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Food for thought

Choosing local food over imports may not be as wise as you think

As the summer farmer's markets draw to a close and many get ready to start ordering their organic-veggie delivery boxes, perhaps it is time to consider where we get our food and how it is produced. Though the 100-Mile Diet and the idea of eating locally has exploded in the last few years, many argue the model is not the answer on a global scale. There is no denying that mass production of food is both the villain — GMOs and pesticides are responsible for colony collapse syndrome in bees and a decline in butterfly numbers (read the pollinators of the world) — and the hero, as it allows the mass feeding of people, for the most part in an affordable manner.

Local consultant and former Whistler municipal councillor Ralph Forsyth takes a look at some of the issues of the local food movement, exploring why he believes buying local isn't the long-term answer.

Taste over truth?

Biting into a freshly picked strawberry, the sweet juices and the fruit flavour flowering in your mouth, you are overwhelmed by the taste and sentimentality of the carefree days as a child when you would pick berries with your mom on those long summer days — it felt pretty close to food heaven. Recalling the sensations later that day you might mention it to your friends and remark on the succulent berry flavour: "How can they even be the same fruit as the giant, white inside, cardboard-flavoured crap we get at the grocery store?" you ponder.

There is no question that freshly picked, in-season, local food does have a distinct flavour and deliciousness that can't be matched. Local food also supports local farmers and buying at farmers' markets helps support the local food industry; it's a win–win and everyone is happy because we're eating healthier, buying local and saving the planet at the same time.

And just think of all the greenhouse gas emissions we've saved by not transporting the food here. For most of us this is where the story ends. We're satisfied that we've taken a principled stand, enjoyed a unique experience — whether it's picking berries, enjoying the slow food cycle or shopping at a farmers' market — and we can rest easy knowing we've done a good thing.

But the story doesn't end there, however. As appetizing as the local food movement looks, digesting the facts about it might give you heartburn.

According to some experts it is good intentions, romantic ideals about farming, the idea that big agri-business is inherently bad and an ideological backlash against globalization that is actually driving the Locavore Movement. The arguments for locavorism are challenging and persuasive and some are not without merit, but they tend to be button-pressing and emotionally laden. Food is personal. It is our most basic of needs; the idea of something being wrong with our food hits us right in the gut and everyone certainly has a right to worry about whether or not our food is fresh and good.

The people behind local food — unlike the nameless, faceless corporations behind big agri-business — are the kind of people you want to support. People like Doug and Jeanette Helmer who own Helmers Organic Farm in Pemberton.

"My husband, Doug, and I started growing a small acreage of organic potatoes around 20 years ago," said Jeanette via email. "We were surprised at how fast they sold, and each year we expanded by a small amount to meet demand. People said they didn't realize what a potato was supposed to taste like and how much they enjoyed eating them, as if they were a new and unusual food. Some people said how much they were reminded of their growing up in New Brunswick, or Ireland, or England, etc. and had never tasted such good potatoes in modern day North America."

It would be pretty hard not to want to buy a potato from the Helmers. It's easy to understand the sentiment but harder to swallow the facts.

Hardboiled ideas and bitter facts

Let's take a big bite into some of the common sentiments we think about when we consider the food we eat. The three main myths as set out by some academics include: local food is better for the environment, small farms create employment and are better for the economy and food security is increased with small local farms. Now let's savour these sentiments in order.

David Cleveland, environmental studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, performed a study that asked what the impact on the environment would be if Santa Barbara County went totally locavore (which they conceivably could do as it is incredibly lush farm land), if all the produce eaten in Santa Barbara were also grown there. What the 2011 study revealed was that the savings in greenhouse gas emissions per household, as a proportion of the total food system, was less than one per cent. In 2008, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews, analyzed the U.S. food network and found that the energy used in the transportation of food represents a relatively trivial amount of the overall energy used — basically transportation is really only about seven per cent of the greenhouse gas footprint associated with the overall average American diet.

