The debate between 100-mile diet and trade (or urban farms) is complicated.  Appreciating background is easiest in this Q-and-A by Nancy J White in the Toronto Star.

Big is beautiful. Especially when it comes to food supply. That’s the message in The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet, a book by Pierre Desrochers, an associate geography professor at the University of Toronto, and his wife, Hiroko Shimizu, a policy analyst.

What prompted you to take on locavores?

We attended a talk where a speaker described Japanese people as the most parasitic on earth because they import more food than anyone else per capita. My wife, born and raised in Tokyo, pointed out that the Japanese contribute a lot in terms of technology but don’t have enough room to grow food. Historically they have gone through periods of starvation and malnourishment. So what’s wrong with specializing in other stuff and importing food from countries with plenty of agricultural land? She prompted me to write a policy paper that turned into the book.

Not many people want a true 100-mile diet. Yet that’s what you argue against in your book. It seems as if you’re setting up a bogeyman.

If you want local in-season, we already have that. At the heart of this movement is replacing more affordable imported food with local food. The problem is that a lot of activists want to mandate it. In the U.S. there’s a movement to force military bases and government outlets to buy more expensive local food. At the University of Toronto, for example, a lot of people don’t like me because I question the rationale of spending more money on local food when you can get less expensive food and spend that money on other services for students.

Why do you dismiss the idea of “food miles” — the distance from farm to fork — as a greenhouse gas emissions measure?

It’s only true if everything else is equal. In the real world, not everything is equal. Some places have more water or better pasture land. It makes more sense to grow a tomato in an unheated greenhouse and truck it then to heat a local greenhouse. A U.S. study showed that about 4 per cent of food energy signature was from long-distance transportation and 83 per cent from production.

Doesn’t buying local food help those farmers and boost the local economy, even create jobs?

It destroys more jobs than it creates. Let’s say the same quality tomato is grown for $1 in Florida and $1.50 in Ontario. If you push the local one, you create tomato-growing jobs in Ontario. But consumers have 50 cents less to spend on other local services or goods, which destroys jobs. There’s a lot more consumers than producers. To create a few jobs you’re penalizing millions and the overall economic effect is detrimental.  [….]

If global agribusiness is so great, why do we have 1 billion people without enough to eat? And millions more with obesity and other health effects from too much bad food?

The ratio of undernourished people today is about one in seven. In the 1950s it was about one in three. We’ve made progress. The undernourished are typically not part of the global food supply chain. As for fat people, it’s because people don’t exercise enough and eat too much junk.

Doesn’t local agriculture keep the food supply secure?

As with everything, you need to spread the risk. Local food activists want us to put all our agricultural security eggs in one regional basket. Historically this has been a recipe for disaster. You have floods, hail storms, diseases. It’s better to rely on multiple supplies, including local.

Locavore’s Dilemma: Book promotes not the 100-mile diet but the 10,000-mile diet (Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu) | Nancy J. White | June 6, 2012 | thestar.com at http://www.thestar.com/living/food/article/1206390–locavore-s-dilemma-book-promotes-not-the-100-mile-diet-but-the-10-000-mile-diet.

Locavore’s Dilemma: Book promotes not the 100-mile diet but the 10,000-mile diet. - thestar.com

The coverage of the Desrochers presentation at the Cato Institute in The Atlantic Cities provides a deeper analysis.

Desrochers’ argument begins with this question: If things were so great when food was produced locally, why did people bother developing a globalized food chain in the first place? And why haven’t history’s many local food movements (“urban potato patches,” “liberty gardens,” “relief gardens,” “victory gardens!”) ever lasted? As late as the 1880s, one-sixth of Paris was still devoted to food production. But even that foodie capital has long since given up on the practice (one contributor: the advent of the automobile meant no one got around on horses anymore, which meant there was no longer enough horse manure around to fertilize urban farms).

“You cannot have economic growth without urbanization. And you cannot have urbanization without long-distance trade,” Desrochers tells us. We also cannot, he says, increase food production and urban density at the same time. “You cannot square a circle.”

He is essentially arguing that local food is fundamentally incompatible with urbanism. Urbanization isn’t possible without imported food. And urbanization is what makes it possible to raise standards of living everywhere. Historically, we have pushed the production of food out of cities as subsistence farmers have moved in. Now, instead of each tending our own plot of rural land for a living, cities have enabled us to specialize as lawyers and bakers and engineers, while we’ve turned farming itself into a specialty.

In the process, Desrochers points out, we’ve learned to produce more food on less land, the price of it has fallen, the range of it available at your local store has increased, and the malnourished percentage of the world population has declined. The problem with locavores, as he sees it, is that they want to undo all of this progress, with terrible consequences.

