The utopian’s dilemma: In praise of the 10,000-mile diet

Kenneth Green
January 21, 2013
The 100-mile diet is folly. Only someone disconnected from reality in Kitsilano would think and pretend to eat, otherwise. Environmental scientist and Fraser Institute Senior Fellow reviews The Locavore's Dilemma: In praise of the 100-mile diet.

The utopian’s dilemma: In praise of the 10,000-mile diet

Kenneth Green
January 21, 2013
The 100-mile diet is folly. Only someone disconnected from reality in Kitsilano would think and pretend to eat, otherwise. Environmental scientist and Fraser Institute Senior Fellow reviews The Locavore's Dilemma: In praise of the 100-mile diet.
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The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet.

Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu (2012).

New York: Public Affairs, 2012, 256 pp.

Reviewed by Kenneth P. Green

For the sake of disclosure, I should state right up front that I know and like Pierre Desrochers, find his sense of humour (and his Québécois accent) charming, and though I have not met his wife, Hiroko, I am sure I would like her, too. I have also had my doubts about the whole ‘eat local’ and ‘eat’ organic movement. So, I would have been predisposed to like the dynamic duo’s dissection of the latest in food faddishness, the obsession with eating locally and organically. Fortunately for me, I did not have to resort to favoritism in deciding if I liked Locavore’s Dilemma, the new book from Desrochers and Shimizu. The couple has put together a fascinating book. It traces the origins of the eat local and eat organic movement (origins that were much further back in time than I imagined), examines the fundamental precepts of the locavore philosophy, dissects the many mythical and magical thoughts expressed by leading proponents of “locavory” and warns of the strong likelihood of adverse consequences for people and the planet should this fad be pursued more extensively.

Kitsilano conscience chic: The 100-mile diet

One of the more thorough concept demolitions in Locavore relates to the idea of food miles, which are a measure of how far food travels before it is consumed. The basic idea is that low food miles are better: They are better for the environment; they bring you better, more-flavourful food; and they are better for the local community and the local farmers. This idea is also at the heart of the 100-mile diet, in which another intrepid Canadian couple document a year spent eating only foodstuffs that were grown and/or reared within 100 miles of their home in Kitsilano, British Columbia.

In a chapter called “The Basic Problems with Food Miles,” Desrochers and Shimizu point out that food miles are a poor proxy for environmental impact:

Despite its popularity, the concept and its underlying rationale have been convincingly debunked in numerous Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) studies [LCAs are essentially cradle-to-grave analyses of environmental impacts] …. Not surprisingly, it turns out that food miles can only be taken at face value in the case of identical items produced simultaneously in the exact same

physical conditions but in different locations – in other words, if everything else is equal, which is obviously never the case in the real world.

The discussion of transport in this section is particularly illuminating. It turns out that, in fact, transportation contributes only a small share to a food’s environmental impact or the production of greenhouse gas emissions related to its production and use. Desrochers and Shimizu review the literature on the issue, pointing out that according to one study:

[Eighty-two] percent of the estimated 30 billion food miles associated with U.K.-consumed food are generated within the country, with car transport from shop to home accounting for 48 percent and tractor-trailers (what they call HGVs – heavy goods vehicles) representing 31 percent of food miles.

So, unless one anticipates walking that 100 miles to gather one’s own food, limiting one’s diet to 100 miles would not really do much for the environment, at least in terms of greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Desrochers points out that other factors also undermine the food-miles issue. This includes the tendency of those who rely most on local and organic food to report increased food waste; that offsets whatever environmental benefits may have been gained by reducing food transport. In addition, there is the irony of more energy being used to ensure local refrigeration to store foods that are more highly perishable than are foods that are more conventionally produced, packaged and transported from further away. Welcome to Utopia—again!

What I found most fascinating in Locavore’s Dilemma was that the very same family of fallacies and coalitions of crusaders that Desrochers and Shimizu dissect map neatly onto many other realms of public policy.

In that sense, The Locavore’s Dilemma may be misnamed: It could well be named The Utopian’s Dilemma, as the myriad of fantasies that the authors dissect infect a broad swathe of public policy. We see these fantasies time and again in policies on trade, energy, transport, urban planning and the environment. Since I specialize in energy and natural resource policy, I will focus my examples there.

One of the first fallacies the authors take on is a classic called the broken window fallacy. As Desrochers and Shimizu show, advocates of locavory exist in denial of the potential negative consequences that might attend their choice:

The basic logic of what Bastiat enthusiasts have dubbed the “broken window fallacy” similarly applies to the short-sighted reasoning of local food protectionists. By forcing people to buy more expensive local food, locavorism impoverishes consumers who will then have less money to spend on other things, including other locally produced goods and services.

