Is the Locavore Movement Built on a Lie?

By Keith Kloor | April 24, 2013 11:14 am

In the Fall, I walked with my son’s Kindergarten class and other parents to our local farmers market in Brooklyn. The kids had their list of items they had to find and identify (fruits, vegetables, flowers), I scored some delicious apple cider donuts, and a grand time was had by all on a blustery, sunny day.

Yes, there’s something a bit quaint about urban farmers markets, but who doesn’t enjoy their bountiful offerings? Just the act of browsing the outdoor stalls filled with fresh produce and home-baked pies makes me glow with eco-vibes. You know what I mean. You walk around there with your hemp-made grocery bag, stuffing it with all those greens and goodies from small puckish farms in the country and you feel like you’re doing your part to make the world a better place.

But what if that’s just a comforting illusion? What if this world of leafy farmers markets and the feel-good spirit of localism they evoke is about as real as a Normal Rockwell painting? (“I paint life as I would like it to be,” the iconic artist once said.) What if the whole locavore movement was built on a lie? 

That’s the provocative argument that Will Boisvert makes in a recent New York Observer feature article. Lest you get the wrong idea about him and his motives, Boisvert tries to reassure the reader at the outset:

Don’t get me wrong—I’m an environmentalist, not an agribusiness executive. But I’m an environmentalist who can do math, and the numbers on locavorism, like much else in green-urbanist food ideology, don’t add up.

At this point, Grist types are likely to start scowling and reflexively dismiss everything that follows in the piece as hippy punching. That would be unfortunate, because as Boisvert writes:

For one thing, the linkage of local farming to efficiency and sustainability is dubious. The locavore obsession with reducing food-miles has been roundly debunked as a false economy that may actually worsen carbon emissions. That’s because the high-volume, long-haul food transportation perfected by industrial agriculture is fantastically more energy-efficient than the low-volume, short-haul shipments of locavore distribution systems.

Uh oh. I have a feeling that is one inconvenient truth enviros are not about to accept. But you know what? Who cares? Sometimes the small pleasures in life, like airline travel, plasma TVs, summer beach houses, the latest smart phone, and not least of all, fresh produce trucked hundreds of miles into neighborhoods every day from friendly farmers, is a small price to pay for the myth of a climate concerned, sustainable lifestyle.

[Photo/GrowNYC]

UPDATE: Via Twitter, this fascinating piece was brought to my attention. Definitely worth a read.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=634768901 Matt Anderson

    jayson lusk speaks coherently about this, too, in his book The Food Police.

    the more you know!

    thanks for the article.

    • jayaich

      If you’ve read that book, you know all it does is shill for trademarked food like Happy Meals and Oreos, and excoriate farmers trying to grow fresh produce. That makes me wonder who his paymasters are.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=634768901 Matt Anderson

        it’s not as if he has anything to hide, and if you’ve read the book, you’d know that you are way off base making that accusation. you can download his CV here: http://jaysonlusk.com/about/

        and you can thumb through his research here: http://jaysonlusk.com/research/

  • TexCIS

    So let me get this straight . . . environmentalism is about “feeling good” and not about truth? Like Al Gore jet-setting around the world while owning two mansions, people driving driving coal-powered electric cars, or burning food as fuel and driving up prices for the poor, and using MORE fuel to buy local while bashing efficient “Big Agri-business” who keeps prices lower for everyone? Oh boy, where do I sign up?

    • Miles

      My understanding is that electric cars powered by industrial coal plants still produce fewer carbon emissions per mile traveled than combustion engines that lug their heavy fuel and engine block around with them.

      As for Al Gore living luxuriously, I recommend this Ted Talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pallotta_the_way_we_think_about_charity_is_dead_wrong.html

    • klem

      Yes, it’s about feeling good. Its also about feeling more virtuous than your neighbors.

      For example, just about every car on the road comes in a hybrid version, but the Toyota Prius outsells all other hybrid cars combined. The Honda Civic hybrid gets just about the same gas mileage as the Prius, yet they hardly sell many Civic hybrids. Why? because they don’t LOOK green. Civic Hybrids look like a regular car, you can’t feel more virtuous than your neighbor with a Civic hybrid, it has to be a Prius. Its called Conspicuous Green consumption. You have to look green, that way you can feel more virtuous and look down you nose at your neighbors.

      Thanks god I’m not a greenie, I have a life.

  • JonFrum

    I just learned of a new urban farm outlet in Boston’s Jamaica Plain – a much-gentrified, lesbian-friendly district. I looked up the farm’s name, and found it in northern Vermont, 200 miles driving distance away. Which means that the box truck they deliver the produce in is far less energy efficient than the boxcars my supermarket veggies travel in.

    So then,the goalpost moves. “Oh, we’re about supporting family farms.” Yeah, and the hell with global warming. It’s just so much Marie Antoinette – urban dwellers romanticizing rural life, while staying as far away from it as possible.

