The Myths of Local Food Policy: Lessons from the Economic and Social History of the Food System
For several years, activists and policymakers have promoted a wide range of local food initiatives. Many of these have been unsuccessful or have experienced significant problems. These problems were unavoidable because the approaches promoted by local food activists (also known as locavores) (re)created the problems that had historically motivated the development of modern agricultural production practices and of the globalized food supply chain. By promoting the increased production of local food that does not offer a compelling quality/price ratio while shunning modern production and processing technologies, activists ensure that our food supply will become more expensive, environmentally damaging, and hazardous to our health than is presently the case. This is because their prescription is based on five myths.
Myth #1: Locavorism nurtures social capital
The locavores argue that direct connections between final consumers and local food producers mend local community ties eroded by the anonymous character of the globalized food supply chain and large retailing operations.
The facts are that conventional food practices generate much social capital, such as when urban teenagers get part-time jobs working in grocery stores and come into contact with the complexity of the food system and the diversity of customers. Further, intermediaries in the conventional food supply chain create value by delivering lower costs (by ruthlessly looking for the better deals among several suppliers), greater convenience (through closer geographical proximity to consumers) and less waste (by providing consumers with the amount of food they need when they need it) than direct marketing approaches such as farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture.
Myth #2: Locavorism promotes economic development
The locavores argue that additional local food purchases improve the economic circumstances of mostly small-scale farmers who otherwise struggle against international competition. Money spent locally stays in the community and generates additional employment in other lines of work rather than ending up in the distant headquarters of large retail chains, shipping companies, and corporate farms.
The facts are that in a market economy, retailers will always display local food that meets their specifications (e.g., volume, quality) when it offers the best quality/price ratio. Such local food creates value and jobs not because it is local, but because it is the best option available at that point. The high cost of land and other inputs in cities, along with technical limitations, make urban agriculture extremely expensive to build and operate. As such, their potential market niches are limited to expensive high-end products targeted at middle- and upper-middle-class consumers who share their owners’ beliefs. The recent bankruptcies of many vertical farm projects suggest the model is inherently unprofitable.
Myth #3: Locavorism is tastier, more nutritious, and safer
Locavores argue that because locally grown food is fresher, it is tastier and more nutritious than items that have travelled long distances. Food contamination is also more likely in central processing facilities where vast quantities of food from diverse geographical origins comingle and are exposed to undesirable elements. By contrast, the small scale of local food production ensures that problems are smaller and remain localized.
The fact is that major advances in the preservation and transportation of food in the 19th century marked a major break with the more monotonous and less nutritious local diets of our ancestors. There is no simple correlation between freshness and nutritional value, but there is one between long-distance trade and the year-round availability of fresh produce. Furthermore, our modern food system is by far the safest in human history. Large supermarkets are also inherently safer than farmers’ markets which are usually temporary outdoor events with few facilities and whose vendors have, in general, received only the most basic training in food hygiene.
Myth #4: Locavorism increases food security
Locavores argue that local producers are more dependable than foreign suppliers in times of political and economic crisis. Diversified local agriculture is also less likely to succumb to pests and diseases than monocultures.
The fact is that famines have plagued humankind for at least 6,000 years. The historical record clearly shows that the crop diversification strategy of subsistence agriculture communities could never overcome the fact that they were condemned to put all their production eggs in one regional basket. What ultimately delivered most of humanity from widespread malnutrition and famine was long-distance trade and the ability of regions that were experiencing bad harvests to rely on the surplus of those that had enjoyed better than average ones. Because of global specialization and exchange, humanity currently enjoys its highest level of food security in history and perennial worries like food shortages and famines are now confined to the least developed and more conflict-prone parts of the planet.
Myth #5: Locavorism heals the Earth
Locavores argue that locally produced foodstuffs travel shorter distances between final producers and consumers (i.e., fewer “food miles”) and generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions than food shipped from more distant places and therefore are more beneficial to the environment.
The fact is that the notion of “food miles,” meaning the distance between farms and final consumers, is a meaningless environmental indicator. Producing food requires much more energy than moving it around. The distance travelled matters less than the mode of transportation. For instance, moving foodstuffs halfway around the Earth on a container ship often has a smaller footprint per item carried than a relatively short ride by pick-up truck to deliver produce from an alternative farm to urban farmers’ markets.
The vision of local food activists is up against geographical advantages for the production of certain types of food and the creation of economies of scale and scope in food production, processing, transport, and safety. These realities have defeated very sophisticated local food production systems in the past and condemned their well-meaning initiatives to failure. Locavores should redirect their efforts toward promoting the greater globalization of our food supply.
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