Criticisms of Local Foods (essay, 2012)

Called ‘brilliant’, ‘compelling’, ‘insightful’ and ‘too long’, this essay is probably my most read piece. It certainly was the scariest to put out there.

From 2008–2012, as a ringleader in an informal group known as the 1 in 10 Coalition, I was heavily involved in efforts to eliminate barriers to local foods in San Diego. While I’m proud to have participated in efforts to eliminate senseless barriers to community gardens, farmers markets, bees, chickens and miniature goats, over the years, experience forced changes in my views, and, to my surprise, I found myself increasingly pessimistic about the potential of local food to achieve the goals its followers hope to accomplish.

I wrote this essay as a way to figure out what I believed. I expected this essay to cost me a lot of friends. Instead, I discovered that I was largely saying what they were thinking. It was originally posted on Jill Richardson’s blog, La Vida Locavore.

Carrots are not enough: The limits of the local food movement (2012)

Over the past decade, especially the last five years, the local food movement has come of age. Ordinary people are pouring tremendous amounts of energy into building community gardens, supporting farmers markets, raising backyard chickens, connecting local farms to schools and hospitals, creating seasonal restaurant menus and advocating to make all of these things legal. The sheer volume of editorials, case studies, reports, blogs and the like — to say nothing of the proliferation of new organizations and coalitions — has becoming numbing, well past what any one mortal can follow. Foundations have taken an interest, and the movement now receives (modest) support from all levels of government. As Joe Biden would say, it’s a big deal.

When the dust settles, however, locavores are likely to be disappointed and frustrated. The modern food system will bear their imprint to be sure: any ‘serious’ sit-down restaurant will source as much locally as possible, schools will have salad bars, and big box stores and groceries will glowingly highlight foods on sale grown within the state. Indeed, all of these things are happening already. But farm soil will become even more scorched earth, standard coffin sizes will be wider around the waist, and the eating habits of the majority of Americans will be barely changed.

Why? The local food movement is shortsighted. It ignores what is inconvenient and sets itself up for failure. If the movement confronted its weak spots, it would force a change in expectations and tactics, would force locavores to up their game, relegating some of what they do now to the status of fun hobbies and pushing them in promising but uncomfortable directions.

This is not a hostile critique. I do not think the current food system is sustainable, let alone the one and only way we’ll be able to feed earth’s growing population: based on what we’ve seen of how transnational agribusiness is ‘feeding the world’, if that’s the only way, we’re really, really in trouble.

Likewise, I don’t think much of the smug dismissals of the movement by apologists for the status quo such as Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu. They raise a few interesting questions (which they answer badly), but in the main their essays serve as great ocular exercise because you end up rolling your eyes so much while reading them.

Furthermore, I hope I am sidestepping what could be called the fallacy of substitution, the belief that if people stopped doing what they’re now, they would automatically use that free time to do what I personally think is more important.

Instead, my concern is that the anticipated transformative potential of local foods has been overestimated. I am convinced that what we’re doing to reverse the many deplorable trends we are witnessing is not enough. I am convinced that locavores — and everyone else concerned about the health of the American republic — must consider or reconsider three points, starting with the most basic.

You can’t recreate what never existed.

The problem begins with the story locavores tell of how the world works and what’s wrong with it. The story itself — of paradise lost and to be regained — is so well-known that it hardly bears repeating: at some time in the hoary past, people ate food grown near where they lived. Food was sustainable, it was moral: those who consumed it had a direct connection with those who made it, and everyone was connected to the earth and the cycle of life that seasons represented.

This utopia, however, was muscled aside by the modern food system: agribusinesses, pesticides, monoculture commodity crops, processed foods, fast food. In the wake of this food system came a variety of ills: the destruction of soil and of farm communities, the obesity epidemic, the rise of bland food-like substances (preserved with unpronounceable chemicals) transported thousands of miles, and a profound moral alienation from our sources of subsistence — E pluribus unum supplanted by Eat shit and die. Ordinary people, however, are fighting back by rebuilding what was, reclaiming food sovereignty and their communities, restoring themselves and their families to health.

That, at any rate, is the story locavores tell. In some ways, it is remarkably successful. It’s easy to understand, it provides a clear course of action and it’s more internally coherent than many other ideologies. It is, however, simplistic, often to the point of being flat-out wrong. And this sets up the local food movement for disappointment.

To be blunt, the movement’s romantic view of agriculture’s past is bad history. It projects a dreamy idealized picture, making the twin mistakes of assuming that the different pieces of the industrial food system arose simultaneously and smearing over historical differences to ignore something critical, which can be stated with a bit of hyperbole: food has almost never been local.