    • klem

      Perhaps but it sells veggies so leave these people alone. It is not the responsibility of the seller to save the world. If the folks who buy the veggies are fooled by a bit of marketing, so what.

      As Exzibit once said ” Never diss someone’s hustle.’

      There is a chicken company where I live, for years they always struggled to make ends meet. They recently changed the writing on the bag the chicken is packaged in, they put some green meadows and flowers on the bag. That’s all they did. Now they are selling their chicken for 20% higher margins and are making money finally. The chicken is the same, the factory is the same, the employees are the same. But through a bit of green marketing they are now making money. More power to them.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    As usual the truth is somewhere in between.

    Sometimes local is better from a GHG POV. It depends on a lot of different things, only one of which is transportation. More often than not though, from a lifecycle perspective the key determinants are fertilizer application rates and soil management practices.

    • Howard Whitney

      …and water. Don’t forget water. All of the environmental “costs” have to be calculated per calories produced to really compare *lifecycle perspectives*, whatever that means.

      Farmers markets are great. I love them for what they are, not as a symbol of what I want people to think of me.

    • jh

      Hey, you know, if you dig buying local, do ‘er.

      But the real story here isn’t just about the locavore movement. It’s about the more general principle that greens simply refuse to accept: our economy does the things it does – transport food great distances, move oil by pipelines, buy steel from India and China – because these things are, overall, the most resource efficient procedures to get the products to market.

      Greens tend to believe that there are huge imbalances (often mislabeled “externalities”) in the economy perpetrated by evil corporations that are holding a finger on the scale to make things look more efficient than they really are. In effect, they believe in a giant economic conspiracy theory.

      The reality is more mundane. There are some externalities, and occasionally a corporation fights a rearguard battle through lobbying to protect the profits of its inefficient business. But for the most part corporations protect their profits by moving to the most efficient business models to keep ahead of the competition.

      The upshot is that our kind-of free market eliminates most significant inefficiencies through competition. More often than not, when these inefficiencies survive, it’s because of misguided citizen movements.

      • James Smith

        Our economy does not always do things in the most resource efficient mode to get products to market. Our economies does things that brings products to market in the cheapest way possible. Shipping steel, oil, or food from halfway across the world may not be the most efficient but it is where the overall resources, such as labor, labor laws, and raw materials, are the cheapest or most relaxed. Cheap does not always equal efficient, sometimes it just means cheap.

      • Miles

        Is global warming not a huge externality of fuel consumption?

        • kdk33

          Longer growing seasons, expanded crop ranges, more rain, free fertilizer… Huge externality? Check for hidden assumptions.

          • klem

            Exactly, thank god for global warming.

          • Miles

            Not to say that positive consequences aren’t a possibility, but what about rising sea levels displacing millions of people in deltas around the world (particularly in Asia), ocean acidification, extreme weather events like floods, droughts, and storms http://www.nwf.org/Wildlife/Threats-to-Wildlife/Global-Warming/Global-Warming-is-Causing-Extreme-Weather.aspx, and abrupt climate change exacerbating the threat to biodiversity?

            What about huge unknowns like the possibility of a European Ice Age as the result of the North Atlantic Current slowing? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effects_of_global_warming#The_Atlantic_Meridional_Overturning_Circulation

            Besides, more rain is only good when you can predict it. If it comes when you don’t expect it can drown things. One of the biggest problems with climate change is the sheer unpredictability of it.

            P.S. Where are you getting the free fertilizer idea from? I haven’t heard anything about that.

          • kdk33

            Too funny. Can you tell me on which days next year it will rain? Are you familiar with photosynthesis? Do you know the rate of sea level change over the last few centuries? Do you know the difference between hot and cold?

            What about meteor strikes? That could really be devastating.

  • hannah

    Another benefit of the locavore movement not mentioned here is that consumers of locally produced food can be more informed about the circumstances under which their food was grown/raised. When you go to a farmer’s market or a co-op, you can ask the farmers or owners themselves about how they grow their tomatoes or how they raise their chickens. For more information, see Portlandia episode 1.

    • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville
      • James Smith

        Or you could just visit the farms. Thats the great thing about living in an area with an abundance of farms that are usually open to visitors. “Glass walls” help keep the consumer informed of how local or non-local farmers conduct business.

        • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

          Yeah, you could burn a bunch of fuel to do that, especially in an SUV or minivan. Or you could ̶c̶o̶n̶s̶u̶m̶e̶ purchase a hybrid, I suppose. But I choose to live in a small footprint high-density place because I think that’s a better choice for a number of environmental reasons. Driving around to visit various types of farms to obtain different foods would be pretty inefficient for me.

          • James Smith

            You could visit the farms not to buy on a regular basis but to learn more about their operations on a rare occasion. Its not a regular weekly activity. I too live in a small footprint high-density area where I can get to most places by transit, bike, or foot which is a great choice for envt reasons.