We see virtually the same sentiments expressed within the energy policy arena, where advocates of renewable energy sing the praises of creating green jobs, as then presidential candidate Barack Obama did in 2008: “We’ll invest $15 billion a year over the next decade in renewable energy, creating five million new green jobs that pay well, can’t be outsourced, and help end our dependence on foreign oil.”

As Bastiat would undoubtedly demonstrate, to the extent that all this renewable energy is more costly than conventional energy, citizens will have to spend more of their earnings to pay for energy. That will leave less in their budgets for dining at the local pub, shopping at the local merchant and so forth. And, in fact, this has been exactly the result. In study after study, the evidence is that the pursuit of green energy jobs has cost more jobs than were created. In Italy, for example, researchers Carlo Stagnaro and his colleagues at the Instituto Bruno Leoni demonstrated that for every green job created in Italy, 4.8 jobs were lost in the general economy.

Food security: Not by relying on local conditions

Another fallacy that Desrochers and Shimizu tear apart is the notion that eating locally somehow increases food security. Walking through security sub-issues such as overspecialization and food security; locavorism and military security; peak oil and locavorism; and climate change, Desrochers and Shimizu conclude:

Paradoxically, a world where in a few decades 9 billion people could afford to purchase their food from 90 million highly efficient farmers using the planet’s most productive locations would be incredibly more food secure than one in which a few billion farmers feed their neighbors but lack the infrastructure to ship their products over long distances.

Again, the food security fallacy maps nearly identically onto the arguments made regarding energy security, i.e., that sticking with local production keeps jobs here, reduces military risks, reduces the threat of supply interruptions, price shocks and so forth. As Robert Bryce, a prolific writer about all-things-energy points out:

In summary, the reality of the energy sector is this: energy security – whatever the favored definition for that term – means interdependence. And that interdependence goes far beyond energy commodities like diesel fuel, gasoline, natural gas, and neodymium. The US is a vital player in the global marketplace for a myriad of commodities, ranging from iPods and tennis rackets to fresh flowers and bottled water. The sooner the US discards the hypertrophied rhetoric about energy security and energy independence and accepts the reality of our interdependence, the more secure and prosperous it will be.

A third fallacy that Desrochers and Shimizu examine is the somewhat quaint notion that one can protect oneself from things like environmental fluctuations with sufficient reserves, as determined by some clever planner. Oil reserves, helium reserves, who does not like a good reserve? Michael Pollan clearly likes the idea, as his push for a government-run strategic grain reserve in order to control grain prices falls under the scrutiny of Desrochers and Shimizu. Such a reserve, Pollan is quoted as saying, would “prevent huge swings in commodity prices” and “provide some cushion for world food stocks.” But as with people who think that oil reserves can mitigate the risks of price fluctuations, people calling for food reserves miss a fundamental economic point. As Cato’s Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren point out with regard to the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR):

So what’s wrong with using the [Strategic Petroleum Reserve] to douse the market with crude whenever gasoline prices get out of control? Well, it’s better than hoarding oil to hedge against an embargo that will never come. Still, oil economists of all stripes acknowledge that maintaining public stockpiles discourages the accumulation of private inventories and perhaps even public inventories abroad because foreign governments have an incentive to ‘free ride’ off U.S. inventories given that a U.S. release would reduce oil prices everywhere in the world.

Indeed, the idea that governments (rather than private individuals) can manage reserves in a way that makes them profitable in the long haul is just another example of Friedrich Hayek’s fatal conceit:

The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate ‘given’ resources—if ‘given’ is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these ‘data.’ It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.

In other words, nobody could know how much of any particular grain to keep in reserve because nobody would have enough information about future market conditions, environmental conditions or other social conditions to make rational use of the reserve in order to control price fluctuations effectively.

No book review is complete without a bit of criticism, of course, and if there were one thing that could have been done better in Locavore, it would be in terms of the book’s narrative structure. While it is easy to summarize the conclusions of some of the book’s investigatory sections, others are somewhat wandering and some chapters seem to bury the lead.

Summary paragraphs at the end of the book’s many sub-sections would have made my life as a reviewer a bit easier. However, this is a relatively small quibble with an otherwise excellent book that is highly recommended.

Indeed, as a tribute to the fine work of Desrochers and Shimizu, I would suggest periodically pairing your reading with a bit of cheese or chocolate from abroad, some fine coffee or tea (from abroad), and perhaps, on concluding, a fine Cognac, from France, naturellement.

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