The most environmentally friendly food policy, Desrochers argues, is the one where agriculture consumes the least amount of land globally, and only agri-business can deliver this efficiency. Producing food also requires more energy than transporting it, he adds. He dismisses the concept of “food miles,” which he says fails to take into account the mode of transit on which our bananas travel. The 2,000 miles your produce travels from Latin America to Los Angeles by freight, he suggests, may be associated (per banana) with fewer carbon dioxide emissions than the 10 miles it travels home in your car from the supermarket.

He also argues that it’s less energy-intensive to produce food where regions best specialize in it, than it is to try to coax those same products out of ill-suited soil elsewhere, even if that means shipping apples from New Zealand to the U.K.

Desrochers’ environmental arguments are the most interesting. But he has equal faith that these same economies of scale deliver us safer food, food that’s engineered to be more nutritious, and a more secure global supply of it – all benefits that locavores threaten. He sums all of this up with a dramatic slide warning that locavorism will lead inevitably to higher costs and greater poverty, no environmental and social benefits, less food security and nutrition, and significant penalties for developing economies.

The food system is not independent, however, and is inter-related with the communities.

Sarah Rich’s new book, simply titled Urban Farms, offers an interesting reading companion to Desrochers’. While he broadly paints the motives of locavores, Rich actually visits them, alongside photographer Matthew Benson. Politics are all but absent from Rich’s interviews. She visits one urban farmer in Detroit who comes the closest to voicing revolutionary motives. He is concerned about a trash incinerator in his neighborhood, and he views his backyard farm partly as a defiant form of environmental remediation.

“That’s what he’s thinking about, his local garbage system and how messed up it is,” Rich says. “He wasn’t talking to me about Monsanto, or industrial agriculture.”

Throughout her 16 urban farm profiles, Rich found what she describes as very local initiatives, where agriculture just happened to be the medium for doing something positive in the city.

“There is an underlying question from a lot of people: Well, can urban farming really feed a city, or do cities have to be self-sufficient in the future? Is urban farming really the solution to that?” she says. Rich doesn’t set out to address these questions, and she isn’t particularly convinced herself of the answers. “But that being said, there are many, many great reasons for there to be agriculture in cities now. And feeding the city of the future is really only just one reason we might pursue this.”

Her book is about all of these other reasons. Urban farms can serve as a social anchor for communities. They can beautify blighted neighborhoods. They can create jobs for the unemployed and safe spaces for children. They provide outdoor classrooms for students to learn about where food comes from, but also how producing it is related to geography, math and science. Urban farms yield fresh produce to communities with scant access to it. Three of the farms Rich and Benson visit are in Detroit, a city without a single major supermarket chain.

Rich suspects that what she’s seen is no fleeting trend, as Desrochers describes past locavore movements. And urban farms don’t have to be incompatible with density, she argues. Thinking of this, she recounts a recent flight into the Los Angeles airport.

“The way we’re flying in, I was coming over this area where I was looking at just ungodly acres of flat rooftops that are just sitting there in LA.,” she says. “The sun is shining. I see that, and I do have the thought that man, we could really be using that space for something.”

Debating the Local Food Movement | Emily Badger | July 3, 2012 | The Atlantic Cities at http://www.theatlanticcities.com/arts-and-lifestyle/2012/07/debating-local-food-movement/2435/.
Locavore’s Dilemma: Book promotes not the 100-mile diet but the 10,000-mile diet. - thestar.com

There’s a Q-and-A of Sarah Rich on the scope of her writing, on Urban Farms, in Grist.

Q. Why did you write Urban Farms? What was the ultimate goal?

A. There’s a lot of debate about urban farming as a solution that will feed cities in the future, but I was more interested in looking at it from an anthropological angle. I wanted to write about the other things urban farming can do for a city — whether that’s creating green jobs, community building, environmental restoration, land-use planning, or any number of other things. While farms are essentially food-growing operations, they serve so many other functions in an urban environment.  [….]

Q. What was most surprising or unexpected about the process of putting together the book?

A. In my experience, when you call people up and say, “I want to put you in a book,” they’re excited. So I was surprised that some of the farmers were either neutral or actively not interested in having me come visit.

Urban farming is so popular in the media right now, but most of the people I wrote about aren’t doing it to get media attention. Especially in places like Detroit or New Orleans — these are pretty serious community restoration efforts. And a lot of the time the media hasn’t portrayed these cities in a way the people who live there want them portrayed. So I definitely came up against some resistance. On the other hand there were people who were very receptive. But in all cases there was a general desire for this not to be portrayed as a trend.

There were some older farmers who talked about young people who get a job doing urban farming for a year and then go become investment bankers. And I do think that’s happening to a certain degree, but I would say the majority of the people I spoke to were very much committed to the places where they lived; they were pretty rooted.

Q. In the book you talk about the difference between an urban farm and an urban garden. Want to share what you learned?

A. Initially I thought urban farms must have animals, so I started seeking out all the farms that had goats, chickens, or pigs. But I soon realized that animals aren’t the only things that set these farms apart.