The environmental benefits are also overstated when growing regions are considered, argue some researchers. Pierre Desrochers grew up in a farming community in Quebec's St. Lawrence Valley — his first job was picking berries on a local farm. His wife Shimizu was born and raised near Tokyo and together they wrote The Locavore's Dilemma; In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet.

"I grew up in a farming region and saw first hand how farms work so I guess I've never had a romantic view of farming," Desrochers explains.

He was driven to write the book, along with his wife, after she attended a talk in which the speaker said Japan was one of the world's most "parasitic" countries because it imported so much of its food.

Desrochers outlined why importing food was in fact better for the environment than growing local; "Research from the U.K. comparing local tomatoes with those imported from Spain showed the U.K. tomatoes, which had to be grown in heated greenhouses emitted nearly 2,400 kg of carbon dioxide per ton, compared to 640 kg for the Spanish tomatoes, which could grow in unheated greenhouses."

Industrial farms' high crop yields and low costs are due to the economies of scale and scope. Without the efficiencies of large farms, the use of polluting inputs would rise, as would the need to commit more land for agriculture and as a result food production costs would increase, which would also lead to more expensive food.

Many of the modern world's food production gains are due to specialization and trade that would be forsaken under the food system that locavores endorse.

Discarding comparative advantage in agriculture by localizing it means more inputs will be needed to grow food. This leads us to myth number two: that small farms create employment and are better for the economy.

For over 200 years, economists have recognized gains from grains via specialization and trade. The case for specialization is perhaps strongest in agriculture because the costs of production depend on natural elements like temperature, rainfall, sunlight, soil quality and land costs. Here's what Adam Smith had to say about it in The Wealth of Nations which was published in 1776: "Those systems, therefore, which preferring agriculture to all other employments in order to promote it, impose restraints upon manufacturers and foreign trade, act contrary to the very end which they propose and indirectly discourage that very species of industry which they mean to promote."

Modern-day western farming is much different than in Smith's time, but in developing countries that is simply not the case.

Desrochers explains the economic implications: "There are a few examples in our book but the point I'm trying to make is that the only way to get people out of poverty is to get them out of subsistence farming — if you look at history, that's how Europe did it, that's how North America did it.

"You need to get people off the farm and into cities and develop other forms of employment, while those that remain on the farms will increasingly be linked to global, or at least regional markets, investment, technology and equipment."

Desrochers is also quick to point out the contradiction inherent in the local food movement. "The ultimate conclusion is that you would go back to a world of yesteryear where you spend 75 per cent of your money on food instead of the 10 per cent we spend today, so you would spend less money on other things and you end up destroying more jobs than you create."

On the economics of local food vs. big agriculture debate, proponents of local food have some powerful advocates. One such activist is Peter Ladner. He's a part-time Whistler resident, former Vancouver City councillor, business owner and is currently a weekly columnist in Business in Vancouver. He's also the author of The Urban Food Revolution: Changing the Way We Feed Cities (He will be speaking in Whistler Oct. 9 as part of the Whistler Forum for Leadership and Dialogue's speaker series. Go to

In a telephone interview, Ladner explains his motivation for writing his book.

"I've always grown my own food and had an interest in that way, but as a municipal politician I was intrigued by the benefits of local food and growing it in the city. Those benefits include more beauty, safer neighbourhoods, residents getting to know their neighbours, healthier and increased awareness of diet and its resultant impact on health and healthcare costs. It also raises property values and reduces parks maintenance costs as volunteers do the work of maintaining the gardens."

Ladner is a huge supporter of local food but he does not see it as a panacea. "I don't advocate — and I don't think anyone else is either — a complete 100 mile diet; it's simply a metaphor for eating more locally grown food."

And, he adds, that while local food is not a cure all, neither are the markets because of a distortion in pricing. "Two comments about the market: first, the market is satisfying a demand for local food, as Galen Weston ( of Loblaw fame) has said, if you put a local sticker on a product it will sell 40 per cent more. Second, the market does a poor job of pricing food because it does not take into account things like subsidies, soil erosion or the cost of continued dependence on fossil fuels. It's foolish to trust the market to price food sustainably because these externalities are not priced properly. The price doesn't take into account all costs of production."

