Fresh & Local
The Omnivore’s and Locavore’s Dilemmas
Column #55, Published Oct 5th, 2012
There is currently a food revolution going on. Locally grown food is making permanent inroads into the food we eat, and the way we think about food.
A while back, I ran across a review of a book that is very critical of locally grown food. I read the review, decided that the arguments were flawed, and I dismissed the book as unimportant.
The book was a reaction, or actually an overreaction, to another flawed book in the opposite direction. I have changed my mind and decided that discussing both books might be informative.
In 2006, a guy named Michael Pollan published a book titled “The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.” Pollan is a journalism professor at the University of California – Berkeley, and calls himself a “liberal foodie intellectual.”
As you can imagine, Michael Pollan had some harsh things to say about industrial agriculture. He believes that a return to localized agriculture would solve many of the health and environmental problems that he believes are the result of modern agricultural practices.
This year, a guy named Pierre Desrochers published a rebuttal to Pollan’s book titled “The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet. Desrochers is an economic geographer at the University of Toronto - Mississauga and the book, co-authored with his wife Hiroko Shimizu, argues that locally grown food “makes no economic sense.”
Here is what frosts me. Desrochers made a stop in Washington, D.C. back in July at the Cato Institute, and talked about his book. Desrochers was followed by a guy named Gary Blumenthal, who is a consultant to big agricultural businesses. Gary Blumenthal actually said, “I equate [interest in locally grown food] to fundamental Islam – this rejection of modernity.”
What the . . . ???
These people are all obtuse. There are no dilemmas here, and interest in locally grown food is easy to understand.
For the record, I am a big believer in free markets. I am a big fan of Adam Smith, and I have a well-worn copy of “The Wealth of Nations” here on my desk.
Most of the food we eat comes from industrial agriculture. That has certainly been true since World War II and that is not going to change in our lifetimes. Industrial agriculture is very efficient, and produces abundant food very cheaply. In this country, we spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than any other country on earth.
But Pierre Desrochers is just flat-out wrong that locally grown food makes no sense. Local market growers feel that we have some superior products - with advantages such as quality, freshness, variety and safety - that are very competitive. The reason the market for locally grown food is growing is because it does make economic sense. This is a matter of free markets at work.
Industrial agriculture will remain the predominant supplier of our food. If you enjoy bananas, or fresh pineapple, or strawberries in December, local growers can’t supply you. But local growers do have competitive products, and these two groups are now locked in a long-term fight for market share. That explains all this animosity.
I have a prediction: we are betting that the market share for locally grown food will continue to grow, and as local food becomes more available through an increasing number of channels, local growers will benefit from economies of scale that will make them even more competitive.
As I say every week, there is currently a food revolution going on, and locally grown food is making permanent inroads into the food we eat.
Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County. His column on fresh and locally grown food runs every Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org