Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Book Excerpt -- P. Desrochers & H. Shimizu, The Locavore's Dilemma

Book Exceprt

     To a locavore, food in the future should be created pretty much like it was in the not-so-distant past: produce and animals raised lovingly in urban backyards, turning domestic waste into hearty dishes. Farmers’ markets in every small town and city neighbourhood, where people rediscover the joys of real food and get reacquainted with one another. The rebuilding of small-scale slaughterhouses and canning factories to serve area producers and foster the preservation of local food items for consumption in the off-season.

     Ideally, this local system would also be built on seeds saved from the previous harvest rather than purchased from giant corporate seed producers; ancient “heirloom” cultivars developed before synthetic fertilizers and pesticides became available and that, as a result, are better able to seek nutrients in the soil, don’t require any chemicals and are naturally resilient to drought and pests (“If it’s old seed, it’s good seed!”); and “heritage” animal breeds better able to withstand diseases and harsh environments and grow fat and happy on pastureland alone. Pest control would be achieved through traditional “natural” products based on plants and minerals; manual labour, such as crushing or picking bugs and larvae off foliage or removing weeds by hands; and biological control methods, such as introducing exotic animals, insects and bacteria that feed on invasive pests. Finally, factory-made fertilizers would be replaced by animal manure and rotating fodder crops, such as clover and alfalfa.

     This scenario, however, raises an obvious question: If our agricultural past was so great, why were modern animal and plant breeds, long distance trade in food, and modern production and processing technologies developed in the first place? The simple answer is that, to the people who lived through them, the “good old days” were more akin to “trying times.” In a market economy, people do not bother tinkering with advances unless they are facing pressing problems. True, no innovative solution is ever perfect, but the essence of progress is to create less significant problems than those that existed before. Unfortunately, many activists endorse the so-called “precautionary principle,” which in its purest form prevents technological changes in the absence of full scientific certainty as to their potential negative consequences. Yet, those who promote this stance ignore the harm that this worldview creates. Had resistance to innovation and change been more significant in the last two centuries, real income, life expectancy and food consumption would undoubtedly be much lower than they currently are, while infant mortality, food prices and hours worked, among other things, would have been much higher. Stagnation is fundamentally incompatible with any meaningful notion of sustainable development.

     No one denies that our modern food system can be improved in various ways and for a long time to come —we personally look forward to the day when humans will be able to “grow” or clone cuts of meat without having to raise and kill animals—but critics should at least try to understand why we now produce food the way we do. Could it be, for instance, that some varieties of heirloom plants were abandoned because they not only had lower yields, but were also less resistant to diseases and bad weather or else displayed significant challenges, such as less regular ripening, shorter shelf lives and lesser resistance to mechanical handling and transportation? That, for all their flaws in terms of taste, Iceberg lettuces and Elberta peaches provided the best fresh options in quality and price when alternatives were unavailable? Perhaps one hears comparatively little about heritage animal breeds not only because of their lower feed-to-meat conversion ratios (the amount of feed needed to produce a pound of meat), but also because they didn’t taste that good and were more aggressive creatures? Finally, isn’t it conceivable that those who espouse the notion that we should go back to “the sort of food our great grandmothers would recognize” are forgetting that our great grandmothers’ great grandmothers would have heartily embraced the variety of new products available at the turn of the 20th century, from canned condensed milk and soups to breakfast cereals, frozen meat and tropical offerings, such as fresh bananas?

      Isn’t it possible that crushing bugs and removing weeds by hands were neither very effective nor the most productive use of one’s time? That seeds purchased from commercial suppliers offered access to superior genetic material, were not mixed up with unwanted material and were readily available when needed? That “natural” manure has always been dirty, smelly, chock-full of pathogens and requires several months of composting? That the “slow release” of nutrients from green manures and organic compost could never be as adequately controlled to match crop demands with nutrient supply as is now possible with synthetic fertilizers? Further, that old mineral (including arsenic) and plant-based pesticides were less harmful to plant pests (and thereby more likely to promote insect resistance) and more problematic to human health than more recent offerings? That introducing nonnative insects, mammals and bacteria in a new ecosystem often had unintended, broader and longer-lasting negative consequences for nontargeted species? And that, unlike chemical pesticides that typically do not persist in an ecosystem once application has ceased, exotic insects who have successfully adapted to a new environment are practically impossible to eradicate and do not remain confined to one geographical location? In the end, why are modern agricultural producers willing to purchase costly synthetic inputs, hormonal growth promoters, antibiotics and genetically modified seeds when the methods agri-intellectuals prefer are either completely free (such as giving up on the use of these inputs and on equipment such as poultry housing) or seemingly much cheaper (such as feeding cattle entirely on pastureland and saving one’s seeds instead of relying on those marketed by specialized producers)?

     On the retail side, perhaps supermarkets and large chain stores displaced farmers’ markets because of their more convenient hours, better parking conditions, greater mastery of logistics and inventory management, higher quality products, lower prices and superior record in terms of food safety. On the latter topic, couldn’t it be the case that the risk that large processing plants will spread pathogens over long distances is mitigated by the fact that they have better technologies to detect, control and track such problems in the first place? And let’s not forget that the long distance trade in food and agricultural inputs had the not inconsequential result of eradicating famine and malnutrition wherever it became significant.

     Some locavores may continue to believe that our globalized food supply chain is the result of colonial and corporate agri-business raiders who crushed small farmers, packers and retailers the world over simply because they could. But we contend that modern practices are but the latest in a long line of innovations, the ultimate goal of which has always been to increase the accessibility, quality, reliability and affordability of humanity’s food supply. And if we may be so blunt, how many activists still use locally manufactured electric typewriters and copper-wired rotary-dial phones to spread their message and set up “grassroots” links between food consumers and producers? How many move around in horse-drawn tramways, Ford Model Ts or even old-fashioned roller skates with parallel wheels? How many would trust doctors, meteorologists and computer engineers clinging to 1940s technology? If nonlocal modern technologies are good enough to serve the locavores’ needs, why aren’t they also desirable for agricultural producers?

     We have attempted to look beyond the anti-corporate, romantic and protectionist underpinnings of locavorism and to illustrate the rationale behind improvements in food production, processing and transportation technologies, along with the benefits of an ever broader division of agricultural labor. To quote the historian Paul Johnson, the study of history “is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance,” for it is always humbling “to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.” The available historical evidence tells us that locavorism, far from being a step forward, can only deliver the world our ancestors gladly escaped from and which subsistence farmers mired in similar circumstances around the world would also escape if given opportunities to trade. It would not only mean lower standards of living and shorter life expectancy, but also increased environmental damage and social turmoil.

     In the words of the American lawyer and legislator William Bourke Cockran, made famous by Winston Churchill in his 1946 “iron curtain” speech: “There is enough for all. The earth is a generous mother; she will provide in plentiful abundance for all her children if they will but cultivate her soil in justice and peace.”     

From the book The Locavore’s Dilemma by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu published by Public Affairs.


Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I too posted on this book earlier on this blog:

9/24/2012 11:55 AM  

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