I started asking the urban farmers I visited what they saw as the difference. I really liked the way the manager at Chicago’s City Farm put it. “If you have a plot of land with some food growing on it and you can wake up on a day when the weather is horrible and make some tea and sit around and wait ’til the weather improves before you go outside — then it’s a garden,” he said. “But if you have to pull on your boots and your jacket and get out there to tend to the crops — even in bad weather — then it’s a farm.”

As I took it, he meant if you’re really relying on this space for your own sustenance — whether that’s for your caloric or financial needs — and it’s actually your real support system, then you’re a farmer.

Q. You’ve done a lot of work related to architecture and urban planning — at Dwell and with the Foodprint Project. Do you think architects and urban planners are paying more attention to food?

A. In general I would say yes. In my experience there’s less talk of terms like “sustainability” and “green” than there was in, say, 2006 or 2007. Now I feel like these concepts are just a part of what people think about when they’re planning cities and buildings.

Gardens are becoming a more integrated piece of what it is to responsibly build a single-family residence, or an apartment building, or even a mall. More people are seeing gardening as a public health solution because you get both healthy food and physical activity out of it.

Q. How can urban farming move beyond the trend factor? What does the future of this work look like?

A. It’s going to continue to grow. Everything has its peak in terms of public attention, and I think urban farming just had its peak. But that doesn’t mean it will go away. Lifestyle writers will start writing about other things, but all the good reasons for this being something people are paying attention to will continue.

I think large-scale projects like the Victory Gardens in San Francisco and the public fruit forest in Seattle are going to be a little slower to come along, just because they take more space, money, time, and planning. But the smaller-scale projects — the ones that rely on individual citizen efforts — are going to stick around.

What farms can do for cities: A chat with author Sarah Rich | Twilight Greenaway | June 18, 2012 | Grist at http://grist.org/urban-agriculture/thinking-big-about-food-in-cities-a-chat-with-urban-farms-author-sarah-rich/.
Locavore’s Dilemma: Book promotes not the 100-mile diet but the 10,000-mile diet. - thestar.com

All of this was surfaced by a column by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail.

Subsistence farming was backbreaking and unprofitable work. It was also terrible for the environment. The land wasn’t very productive, so farmers needed a lot of it to grow stuff. Soon most of the forests had been chopped down and serious erosion had set in. The area turned into a giant dust bowl.

Today, vastly more efficient methods allow farmers to grow a lot more food on a lot less land. Now they can specialize. Some of our local land is ideal for potatoes, so farmers grow trainloads of them and sell them all over Canada. They do very well. Not only does long-distance trade maximize output and lower prices, it’s also good for the environment. Today much of the crummy, unproductive farmland (such as ours) has reverted back to forest. The area is greener and more hospitable to wildlife than it’s been for 150 years.

Locavorism makes no more sense for food than it does for clothing or computers. It wouldn’t occur to people to assign extra virtue to a locally manufactured iPad, or to develop personal relationships with the folks who made it. So why is it the rage to look in the eye of the people who grow your vegetables?

My theory is that the farther we get from life on the land, the more we romanticize it. We also have a powerful longing for the personal and artisanal, and for connectedness. As the writer Rod Dreher put it, “Learning the names of the small farmers, and coming to appreciate what they do is to reverse the sweeping process of alienation from the earth and from each other that the industrialized agriculture and mass production of foodstuffs has wrought.”

Today the countryside around our place is thronged with a brand-new generation of farmers – eager young idealists who have fled back to the land. Every weekend they show up at the little farmers’ market with their colourful bouquets of organic carrots and their tender non-commodified artisanal greens. I love these people. They work like dogs. Their produce is delicious, and I am thrilled to shell out a dollar a carrot to support them. I am certainly not about to argue to their face that everything they believe is wrong. I’ll leave that to folks like Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu, the Canadian authors of new book called The Locavore’s Dilemma. In it, they systematically dismantle the cult of locavorism that has sunk its roots so deeply among the urban upper-middle class.

In fact, the globalization of the food supply is nothing new, and the more of it there is the better off we have become. Modern mass-produced, globally distributed food (not junk food, real food) is cheaper, more nutritious, safer, higher-quality, more reliably available and far less wasteful than the local kind. Modern food systems have done wonders for our standard of living and have liberated humankind from the chains of rural serfdom. They have increased, not decreased, food security and made famines (except for those that are politically induced ) all but extinct. As for food miles, numerous analyses have shown that claims made for the alleged benefits to the atmosphere of eating food grown close to home are largely bunk.

On top of that, the core beliefs of locavores – that organic is best, chemicals are bad, and genetically modified crops are evil – are responsible for keeping large parts of Africa mired in poverty and food deprivation.

Take the romance out of farming and ditch locavorism | Margaret Wente | July 7, 2012 | The Globe and Mail at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/article4396371.ece