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Food & Drink

Benefits of locally sourced foods short-sold by '10,000-Mile Diet' champions

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The Locavore's Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet By Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu, Public Affairs, $26.99, 288 pages


"If our modern food system is so bad for us, why do we now enjoy dramatically longer and healthier lives than our ancestors?"

This question is one of four that locavores have yet to answer satisfactorily, and should, according to the book The Locavore's Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet. Answering it is a curious, if easy assignment.

Penicillin helped a lot, as did urban sanitation and many other public health improvements. There were advances in worker safety protections, in medicine, in human rights, and many other factors.

And yes, improvements to the food system played a role, like our developing understanding of nutrition and vitamins, hybrid crops, pasteurization, irrigation efficiencies and weather forecasting have all improved health and lifespan, and I don't think you'll find too many self-identifying locavores who disagree. But according to The Locavore's Dilemma, "…locavorism, far from being a step forward, can only deliver the world our ancestors gladly escaped from." This assumption is crucial to many of the book's arguments, including the questions that form the pillars of the book's thesis. For instance:

"If local food production in earlier times was so great, why did consumers increasingly favor items from ever more remote locations?"

The answer is obvious. The world is a wonderful and diverse place with many enticing foods. It's not at all surprising that an Alaska native would appreciate a Florida orange. Just as being for local foods doesn't require locavores to be Luddites, it also doesn't entail blanket opposition to the shipping of food, like oranges, from places where they grow to places where they don't.

Thanks to the recent growth in its visibility, the local foods movement has created an audience hungry to see it shot down, and despite the book's many fatal flaws, I wouldn't be surprised if it sells well. Like Rush Limbaugh's listeners, this audience is in no hurry to scrutinize the straw man arguments it's being fed. Perhaps secure in this knowledge, the authors, economists Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu, set out to "slaughter as many sacred cows in the food activists' intellectual herd as we could."

The inspiration to go postal on Michael Pollan and the gang? "To save my marriage," Desrochers told Grist.org. A visiting, lecturing locavore had called Japan a parasitic society because it imports so much food. "My wife was born and raised in Tokyo," Desrochers said of the woman who would be his co-author. "She made me promise that I would do something about it."

This book may not pose them, but there are valid questions to be asked of local-food advocates, and many assumptions worth challenging. With which foods are food-miles important? What sorts of safety hazards are specific to local food systems, many of which involve small farms? But to argue, as this book does, that locavorism is a threat to public health, third-world food security, and freedom seems as silly as arguing that locavorism is the world's only hope.

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