A few historical examples: at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, the fifth-century Athenians responded to Spartan invaders by hiding behind their city walls and surviving on the grain they imported from the Black Sea region. Rome, likewise, built itself up to the greatest city in western Antiquity with the substantial help of Egyptian grain. The Black Death followed global trade routes that were established to ship not just spices and silks but often mundane foodstuffs.

Turning to American history makes it clear that long distance trade in agriculture could almost be called the reason for the very existence of the United States. With the exception of religious dissenters in New England, European colonies in what became the US were fundamentally about trade with the motherland, trade that included many agricultural products. This emphasis on long-distance trade never diminished. Indeed, if you reflect upon your high school history with an eye for long-distance agriculture trade, like the sudden reverse of a gestalt image, food miles abruptly appear as the warp and woof of our past: people moved west, food went east: the tobacco of colonial Virginia, the sugar and rum of the triangular trade, the cotton and slavery of the South, the Whiskey Rebellion, friction over trade in the undeclared war with France and leading up to the War of 1812, the Erie Canal establishing New York City’s dominance, the iconic cowboys rustling cattle for Chicago slaughterhouses, the Homestead Act, the grange, the rise of populism and the battle over gold and silver. The citrus of Orange County wasn’t meant strictly for local consumption. (Or as Julie Guthman put it, “California agriculture was industrial from the get-go.”)

But even the high school textbook version of history downplays the scale and significance of agricultural trade: during the battle known as the Glorious First of June (1794), the British attacked the French navy protecting a convoy carrying an estimated quarter of the American grain harvest to the beleaguered First Republic. And that was twenty-one years after the Boston [Imported Indian] Tea Party and twenty-one years before Tories felt it necessary to institute the Corn Laws. American food, especially grains, were prevalent on global markets across the nineteenth century. And fleshing out nineteenth century American history includes details like baby oysters being shipped to the Bay Area because people didn’t like the local oysters and boxcars of San Diego honey taking trains back to the East Coast.

Indeed, we could put it simply: when food has legs, it walks.  And histories of agriculture and of food consumption, like Susanne Freidberg’s history of food technology Fresh, repeatedly show people constantly striving to get better food to even further markets.

We can of course think of exceptions. They tend to prove the rule, however: John Schlebecker has noted American agriculture has always been commercial agriculture. Localized agriculture, such as in colonial New England or during war, has represented a failure to successfully link into large markets more than a deliberate decision to refrain from wider distribution.

There are several reasons this history doesn’t get its due. First and probably foremost, the scale of the global transportation of ‘fresh’ foods has been quite dramatic. Second, unless you’re active in a particular industry, you don’t notice the exports; ordinary people only notice the imports. And the United States used to have a strong balance of trade. It has only been in the last several decades that the country has been flooded with imports, creating the impression that global trade is recent. Third, American history teachers do a poor job of giving a sense of the role of transportation technology in shaping our country, dropping the subject after horrific descriptions of how bad roads were. That’s only half the story: since Antiquity, waterborne shipping was much better. It was slow but the tonnage was substantial. This made practical geography look very different than it does now when it’s possible to drive a car everywhere: “In the late 18th century,” John Schlebecker calculated, “it cost considerably less to ship from England to Philadelphia than to ship iron to Philadelphia by land from Lancaster only 75 miles away.”

If history is faced squarely, it becomes clear that locavores are not harkening back to any one period but are cherrypicking images from different times and places — a romanticization of the perishable.

This represent a challenge to the local food movement, one that can’t be dealt with simply by coming up with a nuanced view of the history, one that makes distinctions between grains on one hand and fruits and vegetables on the other. There’s a real danger to the movement here: complacency. If you are aiming to return to a point in the past, one in which you believe everything worked well, then your strategy is going to be to hit rewind and leave it at that. You don’t have to have uncomfortable discussions about what has worked and what hasn’t.

Accepting that the local food movement is in fact not trying to go back into the past but is attempting something new is both easy and hard. It’s easy in the sense that some people say it — for instance, Will Allen’s new book, The Good Food Revolution — and I think everyone else at least subconsciously recognizes this. As much as nostalgia suffuses the local food movement, its members are incessant innovators. And they know it. The mobile chicken pen celebrated in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that allows poultry to eat up bugs while fertilizing a different section of soil each day, was not a common sight in the nineteenth-century landscape. (Nor, for that matter, was the worm composting bin that normally stays directly behind my computer chair a common feature of earlier generations of multifamily housing.)