Another pragmatic view of the local food movement comes from Lisa Richardson. She's a self described soft-core locavore and was the visionary (along with Anna Helmer) behind the Pemberton Valley's Slow Food Cycle, an event that encourages participants to ride their bikes though Pemberton's farmland. The ride is a way to teach people about the importance of farmland and to give city folk an opportunity to connect to farmers by sampling their produce. The first event was considered a huge success in 2005 when 400 cyclists wheeled into Pemberton; today more than 4,000 people make the trip to 15 official tasting locations. They can also take credit for spin-offs, like Slow Food Cycle Agassiz. In her blog, Lisa Richardson Bylines: Mountain culture from everywhere but on the sidelines, the Pemberton writer explains that the simplicity of the event was the key to its success.

"The ingredients are pretty basic," says Richardson "Easy biking. Good food. Beautiful farm homesteads opening their gates. No cost to participate. An open invitation."

Different in developing countries

On the other side of the table is Paul Collier. He's one of the world's leading authorities on global poverty and is a professor of economics and Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University. In his book, The Plundered Planet: Why We Must — and How We Can — Manage Nature for Global Prosperity, Collier explains how smaller isn't always better particularly when it comes to farming in developing countries. "Given the chance, smallholder farmers in poorer countries seek local wage jobs and their offspring head to the cities. This is because at low-income levels rural bliss is precarious, isolated and tedious. The life forces millions of ordinary people into the role of entrepreneur for which most are ill suited."

There is little question that the efficiencies of large farms have driven down the price of food. Eroding the gains made by large-scale food production by moving to more localized food production would have the opposite effect. Like it or not, big agricultural business has a role to play in ending famine — where weather and civil war are not at play.

Desrochers identifies the stark reality: "The people who are the most food insecure are the people in sub Saharan Africa and South Asia. Subsistence farmers are the first real victims of this movement."

Despite the benefits of globalized food trade, some people simply don't like the idea of a big grape farm in Chile packing up tons of grapes, putting the cargo on a ship and then trucking it to their supermarket. It is perhaps because of the personal nature of food that some take a contrarian attitude to food delivery that is the same model that delivers them their T-shirts, watches and iPhones.

The food security issue is the third myth that needs to be re-examined. Examples from academia are one source of information. But sources from the field are another and Molly Newman provides both. Newman is 24 years old and incredibly well travelled for someone so young — a living example of the world's first truly global generation. She's highly informed about nutrition and health issues in the developing world, particularly in Africa, and she'll begin her Masters in Human Nutrition at the University of British Columbia in the fall.

Newman works on the front lines of global health and nutrition, having been to Rwanda three times, most recently for 10 months last year working as a research associate and project coordinator to improve infant and young child feeding practices. Her view on global food production is what you might expect.

"I think the dominant global trend towards 'go big or go home' in our food system is definitely a cause for concern... There needs to be a more sustainable way of feeding our planet than the way our current system operates, which favours corporate food production. We need to be thinking of long-term sustenance instead of short-term profit."

While she's sceptical about global food production, she does offer some tempered insight into what is required for food security.

"One thing to keep in mind in all of this discussion is that there is no 'one size fits all' approach. Nutrition intervention models are good but cultural appropriateness must be taken into account before and during their implementation. What works in Ghana or Canada may not work in Rwanda and vice versa. The solution must also be interdisciplinary as food security and nutrition are not only health and agricultural issues, but political, environmental and social as well."

Between 1940 and 1990 global farm productivity doubled its output to accommodate a doubling of the world population. What's more amazing is that it was done on a shrinking base of cropland. A growing global population demands that agricultural productivity continue to grow. Turning back the clock on farming will not accomplish this.

