Food activists claim that ‘local’ food is more sustainable, secure and nutritious. As Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu demonstrate in The Locavore’s Dilemma, local-food promoters couldn’t be more wrong.

‘To be honest, a more accurate title would be The Locavore’s Delusion. There is no dilemma. Buy yes, I’d say it was a direct dig at Pollan, long story short.’

Canadian academic Pierre Desrochers is in engagingly assertive form on a video link from Ontario, talking about the book he has written with his wife, Hiroko Shimizu. The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet is a full-on assault on the idea that food should be produced locally to where it is consumed, with all the eco-friendly, organic and small-scale baggage that comes with the idea, the kind of outlook most famously summed up by US author Michael Pollan’s bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

In their introduction, Desrochers and Shimizu explain how the book was inspired by a lecture they attended, delivered by a distinguished environmental-science professor. Waxing lyrical about the merits of locavorism, he argued that Japan was the most ‘parasitical’ society on Earth because of its unusually high dependence on food imports. Shimizu, having grown up near Tokyo, wasn’t going to let that one lie and the pair produced a ‘brief policy memo’ on the matter, which grew into a more substantial critique for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. (You can read that paper here.)

The fundamental question underpinning both those earlier papers and The Locavore’s Dilemma is this: if local food is so great, why did a globalised food system develop at all? The answer, as Desrochers and Shimizu argue, is that the creation of a worldwide trade in food reduced prices, increased variety and improved security of supply. If there is a problem with this world market in food, they argue, it is that it is not open or far-reaching enough.

The online eco-magazine Grist ran an interview with Desrochers earlier this month. (To be fair, a reasonably balanced one). In a follow-up piece, readers came up with responses to the interview. One of these responses provides such a neat summary of the arguments in favour of local food that it is worth repeating in full.

‘I am a local-food advocate for many reasons: Taste: An heirloom tomato picked that morning runs circles around a hybridized tomato picked two weeks ago in Florida and gassed so it turns red en route; Quality: the better the soil and the farmer, the better the food; Nutrition: food sheds nutrients after it is picked. The longer it takes to get to market, the less nutritional value it has, comparatively; Transparency: I like knowing how my food is grown and harvested. I visit my meat producer; try that at a CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation]; Environmental: A minimisation of the use of chemicals that wash into waterways, creating algae blooms, choking out life, or kill beneficial insects, including honey bees; Sane stewardship: I like to support farmers who create more naturally fertile soil, which is better able to resist pests, floods, and droughts; Pleasure: I buy local food at my farmers market because it’s more pleasant to do so than going into an air-conditioned grocery store. I see neighbours, chat with farmers, taste before I buy. Economic: I want my food dollars to support my local economy; Humanity: Animals and humans are treated better on the small farms I know than they are on the large ones; I value green open spaces: Supporting local farms with my money encourages those farmers to maintain those green open spaces rather than selling off to developers.’

As Desrochers and Shimizu explain, these ideas are either not necessarily true, are matters of personal taste or, more often, are completely wrong. Instead, the authors argue, ‘the available evidence convincingly demonstrates that long-distance trade and modern technologies have resulted in much greater food availability, lower prices, improved health and reduced environmental damage than if they had never materialised. Indeed, more trade and ever-improving technologies remain to this day the only proven ways to lift large numbers of people out of rural poverty and malnutrition.’

Let’s take those arguments for local food, one by one, using (though not exclusively) the arguments in The Locavore’s Dilemma.

Taste: Desrochers and Shimizu actually agree, up to a point. ‘Freshly picked, ripened local produce is tastier than identical produce shipped over long distances. No one - not even us! - will argue over that.’ The question is, of course, one of freshness. At a particular point in the year, when a particular crop is ‘in season’ locally, ‘local’ may very well trump ‘global’. But that doesn’t apply, for example, to the kind of food flash-frozen as soon as it is picked. That retains its good condition no matter how far it has travelled. And the distinction between local and global falls apart when the local option is not in season, the authors argue. Then local must be less fresh, because the food will have been in storage for some time or preserved in some way that substantially changes its character (and offers no distinction to shipped-in food). Local could simply mean that out of your area’s growing season, a particular food is simply not available at all. By constrast, out of the local growing season, food brought in from other areas where it is ‘in season’ will be fresher and probably tastier.