Admitting that we are making this up as we go along could be exhilarating, but it requires vastly more rigorously thought-out strategies than those in place today. It’s not enough to use images of yeoman organic farmers as a roadmap. It requires tough, uncomfortable questions. Contrary to what critics of locavores imagine is a central tenant of the movement, I’ve never met a single modern American local food advocate arguing for widespread subsistence farming. But how much food advocates think should be local isn’t clear, and that’s the problem: the vision is murky, including on such key points as how much food we’re trying to grow locally anyway.

But it’s not just abstract questions. While traditional cost-benefit analysis has its methodological flaws, we need to more rigorously compare the advantages and drawbacks of different strategies, to ask what is the best use of our time, to anticipate unintended consequences. Are their local reasons why a particular kind of project might not be best, like reliance on imported water? Do the benefits of a particular approach outweigh the cost and time it takes to do it? Would the benefits be available to everyone who wanted them? Or would it deepen the divide between the haves and have-nots? How much land would it take to move beyond pilot projects? Is that land available? Is it affordable? Is a project simply switching out what resources are drawn from afar? Will this approach simply increase the peak season supply of an already abundant crop? Would the wider implementation of this approach demand unrealistic sacrifices that people are unwilling to make? Does this kind of project tend to depend upon a few volunteers or underpaid nonprofit staffers exploiting themselves? Is it just too damn hard for what people get out of it?

Local food advocates have to do the math. One of the main — but certainly not the sole — reason for sourcing closer in is that it saves energy. I don’t know the extent to which this is true. The analyses I’ve seen purporting to show that it doesn’t save energy are easy enough to shoot holes into, but they do point to the need to do the math ourselves and to be open to unexpected and perhaps uncomfortable findings.

Some of the toughest questions, however, have to do with labor and inequality. Despite its explicit concern for social justice, the local food movement has been reluctant to confront poverty. Most obviously, even though those in poverty are sometimes intended to be the beneficiaries of the local food movement, little attention is paid to those who currently work in the food system, which is the home of many a low-paying, long-hour job. A recent report from the Food Chain Workers Alliance basically can be summarized as such: seven out of eight jobs in the food sector suck. This, I don’t think, is news to anyone.

Yet the proposals to change this from within the local food movement are thin. There are, to be sure, exposés of working conditions and wages of factory operations of the industrial food system, especially slaughtering facilities. And there are calls for those middle-class and above to devote more of their incomes to their food budget, but this is said in the absence of a broader sense of the dynamics of the modern economy. The reality is, as Julie Guthman has observed, if we had to pay the true costs of justly produced, sustainable food, we couldn’t.

This isn’t the only thing missing from the local food movement’s critique: the local food movement doesn’t squarely face the very real threat of hunger for many in the US. Most Americans don’t. Much of this has to do with the largely unacknowledged success of government programs, especially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has calculated that a little less than a third of the US population would be in poverty without government assistance, particularly SNAP and the Earned Income Tax Credit. They cut poverty in approximately half. SNAP is under attack by conservatives, yet that seems to be in a world parallel to much local food activism.

Family food budgets are relatively elastic compared to other expenses. This means that when other expenses mount or wages stagnant, food is one area that can get squeezed, and Americans have a long tradition of favoring cheapness of food over quality when other needs press in. Food, then, can’t be talked about in isolation from the cycle of speculative real estate booms inflating housing costs, out of control medical care and higher education costs, deunionization and the off-shoring of jobs, the influence of money in elections, etc. Focusing specifically on food as a problem has become common in the United States over the last ten years, but it is in fact a strange thing to do. Food is not isolated from the rest of life. In fact, the argument could be made that what makes our food system so intractably bad is our lack of a strong safety net and commitment to a just sharing of the wealth people create.

There is, of course, the risk of going to the other extreme, of waiting until you have a perfect understanding of economics and politics before doing anything, but we’re quite far from that and at any rate, it’s mainly a pit that only academics fall into.

Access isn’t the only issue.

One of the most striking trends of the last several decades in the United States is the swelling rates of obesity. Governments and foundations have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into programs attempting to reverse this alarming trend — and they’ve had as much as luck as individual people trying to go on a diet. University researchers, nonprofit workers, public health officials and government leaders have largely focused on access, epitomized by the concept of a food desert, in which poor neighborhoods are ignored by grocery stores, leaving residents at the mercy of abysmal food sold at convenience store prices. Kids, in this view, are surrounded by fast food and simply don’t have the opportunity to eat enough fresh organic carrots.

This makes the mistake of assuming that people are fundamentally rational and not creatures perpetually sailing the Scylla of bad habits and the Charybdis of impulse. A great many Americans — I can’t document it, but I’m guessing a majority — if a great many Americans are given the choice between a fabulous concoction of local foods designed by a celebrity chef and a hot fudge sundae, they’ll go for the hot fudge sundae. The psychology of eating, however, is by and large ignored by those promoting access as the cure-all.