  • Howard Whitney

    This and most of your articles are more appropriately Hipster Punching. We would all love a world where everyone could shop at a local farmers market and eat fresh organic fruits and vegetables and humanly slaughtered grass-fed creatures with eyes, and cute noses and marbled hindquarters. I just love the artisan kraut and $10 chocolate bars, but given the relatively low calorie yields per acre, locovore is sadly just conceptually sustainable.

    It’s greatest benefit is that for people who can afford it, the instant karma is priceless.

    • prasad

      I agree that this is more about hipsters than hippies; hippies (bless their souls) don’t make a virtue out of conspicuous consumption. They are a simple, often simple-minded people, but there’s a real sincerity there, none of this ironic sophistication business. And they form a pretty small part of the social set these days, so they aren’t driving this locavorism or any other movement with broad appeal.

  • Anne Van Meter

    The farmers I buy the most from, outside of my usual grocery store, are Amish. They don’t use chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. Supporting their income means that they are less likely to sell their land off to developers for MacMansions, increasing our runoff downstream (problems with that in my county). Other than that, my summer garden is my most local consumption.

  • kdk33

    Too funny. Like, is this a recent revelation?

    I buy at the farmers market. I think the produce is better and I like the free range eggs ’cause they have such a neat color. It costs more, so I limit my indulgence. I never kid myself about saving the environment.

    What we have here is (another) perfect example of enviro-goofs confusing “damage the economy” with “save the environment”. What the hippies fail to recognize is that, by and large, “save the environment” is synonymous to “more efficient economy”. But hippies hate old guys with ties and hair pieces, and this prejudice crowds out rational thought.

    One thing to keep in mind: the price of a thing reflects the societal resources required for the making of that thing. Cheap food frees up resources to do cool things like cure cancer and invent blog sites. There’s a logical cascade from their: cheaper typically means less energy input hence less deadly CO2 emissions.

    See Agribusiness is a business. They compete. To win, they work really really hard at figuring out how to bring you food as efficiently as possible, because efficient to them means cheap. What efficient should mean to hippies is in the paragraph above.

    If you’re a hippie, it is helpful to remember that you will one day be an old guy with a tie and a hair piece.

    I shop the farmers market. I prefer some of their product. I’m willing to pay more. It hurts the environment. I’m not a hippie.

    • klem

      See Agribusiness is a business. They compete. To win, they work really really hard at figuring out how to bring you food as efficiently as
      possible, because efficient to them means cheap. ”

      I really like your post above, it is full of incite. But regarding the ‘cheap’ part, I’m not sure that I agree. A few years ago there was a pork glut, our local pork farmers were getting out of the pork business by the truckload because the were getting almost nothing for their pork . Yet the price of pork remained the same in the grocery stores. It did not drop because the underlying price had fallen, it remained the same. In other words the grocery stores were getting what the market would bear for pork regardless of the drop in wholesale pork prices. The only thing that changed was that the grocery stores were earning bigger margins. Yet the public did not say a word. It was astonishing.

      • kdk33

        Fascinating. Underlying these situations ism often as not, helpful government. But, assuming a free market….

        What probably happened is that the pork producers who were most efficient (raised pigs the cheapest) were able to weather this storm. The less efficient pork producers (whose little piggies cost more) went bust. The storm abated when enough producers went bust that supply / demand balance was restored.

        The market works. It isn’t always pretty.

  • Jake

    I enjoy the farmer’s market because the produce is generally better. Keith rightly points out that the “locavore” crowd that compulsively shops this way and avoids the supermarket are not saving the planet. It is fine to make a conscious choice to live with less-efficient deliver systems, higher prices, and less convenience if one wants a higher quality product or wants to support local farmers. Making that choice and pretending that it is better because it “feels better” is crazy, though.

    If they really wanted to change their diet in a way that would make a significant impact on greenhouse gases and resource usage, they would all become vegetarians.

  • Jenna

    I take the locavore movement less as a means to reduce global carbon footprints and more to help the local economy. There are a lot of small farms where I live in Georgia (read: non-Monsanto) that could definitely use the support.

  • http://twitter.com/arthursmith arthursmith

    Kloor’s typical mischaracterization of “enviros” can be seen in that Grist discussed this quite openly almost a year ago here:

    http://grist.org/locavore/local-haterade-authors-say-locavores-do-more-harm-than-good/

    not to mention 2 years before that:

    http://grist.org/article/food-fight-do-locavores-really-need-math-lessons/full/

    I doubt that people who have adopted “locavorism” are any more typical of “enviros” than vegans, cyclists, or back-woods survivalists. And most of those of us concerned about climate these days probably don’t even consider ourselves “enviros” in any way in the first place.

  • klem

    I love farmers markets because they are way more fun that the local grocery store. One time I was at a booth and the farmer lady was closing up for the day. She gave me everything that was leftover on her table, it cost me about $3 and she filled every bag I carried. I had broccoli and carrots and string beans for the next two weeks. That would never happen in a regular grocery store. Not even close.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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