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Local food proponent ignores economic key

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APPARENTLY we're on the verge of a food crisis in Canada, and the only solution is to grow cabbage in our window boxes and covertly raise chickens in our backyards.

This is, of course, alarmist and untrue, but it is the underlying policy message of this otherwise interesting travelogue that gets in over its head.

Author Jennifer Cockrall-King is an Edmonton-based journalist and local-food proponent who has written a book that is two parts travelogue and one part treatise on food policy.

First the good parts of the book. The production of food close to home has been growing in popularity in large urban centres. The University of Manitoba offers a course in urban agriculture and many (often expensive) Winnipeg restaurants feature locally produced food on their menus.

Food and the City takes readers to several large cities around the world where urban agriculture is flourishing and tells interesting success stories of urban farmers.

Now the bad. This book dives head first into several complicated food policy issues in its attempt to encourage urban agriculture. And it gets a lot wrong. It is important to note that policies promoting local-food production are one far end of the spectrum of international trade protection (with free trade between countries being the other end). Trade protectionism is bad for several reasons, most importantly because it constrains countries' incomes. Canada is a rich country, in large part because we specialize in production of certain products and trade with others who specialize in different products. And one of the most important food policy lessons that we've learned over the past few decades is that food security is dependent on income, not on food supply (even at the local level).

Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen demonstrated that adequate food supplies existed in famine-stricken areas: the problem was that people couldn't afford it. Specialization may not seem significant at an individual level (what's the harm of a physician or highly paid executive spending a few hours per week in their garden) but it's important in the big picture.

This specialization goes a long way in explaining why Canadians are food secure and people in poor countries are not.

Cockrall-King also mistakenly conflates several legitimate food policy issues and offers local food as a potential solution to all of them. For example, more than 80 per cent of carbon emissions generated in production of a typical North American diet are generated at the production level, and approximately 10 per cent at the transportation stage.

Changing the composition of our diets away from carbon-intensive foods (specifically meat) would go a lot further than changing the location in which it is produced.

Another example is her suggestion that local food could help to improve the diets of the urban poor. Local food would be more expensive, particularly those products often missing from poor consumers' diets -- unprocessed fruits and vegetables. Higher prices for these products will increase the demand for processed foods.

Perhaps the most frustrating parts of the book are those that express admiration of Cuba's food economy. Cockrall-King writes, "Cuba has the world knocking on its door," and "the Cuban model attains ideals with ... a secure food supply."

But Cubans rely on food rations and many are food insecure. This is not a good model for Canada, or for any other country.

Growing food at home can be fun, and should be pursued by individuals who are interested. But it is bad public policy in rich countries, and potentially dangerous policy in poor countries. This book would be a lot more digestible if the policy treatise were left out of the recipe.

Ryan Cardwell is an associate professor of agricultural economics at the University of Manitoba.

Food and the City

Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution

By Jennifer Cockrall-King

Prometheus, 360 pages, $21

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2012 J9

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