Desrochers explains how we have achieved food security so far: "The obvious pitfall of local food is that wherever you are in the world you will have bad years and historically if you have two bad harvests in a row you have famine and this is the point we make in the book, how in the 19th century people were so happy that the railroad and the steam ships had come along because you know they would say, 'finally we are liberated from the tyranny of local food production and bad years.'

"...The surplus of one region could be channelled in large volumes to the regions that had bad years. It's risk management 101; spread the risk of food production to many regions — that up until that time — could not be connected. Essentially it was this long distance trade that ended famine."

Though famine still exists the world has not seen large-scale famine since the 1980s and it is large farms and food aid programs that provide the bulwarks against starvation. As Newman reminds us, local food is not just an agricultural issue but also has its political, environmental and social aspects.

Let's look at how a strange coalition brought us to the place we are now.

Bootleggers & Baptists

Bootleggers and Baptists is an activism model posited by Clemson University professor Bruce Yandle, where opposite issue positions campaign for the same outcome. His example is the criminal bootlegger that favours prohibition because decreased supply yields a higher profit margin, while the Baptist preacher favours prohibition for religious reasons. Both the criminal bootlegger and the preacher will vote in support of prohibition.

It's a theory that could apply to the local food movement.

"You have a coalition of environmental groups who need to come up with a justification for their existence and reason for government subsidies and uncompetitive local producers," said Desrochers, whose brother was a provincial politician in Quebec.

"As you know, the idea of encouraging small local guys is always appealing to politicians and most people will tell you this is a good thing despite the fact that they vote with their wallet. It's a coalition of diverse interests with anti-globalization, anti-corporation/environmentalists on the one hand and uncompetitive local producers on the other."

There are several chefs contributing on this recipe for disaster.

Here's how "grassroots movements" grow from influencing public opinion to guiding government policy; it's a tale of David and Goliath with small farmers and their advocates on one side and big agri-business on the other. On this issue the people on opposite sides can agree that agri-business is the bad guy:

Desrochers states it clearly: "Big agribusiness does not help itself by being so active politically and getting all these subsidies and I don't want to defend them for that so I would say it's partly their fault — if you follow farm bill politics in the U.S. or supply management in Canada — it's hard to make them look sympathetic."

As a former local politician, Ladner has the ability to take a broad view of global food while understanding the simmering unease towards big agri-business. "If it weren't for agri-business we wouldn't be eating, but I believe there is a scepticism around it because their interests are not always the public's interests and there is generally a distrust of who's interests agri-business is operating in," says Ladner.

Richardson understands how agri-business has come to be seen as a great villain too.

"A few things that agri-business has done — like lobbying against food labelling — if they try to obfuscate demands to know what's in our food... that's villainous," she says.

She also explains the distaste consumers have with big business running the food industry and its result.

"My theory is that the locavore movement is a backlash, food culture is so removed from us that people want to claim it," says Richardson.

"My grandparents told stories of the baker and the milkman delivering to the door, and that desire to reconnect with the people who provide my food was what drove me to develop the slow food cycle. At the time, I couldn't buy a Pemberton potato in Pemberton, so I contacted (slow food cycle co-founder) Anna Helmer. She and her family are direct to market farmers; they build relationships with consumers."

Here's how the notion that the "David" in our story needs support — government support.

Misguided policy decisions are not the exclusive domain of developing countries. Canada's national, provincial and local governments make the same moral judgements when they use tax dollars to support local agricultural production via subsidies, or programs that require public institutions such as schools, prisons and military bases to buy and serve mostly or only local food. These policy directives give politicians the "warm and fuzzies" because it looks like they are doing the right thing in the name of the environment or urban poverty, but they don't actually address the issues directly and certainly won't solve them, although they may get a few votes.

Newman has some suggestions for what politicians should be doing: "Policymakers can invest in solutions that are proven to benefit those who are in need, and who are most at risk for food insecurity and malnutrition. For example, research shows that the first 1,000 days of a child's life (conception up to two years) are the most critical for reversing the effects of malnutrition that can last a lifetime.