Part of the appeal of the emphasis of access, access, access is that it plays safe. The mantra of access plays strictly by the rules in its adherence to cultural norm of consumer choice. What could be more innocent than giving people a choice? It doesn’t ruffle any feathers. It doesn’t rock any boats. It doesn’t threaten the powers that be. (Believe me, it doesn’t.) It avoids conflict, it doesn’t upset donors. It allows the local food movement to quietly stand in line for its chance to  genuflect at the altar of choice.

It also means that the local food movement is utterly outgunned by the hawkers of processed foods, who spend millions of dollars designing their products to be irresistible. Food engineers are well paid to knowingly play with our primal desires for sweets, fats and salt, creating, as Deidre Barrett has argued, supernormal stimuli — that is, irresistible stimuli that excites the brain and nervous system more intensely than the stimuli we evolved to desire. So candy is sweeter than fruit, beef is bred for more and more marbled fat, the combination of salt and oil in corn chips induce cravings for more instead of making you fuller. And even if you think you have a chance against this, food engineers engage in systematic taste tests to make sure that the widest range of people possible don’t. “Betcha can’t eat just one” should have been a warning label. We desperately need a better understanding of food psychology if we are to have any chance against this.

It’s not just a lack of shame about piling on the unhealthy ingredients. Junk food hawkers are quite deliberate in what they do, opening their deep pockets to advertise and to push back against even the mildest reforms. Their efforts are enormously sophisticated, and they’re not shy about being innovative, going so far as using gaze tracking devices to study how people actually look at grocery store shelves. It seems naive at best to think that they can be supplanted by making local foods more available.

We need a better approach. Those who have fought to make schools sanctuaries from junk food pushers point the way: we have to do more to challenge the hypocrisy of corporations that proclaim the sanctity of individual freedom while using science to undermine it. We need to rethink the relationship between people and food businesses. We’ve concluded that families bear all the responsibilities and corporations have only freedom, that having a majority of the population overweight is a small price to pay for companies having the right to sell whatever they want without regard to the health consequences. It’s become a challenge to even have grown-up discussions about what a more balanced distribution of freedoms and responsibilities would look like.

Localism, as a style, has never succeeded anywhere on anything.

Michael Pollan noted that the scariest part of An Inconvenient Truth for him was when, after Al Gore made a strong case for the dangers of global warming, the film suggested people change their lightbulbs. I’ve had a similar experience. The very charismatic Raj Patel was the keynote speaker for San Diego’s annual Cultivating Food Justice Conference several years ago. After dazzling the audience with a critique of the economic system that let transnational corporations control the choke point between economic vulnerable farmers and mis-fed consumers, someone of course asked him what he thought should be done. He said to start a food policy council. And Pollan’s response for what should be done about the food system? Start a garden.

Local food is by no means the first local movement in history. It’s a common response to the feeling of frustration that accompanies outside forces invading people’s communities: hark back to the past and just say no to the cultural invaders. We can see it in local music snobs and the Buy American movement of the 1980s (when Japanese manufacturers were oxidizing the Rust Belt). Such movements, however, have a poor track record and are often short-lived. Indeed, the only enduring one I can think of in the US is for states rights, which so often has been merely a white sheet of respectability for racism.

To be sure, the local food movement is arguably unique in that in this case local is often better, whereas, say, a demo tape recorded in Seattle sounds the same in Perth and as in the sight of Puget Sound. But peak food experiences are not enough to transform the food system. There are tremendous economic incentives driving against it.

A key problem is that the local food movement is that it depends on farmers and consumers being willing to assume greater risk and forgo opportunities for better deals because of their commitment to each other. While the best food you’re likely to eat will be local, you can’t always tell the difference and in effect have to take it on faith that it is better, when it necessarily isn’t so. While a good farmers market apple may be a foretaste of heaven, a bad farmers market apple is much more of a hit to pocket book than a bad grocery store apple. And CSAs require an insouciant flair that combines innovative cooking skill with a willingness to surrender control over what you eat. From a farmer’s perspective, they’re in one of the riskiest businesses out there and to forgo broader markets is quite a risk indeed, even if they can convince a number of CSA subscribers to share that risk.

It’s not just micro-economics. Laura Lawson observes in her history of the American community garden movement that the popularity of such gardens is countercyclical to the economy. This suggests trouble for the local food movement beyond its community gardens: it has boomed after the bursting of a real estate bubble and a profound recession setting in. This has meant a lot of slack volunteer labor but also the agriculture uses have had minimal competition from urban and suburban development. When the next real estate bubble begins puffing up, not only will developers start eying community gardens, local farmers are going to have a serious temptation to sell and retire. This could play out in an ugly fashion.

