Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu.

Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu say they know what’s wrong with the food system: local food purists. In their new book, The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet, the husband-and-wife team (a University of Toronto geography professor and an economist) argue that the excitement over this movement is misguided to the point of having “utterly disastrous” effects. “If widely adopted,” they write, “either voluntarily or through political mandates, locavorism can only result in higher costs and increased poverty, greater food insecurity, less food safety and much more significant environmental damage than is presently the case” [emphasis theirs].

Desrochers and Shimizu are not the first vocal critics of the local food movement. James McWilliams is well known for his early contrarian views on local food (and a resulting book about it), as is Stephen Budiansky, whose 2010 New York Times article prompted an in-depth debate here at Grist. Like these folks — and a whole array of others — the authors of Locavore’s Dilemma argue mainly that food miles are a misleading and often incorrect gauge of the sustainability of one’s food.

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We don’t entirely disagree. A dogmatic approach is rarely a good idea, and questions about where food should be grown and why are indeed complex. But does that mean things are great the way they are?

Most of us eat local food for a combination of reasons — from taste, to personal health, to food-chain transparency, to concern for workers, to a desire to see a stop to industrial farming practices that damage soil health and biodiversity, to an interest in keeping small farmers in business. And, realistically, most of us compromise for reasons of cost or convenience. Yes, there are Portlandia-level locavores out there who take it a little too seriously, but the vast majority of us see local food as one piece of a much larger shift. Maybe it is unrealistic to believe small, local producers can literally feed the world — but does that mean we shouldn’t support their efforts at all?

I sat down with Desrochers when he was in town last week to see if there was something to the anti-locavore argument. As you might guess, there’s a lot he and I don’t agree on. But at Grist we try, when we can, to challenge our views.

Q. Why did you decide to write The Locavore’s Dilemma?

A. To save my marriage. My wife and I attended a meeting in 2007 where a prominent academic came to my university who took the idea of local food to its logical end and said if you live beyond your local foodshed, you’re essentially a parasite. He said the most parasitical people in the world are the Japanese — look at all the food they import. My wife was born and raised in Tokyo. She made me promise that I would do something about it. My original goal was to write a four-page memo explaining comparative advantage and that when people don’t have land to grow food, like in Japan, it makes sense to do something else and then trade that with people who have enough land to grow food. Then I realized there’s a lot more to the local food movement than that, so maybe I should address food security and those other issues. So the four-page memo became a 25-page policy paper, and eventually a book offer came along. So that’s how I got into it — to defend my wife’s honor.

Q. Was there anything that surprised you as you got deeper into the issues?

A. I was surprised by the number of local food movements I discovered in the past, but I was not surprised to see that they all failed. There was a local food movement in the British empire in the 1920s. And it turns out that even the British empire was not big enough to have a successful local food movement. The first world war cut Germany off from the rest of the world, so they had to revert to local food. And of course people starved there, and they had a few bad crops, and all the problems that long-distance trade had solved came back with a vengeance.

Nobody would bother importing food from a distance if it did not have significant advantages over local food. [In the book] we talk about food miles, but I’m sure you’re familiar with the arguments — transportation is a tiny thing [in terms of climate impacts], and if you try to cut down on transportation, then you need to heat your greenhouse as opposed to having unheated greenhouses further south. Then your environmental footprint is actually more significant.

Q. Most people who strive to eat locally aren’t motivated by food miles alone.

A. No, they do it for the taste and stuff, which is fine, but it’s an upper-middle-class movement. Don’t pretend that local food can help feed the world or help people of lesser means; it will remain a niche market targeted at the upper crust of society.

Q. I don’t know — there’s a growing effort to address problems of food access and insecurity by supporting urban farming in low-income communities, or connecting food-insecure areas directly with local farmers. It doesn’t look like an exclusively upscale fad to me.

A. The problem in the United States is not food deserts per se, it’s a problem of social policy. It’s terrible public schools, high crime rates — food is part of the broader problem, but as an urban analyst I would tell you you’d be better off teaching people in inner cities marketable skills, and they’ll be able to have a productive life and afford decent food whether it be local or [from] elsewhere.

Q. So do you see any value to supporting a local food system?

A. Good local food will always find a seasonal market. We don’t need a local food movement for that. The problem I have with local food activists is that they seem to want to go beyond what’s reasonable in terms of local food. They want to force school boards, hospitals, prisons, government bureaucracies, military bases, and universities to buy more expensive, and often lower-quality, food, just because it’s local. We’re in the business of educating students, not feeding them local food. It should not be the university’s role to keep inefficient local food producers in business.

Q. Many people value local food because of the transparency it provides; they trust a local farmer more than the industrial food system. What are your thoughts on that motivation?

A. You should not be naïve about farmers markets. A farmers market typically will only ask a signature of people [wanting to sell]. We don’t dispute that most people at local farmers markets are honest, but like everything else in life you have a few bad apples.

There are economies of scale in food safety, too. In a large processing plant they have safety procedures along the way. Small farmers, no matter how well-intentioned they are, don’t have the knowledge and the capacity to have safety measures at every step of the way. Sure, there are a lot of recalls [of industrial agriculture] that we can track through the news. But it’s not that things are getting worse; it’s that we’re better able to track the problems with large firms.

If you know your farmer and want to help him, that’s fine, but that’s charity.

Q. What would an ideal food system look like to you?

A. It would be very diverse. Our model in the book is New Zealand. They almost went bankrupt in the early 1980s, and they had to scrap all their agricultural subsidies. If you scrap the subsidies, you will have small operations that will target niche markets, but mass commodities will either have very large privately owned operations or very large producers’ cooperatives made up of many small producers who agree to work together.

Q. So you’re not arguing we do away with local food altogether.

A. No. Good food has to be produced somewhere, and some of that could be in your neighborhood. But don’t make it mandatory, and don’t make a religion out of it, and understand that it often doesn’t make sense to have an extremely diversified local food system. You should stick to what you’re doing best, and then trade with others, and that way everybody will be better off. And don’t pretend that [local food] is helping the Earth — [it’s] just producing a niche product for upper-crust consumers.

So again, if [local food] was purely voluntary, we would not have bothered writing the book. But increasingly there’s a coercive element to it which we don’t like. And ultimately the Japanese are not parasites. They just don’t have enough room to grow their food.