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Locavore detractors sow seeds of discontent

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IF you disagree with the ideas behind the local food movement, you will find good company in this systematic attack on the reasons some now choose to eat food produced close to where they live.

The Locavore's Dilemma seeks to academically debunk the earth-friendly, health-conscious and corporate-wary claims of the attempt by many to come to know where and how their food is produced.

This is the first book for the Toronto-based husband and wife team of Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu, who admit that their personal opinion and love of foreign cuisine influence their polemic.

Desrochers is an associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto and the Japan-trained Shimizu works as an economic consultant.

The authors outright disagree with the whole idea of local food and claim that it will lead to the opposite outcomes that its proponents expect.

Well-organized chapters are arranged in order to address what the authors claim are the five myths of local food: the nurture of social capital, a boost to the local economy, a low environmental impact, safer and more nutritious food, and greater food security.

So-called locavores likely all don't give equal weight to these five ideas. Some may care more about the social aspect and are less concerned about how locally procured food contributes to food security.

At first blush, Desrochers and Shimizu appear to make a well-documented case in support of their views. Some of their points have straightforward validity. Certainly for many foods, the portion of the commodity chain that emits the most carbon is not production or bulk shipments, but the gasoline that is burnt by consumers driving to and from the supermarket.

The authors, however, tend to favour the opinions of economists in support of their neo-liberal views when arguing everything from farmer-consumer relations to deforestation.

Many of their sources and examples are from centuries past. Indeed, one of their most common references is to the writings of Adam Smith.

Some of the arguments found here are so cumbersome that one loses the original point. Indeed, many of the discussions instead lend themselves to a supporting role not against but in favour of local eating.

They use the case of the well-known Irish potato famine to disprove claims against single large-scale crops, or mono-cultures. They attribute starvation and mass exodus of the Irish population not to a reliance on a sole crop, potatoes, but to a lack of economic diversity, technology, trade and labour mobility.

Other of their arguments are just nonsensical and fallacious. For example, despite the many scares and failures we see year after year, they say that money, technology and expertise make large-scale mono-culture crops more secure from pests and natural disasters, and create safer food.

Meanwhile, small-scale poly-cultures, or mixed-cropping, they claim are more vulnerable to these threats, would make more people sick and result in more food-related deaths.

If a monoculture does fail, the authors protest, and farm workers lose their jobs, well that's life. All commercial products and skills eventually become obsolete, and workers must move on to more efficient sectors.

If communities fail because of poor crops, the people never had a right to live where they wanted anyway. According to the authors, humans gave up that right when they left Africa.

Desrochers and Shimizu make apparent their fear of the hard work and lean times that may result if we all go back to olden-day subsistence agriculture, which they seem to confuse with buying and eating local.

In the end they are against well-intentioned consumers in North America and Europe choosing alternatives to the globalized food system.

They seem to think this movement includes some unspoken agenda to force everyone to give up food imports and put their food supply at risk by forsaking technology and moving to small agricultural hamlets. See you on the dirt farm.

Matthew Havens is a research associate with the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

The Locavore's Dilemma

In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet

By Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu

Public Affairs, 288 pages, $30

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2012 J9

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