Dishing up food-miles debate in the Locavore’s Dilemma

Today’s market is fertile soil for a tangle of misguided subsidies that make local food more expensive than factory food

What an ironic coincidence that the first harvests are coming off SOLEfood’s epic two-acre urban farm beside BC Place Stadium just as publicity is peaking for a book that trashes the local food movement.

The Locavore’s Dilemma - In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet by University of Toronto geographer Pierre Desrochers and his wife and public policy expert Hiroko Shimizu argues that food security comes from increasing trade, not from reducing food miles; that large-scale industrial producers are essential in providing plentiful, affordable, nutritious and safe food; and that eating globally, not locally, is the way to save the planet and deliver ourselves from the drudgery of subsistence farming.

This relentlessly researched book is a timely wakeup call for the more absurdist locavores who may fantasize about living off the food they can grow on their boulevard. That said, I have yet to meet anyone who wants to live without the advantages of imported food.

I had the opportunity to debate Desrochers when he was in town last month. From a strictly economic point of view, I had to agree there is a weak business case for local food – so far. “Local food” is typically less efficiently grown and more expensive than imported food. Indeed, the Vancouver-based authors of the “100-Mile Diet” experiment never intended that everyone should eat only food gathered from within 100 miles. Or that we’d ever be growing wheat or raising cows in the city (although my mother’s family had two cows on their Shaughnessy property 80 years ago).

For people intrigued by the 100-mile diet, buying local organic food is just one path, sometimes a muddy one, to economic resilience, greater self-sufficiency and better health – through eating fresh, nutritious, safe, sustainably grown food from their own bio-region.

Desrochers trusts the market to achieve those goals – including determining the best use of land, the best places to grow food and the most efficient producers. But he fails to acknowledge the deep flaws in today’s market. Food consumers don’t pay the full costs of soil erosion, subsidized fossil fuel, water and seed inputs, downstream pollution, biodiversity losses, greenhouse gas emissions, overfishing, bee colony collapses or unknown health impacts from genetically modified grains. Similarly, many benefits of urban agriculture, like the benefits of municipal parks or playing fields, are not reaped in dollars. They range from safer streets to urban beautification, stronger communities, local jobs, diet awareness, increased exercise, greater food literacy. Today’s commercial food market is fertile soil for a tangle of misguided subsidies that typically make local food more expensive than factory food.

If the market fully priced a hamburger, it would cost $200. If the market fully valued the role a school garden might play in diverting a child from a lifetime of health-killing junk food, a few rows of schoolyard carrots would be worth a fortune.

My final rejoinder to Desrochers is that however flawed consumers’ thinking may be, growing numbers want local food. It’s the No. 1 trend in restaurants in Canada. Support for the agriculture land reserve is in the high 80% range. Loblaw ex-chair Galen Weston says when a product is branded “local,” its sales go up by 40%. Customers are lining up at farmers’ markets. In a market system, the customer is always right.

For sure, the SOLEfood farm depends on donated land from Concord Pacific, a loan from Vancity and a $500,000 donation from Frank Guistra. Its two dozen jobs aren’t real jobs – yet.

Next week I’ll look at how consumer trends, technology and entrepreneurs are combining to attract investment in local food from people who can see beyond today’s flawed market signals. What they see coming is very different from today’s supermarket cornucopia. •

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