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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


One notion conveyed in the book that I agree with, to a point, is that certain regions grow certain things really well, and that it makes sense to grow those things in those places. This is why Vermont shouldn't import maple syrup.

While it makes sense for regions to play to their strengths, this strategy can be taken too far, putting undue pressure on certain areas. California, where everything grows well, has paid a high price for feeding so much of the country for so long. Rivers are dewatered and polluted, valley habitat is rare, cancer rates are high in many places thanks to pesticide use. And it isn't necessary. Carrots can be, and are, grown in all 50 states. Maybe California can let the rest of us handle carrots, aside from what the Californians need for their carrot-juice chai lattes.
Another of the book's points with which I somewhat agree is that farmers markets are not appropriate venues for all foods. "…[D]uring our trips to [farmers] markets we couldn't help but notice freezer doors left open for significant periods of time and different kinds of raw meat being handled on the same cutting board."

In my decades of farmers market hopping I've yet to see raw meat being handled — in this country, anyway — but it's plausible. Still, tweaks worth making to farmers market regulations do little to discredit the value of local food.

Every movement has extremists, and locavorism is no exception. But are locavore extremists hurting anyone?

Well, yes, the authors argue. "Today's locavores and food sovereignists have … increasingly come to embrace old-fashioned coercive policies which they have … sugar-coated in alleged broader benefits," they write.

They cite efforts to place local food in schools, prisons, hospitals, and other institutions, and provide a history of tariffs, protectionism, and other policy levers that they argue serve as warnings about the threats posed by local food as policy.

A more intellectually honest way to evaluate the potential of local foods is on a place-by-place, food-by-food, season-by-season basis. I use a rule of thumb called the Slow Boat Rule. If a food has a long enough shelf life to allow shipping by sailboat, it's going to consume less energy and release fewer greenhouse gases than a food that's shipped by airplane. Even though it's been shown that shipping costs represent a fraction of the energy cost of putting most food on the table, the fraction is not insignificant – especially for high-speed, refrigerated forms of transport.

The authors of The Locavore's Dilemma describe limiting oneself to seasonal and local foods alternatively as "food masochism" and food "elitism." Indeed, local food can be many things. It can be an expensive, frivolous luxury, and it can be the garden that sustains you. It can be a hobby, a boost to local economies, and an opportunity for contrarians to sell books. But for anyone taking a serious look at how we can solve the world's many food-related problems, locally grown foods are an important tool in the kit.

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