If people honestly calculated how many farmers markets, CSAs, community gardens, neighborhood aquaponic farms, etc. it would take to muscle aside the industrial food system, then they’d have a much better sense of why their critics tend to be limited to cranks and small-time sycophants to the status quo. Yes, local food can have a positive impact in certain circumstances, like as economic development for refugees who were farmers before coming to the US and who have extremely limited job prospects otherwise. And personally I am most optimistic about school settings, in part because of the strong educational component projects there can have.

But thinking small and hoping for big effects is not going to pencil out. It reminds me of when I was doing research on city planning and officials complained about being held accountable instead of being given incentives. More carrots and fewer sticks, they said, when everyone in the room knew that that would mean nothing significant would get done. It was Al Gore’s light bulb: too incremental, roundabout and voluntaristic.

My experience has been that local food activists figure out what to do by looking around them and seeing what they can do and then doing it. That’s certainly been my approach. The problem is that it allows you to stick with what is comfortable even if it is not effective.

Better is to ask where you want to go and work backward to figure out what it would take to get there. In short, you need to plan. This is not meant to be utopian. Plans almost never go as expected. That’s life. The purpose of plans is not to give you a rigid road map into the future. Rather, they give you a sense of what scale you must operate at. On that level, there’s a yawning gap between the actions of local food activists and their dreams.

The Future

Perhaps one of the best ways to assess the local food movement is to put it in its historical context. While people have been kvetching about food imports for over a century, what is generally envisioned by the term the local food movement is much more recent vintage, gaining strength from two forces: the idle labor created by the Great Recession but — more importantly — a disenchantment with the term organic. Initially, organic was meant to be the new ideal, a way to create a brand new sustainable and moral food system parallel to the industrial one. By the 1990s, ‘organic’ as a worldview, as an ethical system, was breaking down into discrete soulless measures of farm practices, allowing fields of ‘organic’ produce literally side by side — with minimal but measurable buffers — with conventional fields,  on the same farm that engaged in practices that the organic movement arose in response to. And after people read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it became common knowledge that the promise of organics was broken.

By establishing direct connections between producers and consumers, the local food movement could achieve what organic was meant to accomplish. In other words, to the ‘shop your way to safety’ approach of organics (to paraphrase a book title by Andrew Szasz), the local food movement added a strong DIY component. It’s become a false solution to the problem facing all national social movements, namely how to engage local residents when centers of power are elsewhere: while very time intensive and rewarding, it falls, as Julie Guthman would suggest, into the same mistake as organics, namely trying to improve the world by running parallel to what is wrong with it but not fundamentally challenging those problems. To that I would add that, like organics, the local food movement rests on a muddling of local as fresh (that is, as superior taste and thus a consumer preference) and environmentally gentler, and that what we’re witnessing is the successful ratcheting up of what qualifies as good food under the banner of a sustainable food system.

If you have the time and resources, there is no shortage of reasons for engaging in gardening, shopping at farmers markets, eating at restaurants sourcing locally, making your own beer and the like. If transforming the food system, if trying to make the world a better place, is your goal, then disappointment and disenchantment are likely to be the ultimate fruits of your labor because there’s no real tipping point after which local food will become easier.

Indeed, the reverse is likely to be true. The more people want local food, the more expensive it’ll become. And insofar as people wish to grow their own, there will be increased competition for local land, and there’s a limit to how much free time people have to spend on personal food production and consumption.

We need to up our game. We’ve been trying to win a boxing match strictly using a left jab. We’ve gone for the obvious, for what is easy, for what is right in front of us. Community residents have been like the person looking for their keys under the street lamp and not where they lost them. And nonprofits have allowed their activities to become too routine, too institutionalized. Many people who work in food-related nonprofits know that the farm bill is the sun around which American agriculture revolves and the system of industrial junk food system is unlikely to change without the farm bill changing. But if the Farm Bill is so bad, why respond with letters and phone calls? Why not march on Washington? Yes, entrenched fat-kid/fat-cat politicians look powerful. Incumbent always look invulnerable before they fall.

If history is any indication, change will depend on innovation. Just ask Hosni Mubarak how he feels about Facebook. This doesn’t mean that we cannot reuse past strategies — undoubtedly the fight against tobacco companies in particular has much to teach us about combating junk food — but we do have to think bigger. We have to ask what it would take to have the world reflect our values and then do it.