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Shop locally, eat globally?

The Locavore's Dilemma hits bookstores

Most of a food's greenhouse gas output occurs in production, not transportation, says Professor Desrochers (image by Kelly Rankin)

Pierre Desrochers knows how to serve up controversy. When an acquaintance mentions she follows a 100-mile diet to help the environment, Desrochers calmly asks how much energy it takes to heat an Ontario greenhouse.

When a colleague lauds local food as more nutritious than products shipped thousands of miles, Desrochers politely points out that the diet of a 19th-century German peasant consisted of lentils and peas.

Now, the University of Toronto Mississauga geography professor has published a controversial new book that goes beyond polite mealtime conversation and pits what Desrochers calls the “romanticism” of local eating, or locavorism, against the realities of a global food-supply chain.

Desrochers is the co-author of The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet, in which he argues that we should stop obsessing about how many miles our food has travelled to get to our dinner plate.

“Three centuries ago most people were eating local food,” Desrochers says. “Why do we think the world moved away from that? There are significant benefits—particularly, environmental and economical—in collaborating to produce food in the best geographic locations.”

Desrochers and his wife and co-author, Hiroko Shimizu, launched the book and faced local food supporters at an ‘author meets critics’ event held on June 6, 2012 at the U of T Mississauga campus. Debbie Field, Executive Director of FoodShare Toronto, Canada’s largest community food security organization, attended the event and sees The Locavore’s Dilemma as “manipulative” and “fanning the fires, rather than trying to find a way forward” on the topic of a long-term approach to hunger and food issues.

Desrochers and Shimizu realize their views are not popular with food activists. They waded into the locavore debate in 2008 after a visiting environmental studies professor labelled the Japanese as “parasitical” because they rely on imported food to survive.

“Japan is a tiny island country with little land to grow food,” Japanese-born Shimizu says, “so, Japan produces and exports electronics and cars. You have to do what you are good at. It’s a global win-win situation.”

The couple responded to the Japanese slight by publishing a policy paper titled, Yes, we have no bananas: A critique of the ‘food miles’ perspective, which showed that over 80 per cent of a food’s greenhouse gas output occurs in production, compared to only 10 per cent in transportation. The paper received instant attention.

“There was quite a reaction to it. We had all sorts of names thrown at us,” Desrochers says, “but frankly, it’s the most successful thing I have ever written.” The paper led to articles for the Financial Post and Reader’s Digest Canada, live debates, a CBC radio phone-in show, and eventually, a book offer.

The Locavore’s Dilemma digs even deeper to confront the key tenets of locavorism: local food minimizes food miles, boosts the economy and is fresher, safer and more nutritious than the imported food found in most grocery stores.

“When it comes to the environment, focusing on food miles is like focusing on the tire pressure in your Hummer,” Desrochers says.

More important than distance travelled is efficient production in an ideal growing location, according to Desrochers. For example, a New Zealand apple harvested and shipped to Canada in mid-March has a smaller carbon footprint than a Québec apple picked in September and stored in a refrigerated warehouse.

And although the buy-local philosophy may keep farmers’ markets and corner mom-and-pop shops in business, Desrochers contends it does nothing to help the poor, either here at home or abroad. Buying expensive local food means consumers have less money to purchase other things, and it shuts the door to developing countries in Latin America and Africa—regions with ideal climates to grow food—in order to protect inefficient local producers.

“Increasingly, locavorism is being forced down our throats, and public institutions like universities, hospitals, schools and prisons are pressured to adopt local food, which is a waste of taxpayers’ money,” Desrochers says.

Raised in Québec’s fertile Saint Lawrence Valley on a rural property with 52 apple trees, a colony of rabbits and the family sugar shack, Desrochers never imagined he would write a book promoting the virtues of globe-hopping food.

“I hope that when people read The Locavore’s Dilemma they realize there are food problems in the world, but local food is not one of them,” Desrochers says. “It’s fine to eat locally in season but we should eat globally the rest of the time. That way, we can have our cake and eat it, too.”