One simple low-cost solution to both under- and over-nutrition later in life is breastfeeding. The projects that I have been working on are the In-Home Fortification project in Rwanda. Rwanda has been in the midst of implementing a protocol for the introduction of micronutrient powders to children six to 24 months. These small powders contain all the essential vitamins and minerals that are missing in the typical rural Rwandan diet and mothers can add them directly to cooked food for the baby.

"This fortification program is meant as an addition to the country's already implemented community-based nutrition program and involves nutrition education from community health workers."

Newman's examples range from the very low to very high tech, which is a rational approach, one that is sadly lacking in the debate about food and its impact on the environment, the economy and our ability to feed the planet. Rational ideas will be a necessity if the world is going to tackle the problems of obesity in the west and malnutrition in developing countries.

Noted Desrochers: "I read a comment recently on one of my blog posts, it was from someone that was talking to a cab driver in New York city who had moved there from Afghanistan and he said he wanted to move to a country where the poor people were fat."

Some politicians have a strong incentive to pander to the local producers who want to protect their interests, and to the anti globalization movement that encourages the backlash against large-scale food corporations from foreign countries. An example of pressure from the anti-globalization lobby that led to government policy going horribly wrong: In October 2007, the Indian government passed the Food Security Act. Its intention was to guarantee the supply of rice for its poorest citizens; its application was the banning of exports of all non-basmati rice. That one act precipitated an explosion in the world rice markets known now as the Great Rice Crisis of 2008. The crisis was disastrous for the people the act was intended to protect — the worlds poorest.

Choices have global impact

Supporters of eating local should take note as our choices have a global impact. Richardson explains how the intention behind eating locally grown produce is political.

"Eating is a profoundly politically act. It comes from a sense of disempowerment," she says "We don't know where fundamental sources of power are so you have things like low-voter turnout, then you take that back to where we choose to eat.

"Everything starts with food — with some attention paid to what you eat around the dinner table or eating in the car on the way to work, how you eat shapes how your day unfolds, and they are also massive political decisions and reflect your values."

The political acts come from the best intentions and a desire to slow down and get our priorities in order. It's a way for consumers to gain control of a world where many things seem so out of control, a desire for something constant, something you can count on.

Richardson, who is trying to slow down herself, describes how the treatment of food can nourish more than just our bellies. "Picking strawberries and making jam, that is truly being present, it defines what is urgent and not urgent," she says "strawberries are in season for two weeks and it will be another 50 weeks before you see them again. That's real urgency. If I stop everything and say I'm making jam today then I feel a sense of empowerment and it's fed in a basic's nourishment on a basic level and a spiritual level."

As altruistic as the locavore's intentions may be, those consumers who think their local food choices have little or no global impact should think again.

Fears about pollutants such as DDT and pesticides poisoning consumers have led to the widespread growth of the organic food movement and had an enormous impact on the agricultural policies of western governments. The example of DDT is disturbing. Because DDT is largely banned in the west both producers and consumers have influenced government policy that demands that imports of food also be DDT free. There is no question DDT and pesticides are harmful and cause dozens of deaths each year, but they also have substantial benefits. Historically, DDT has been the cheapest and most effective way tackle malaria, which kills millions in the developing world. So in essence a choice has been made — I would argue that dozens of western lives saved due to the ban on DDT in exchange for several million unnecessary deaths from malaria in developing countries.

Food for thought

The rise of farmers' markets, as fun as they are, and local food, as good as it tastes, is a testament to a dramatic shift in the wants of people in western industrialized countries. Consumers in increasing numbers are seeking fresh, locally grown organic foods. It's a feel-good moment for everyone, guilt-free consumerism, and we're eating it up.

But part of this equation includes the notion that going local isn't saving the planet, and in fact it may be helping trap people into poverty.

With issues as emotionally charged as the environment, the economy and food, it's hard to hear that the facts around your food decisions might be as wobbly as you riding your bike after a few shots of Pemberton potato vodka. But dealing with the enormous complexities of the modern globalized world means considering all sides of the equation — that's food for thought.