Nutrition: As the authors note, the only basis for any distinction must be freshness (see above for the limitations) or the fact that local food is produced in a different way - that is, ‘organically’. But study after study has found either no difference in nutritional value between organic and conventional crops or differences that are trivial or irrelevant. For example, one study I read a few years back claimed organic milk had more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk. This may or may not be true. But milk is not a great source of omega-3 fats, regardless of whether it is organic or not. If you want omega-3 fats, you are far better off eating oily fish. As it happens, the kind of people who worry about their diet are also the kind who drink semi-skimmed or skimmed milk that has some or all of the fat - including the omega-3 fats - removed.

More importantly, as the authors note, people consume diets, not foods. There is very little evidence that anyone but the very poor has any difficulty meeting their nutritional needs - a process made easier by the falling prices of food enabled by a world market, modern agriculture and supermarkets. A local diet would be more expensive and more monotonous - what’s so nutritious about that?

Quality: Desrochers and Shimizu note how standardisation of food systems allows consumers to buy based on quality rather than on source - surely a more important criterion. The most attractive, best-quality fruit heads to the supermarkets, the poorer stuff goes to the food manufacturers and so on. This grading system allows agricultural products to be bought and sold as commodities in great bulk with reliable results for buyer and seller. Imagine instead of buying food of a certain quality, consumers had no option but to buy what the local farmers could provide, whatever the quality. Would that be better? In any event, ‘quality’ is a rather subjective matter, at best an amalgam of taste and nutrition. (Again, see above.)

Transparency: Why would you want to visit your local food producer? Two things spring to mind. First, that your food should be safe. Second, that it is raised in a way that you believe to be ethical.

On the first matter, Desrochers and Shimizu point out how big and modern is definitely better when it comes to food safety. Among recent food-safety alarms are the deaths of three people from E. Coli poisoning related to spinach from a farm being converted to organic production and 25 deaths from listeriosis caused by cantaloupes from a ‘pesticide-free’, family-operated farm in Colorado. A more recent incident, which may have occurred after the book went to press but confirms the point, is the death of 50 people after eating organic beansprouts from a farm in Germany last year.

‘Big Food’ may be much criticised, but as the authors point out, large food producers have millions of dollars resting on their brands and reputations. They also have the scale of operation to put in place specialist safety testing and management. As Desrochers tells me over the video link: ‘People’s perceptions on food safety have been so skewed for so long. There are such things as economies of scale in food safety just as there are in food production. No matter how hard they try, local organic farmers may not be able to compost their manure properly or to control salmonella.’

As for ethical standards, whatever they mean, they surely have little to do with locality. What if your local farmers are all big meat producers who keep animals in ways you disapprove of? Do you do without meat - or do your source ‘ethical’ meat from suppliers elsewhere? Having the option to buy from a geographically wide area allows you to buy products that suit your own tastes, standards, ethics and so on.

Environmental: This is often the primary reason given for eating local. After all, transporting food around the globe must increase its ‘carbon footprint’, right? Wrong.

As Desrochers and Shimizu point out, the concept of ‘food miles’ is flawed. ‘Despite its popularity, the concept and its underlying rationale have been convincingly debunked in numerous life-cycle assessment (LCA) studies, a methodology that examines the environmental impact associated with all the stages of a product’s life cycle, from raw-material extraction to disposal of the finished product.’ Transportation is only one small element of the environmental impact of food production.

Desrochers and Shimizu note that in the US, for example, researchers have found that the ‘food miles’ segment (the bit from producer to retailer) only accounts for four per cent of total emissions, but 83 per cent of a household’s carbon emissions related to food come from the production of the food. Therefore, food should be produced in the most ideal circumstances in order to minimise those emissions. That’s why it makes more sense for British people to eat New Zealand lamb or Spanish tomatoes, environmentally, than eating local, because the efficiency of production more than makes up for the distance travelled. Moreover, buying fresh from around the world makes more sense than storing local production. Indeed, the short hop to the supermarket by car to bring home a comparatively small amount of food may cause more carbon emissions than the shipping - or even flying - of food in bulk from thousands of miles away.

