just doesn’t have time to go to the market and relax and meet people because he is too busy promoting his new book?

  4. James Norman

    An important debate. Reminiscent of the organic vs. non-organic debates that always seem to be going on.

    Here are some quick thoughts:
    – While our past technological advances may be due to specialization and trade, we’re at a point in history where we could consolidate these gains, reduce the rate of technical progress, and live in a virtual utopia. We’re not at risk for returning to the difficult 19th century life if more people farm locally.
    – The lost opportunity cost for people moving to farming is probably negligible. Youth unemployment is 20% around the world, no? We’ll gain, not lose, if they move to local labor-intensive farming. As it stands, the market sees the marginal return of moving them into other forms of employment insignificant.
    – I’m interested to learn if the majority of local food providers use heated greenhouses. Certainly home gardeners don’t. And year round production in these facilities seems unimportant anyway if you’re putting food up for long-term storage
    – Is a large sustainable farm in a cool climate worse than a small sustainable farm in a warmer climate? If they both use resources sustainably, is it any issue at all that the warmer one uses less land overall? It just means cooler climates can support fewer people, which is obvious. On a deeper note, does comparative advantage even apply for a resource like food which is essential to our livelihood. Would we outsource living in houses if one country did it better?
    – On the issue of sustainability, I’ve heard news reports on phosphorous and potassium shortages, among other nutrients. For a bit of black humor, does this mean consumers would have to ship their compost and human waste back to productive regions to close the nutrient loop? That would double transport costs at least.

    To summarize, I think you nailed the criticisms on the more ardent, unthinking locavore followers. But, growing food locally when done right can make a lot of sense for employment and sustainability without horrific costs to society.

    1. James Norman

      I put more thought into this, countered a few of my own arguments, and came up with some second thoughts.

      – Food miles are not useful for calculation. It seems better to buy sustainably produced food from a distance rather than food poorly produced nearby. This has been a mind-expanding less for me.
      – Some farming methods, applicable to nearly all of the world’s climates, are so sustainable that they barely leave a dent on this plant.
      – Farming in non-ideal climates may be more labor intensive since more land is required, but I still don’t see this as too bad of an issue with high worldwide unemployment.
      – Trading food with developing countries may be a way to lift them out of poverty or subject them generations of farming and poor labor conditions, promoting further worldwide inequality. I’m not well versed on this point, so I’d be curious to hear a more expert opinion.
      – If miles, environmental impact, and labor are insignificant (or unsettled)…how do we decide where to source our food? I guess it becomes a balance of comparative advantage, price, concerns about robustness (i.e. each country having its own secure food supply), and other higher-level issues like health, taste, enjoyment of the farmers market setting over the supermarket, less packaging, accountability and trust of the seller, recycling of money in the community, etc. Lenore touched on these points in a later blog post, I think.
      – I’m now more open to food produced at a distance as long as I know it is being made sustainably. Unfortunately, that’s rare. With local food, alongside the subjective benefits, I know how it’s made and I have an impact on that process as a consumer.

  5. Pingback: Food Politics | Rated Zed

Leave a Comment