A bigger problem is urban living, argue Desrochers and Shimizu. How ‘local’ can you eat if you live in London or Los Angeles? Yet urban living is in a whole host of ways more environmentally friendly than rural living. Moving food to people in cities may well make more sense than moving people themselves long distances around the countryside.

As for agriculture-related pollution from fertilisers etc, this should of course be minimised where possible. Thankfully, farmers have an incentive to do just that: chemical inputs cost money, so the less they need to use, the better. But that process has to be part-and-parcel of a broader development of agricultural practice and technology.

Sane stewardship: Let’s take this point with the wide open spaces point. Agriculture, both ancient and modern, has always been about adapting the landscape and finding ways to get more production out of the same land, as the authors point out. The assumption is that what we are seeing is potentially devastating soil degradation and/or enormous losses in biodiversity. In fact, soil degradation is much worse in poorer countries and among nomadic peoples. Big farmers have maintained soil quality and vastly increased yields. The best method to avoid such erosion is ‘no till’ agriculture, which relies on synthetic herbicides and genetically modified crops that food activists decry, note Desrochers and Shimizu.

As for biodiversity, the authors argue that ‘landscapes created or impacted by human actions often display greater levels of biodiversity than natural ones’, often by creating new kinds of habitat. The introduction of non-native species into new areas is usually beneficial in increasing species numbers (except, perhaps, in the case of islands and lakes). That said, agriculture - of whatever kind - is there to feed people, not insects. As for encouraging wild plants, the best thing to do is to reduce the amount of land on which food is grown. But going ‘organic’ and/or ‘local’ would mean lower yields and hence more wild land being brought into food production. That hardly seems to count as ‘sane stewardship’.

Economic: This is another favourite - the idea of keeping wealth ‘in the community’. Desrochers explains to me why this argument makes no sense: ‘Obviously, the reason why we import stuff from outside of our community is that other producers provide a better quality and price, otherwise nobody would bother. If that means you get more for your money from buying food, for example, then you have more money left in your pocket to buy other things in your local community. Of course, if everyone buys from their local community, who is going to buy your goods?’

This is why Desrochers puts such great store in trade. He tells me: ‘You specialise in what you do best, you become more efficient at it and you’re better off trading with people who also specialise in what they do best rather than being a jack of all trades - whether at the individual or regional level.’ The Japanese are a case in point. They may not produce enough food for themselves, but they produce many more, very valuable products to trade for things they cannot produce domestically.

Humanity: The upshot of Desrochers and Shimizu’s book is that the most inhumane thing to do is retreat to local production. The great famines of the past were primarily about people living in specific areas not being able to access wider markets for food when weather, pests or war reduced their own capacity to produce food. Shimizu notes in her epilogue that ‘one of the main lessons to be learned from my native country’s experience over the last century and a half is that pushes towards autarkic food policies can only result in disaster’. The world market offers food security and the hungriest people on the planet are, by and large, the unfortunates who live in poor, rural areas who must rely on their own production or that of their local area.

This is not to suggest that Desrochers and Shimizu are cheerleaders for everything about the food system as it stands, a claim made by one reviewer in Nature who argued that The Locavore’s Dilemma is merely an argument in favour of the status quo. Although they are self-confessedly ‘glass half-full’ in their outlook, they still see major problems. For example, the various attempts to buck the market - through subsidies, trade barriers, food stores and so forth - actually act against maximising production and cutting prices. ‘Our problem’, Desrochers tells me, ‘is that we’re not globalised enough’.

There’s another point to be made here, too. The globalised food system we have today is in a constant process of development. There is no ‘status quo’. The pressure of competition from producers around the world is constantly driving farmers to grow more and, as a consequence, providing opportunities for seed producers, machine makers and chemical suppliers to come up with new combinations that improve productivity.

Locavorism, on the other hand, is symptomatic of an outlook that says ‘stop the world, I want to get off’, a worldview that is actually deeply conservative - and potentially devastating to human welfare globally. The free market has flaws, but the answer is to solve those problems or supersede that system with something better, not retreat into the limitations of the past. Indeed, Desrochers and Shimizu offer a number of past examples of attempts to do exactly what locavores have proposed - all of them failures.

The Locavore’s Dilemma is an ideal weapon in countering the enormous quantities of metaphorical organic manure that pass for evidence in the modern debate about food.

When it comes to food: think global, act global, spiked