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Locavores or Loco-vores?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Unfortunately for locavores, the same fundamental economic realities that shaped the development of our globalized food supply chain are still very much with us.

Locavorism—a lifestyle philosophy that encourages people to eat only or mostly locally produced food—has gained many influential adherents in recent years, from the White House to parts of corporate America.

A puzzling feature of locavorism is that its adherents never ask themselves this most basic question: If things were so great when most of humanity’s supply was produced close to home, why was the globalized food supply chain developed in the first place?

There were actually many good reasons for going beyond one’s “foodshed.” Among other benefits, cost-efficient long-distance transportation made it possible to channel the surplus of regions that had experienced good harvests to those that had not, in the process ending famine in developed economies.

A larger food supply chain also delivered more diverse and better quality products at lower prices (otherwise nobody would have bothered moving large quantities of food over long distances in the first place) and resulted in significant health improvements. It created many new and better jobs in different lines of work outside the farming business as consumers had more money available to spend on things other than food. Large-scale monocultures delivered more food while using much less land, energy, and other resources than more diverse but less efficient small local operations. As a result, much of the marginal agricultural land in advanced economies was abandoned and eventually reforested while the energy footprint per unit of food was lowered.

Most locavores will not be bothered with positive long-term historical trends nor acknowledge that, despite governmental distortions (production subsidies, trade barriers, and disputable intellectual property rules), our present agricultural technologies are the end result of a ruthless process of trial and error in which countless less-efficient alternatives were discarded over time. As they see things, the past is largely irrelevant. Today’s technologies aren’t perfect, and thus innovations (from so-called permaculture to vertical farming) will forever change the way food is produced.

Unfortunately for locavores, the same fundamental economic realities that shaped the development of our globalized food supply chain are still very much with us. To better understand why locavores’ endeavor is fundamentally misguided, one must first get a better sense of the shortcomings of past local food production.

The Bad Old Days

A larger food supply chain also delivered more diverse and better quality products at lower prices and resulted in significant health improvements.

Subsistence farming describes a situation where most agricultural products are produced by and for a single family. Although practices varied the world over, subsistence farmers always sought to produce a variety of crops and livestock that would complement each other (say, by using manure to fertilize gardens or feeding organic waste to animals) and provide some form of insurance against the risk of crop failures and animal diseases. Whatever the time or location, however, subsistence farming only ever delivered poor nutrition and food insecurity. The absence of specialization ensured mediocre yields while a wide range of factors (from droughts and floods to locusts and soil erosion) could affect one’s crop or livestock.

Small-scale, diversified subsistence farming was always an economic dead-end. Meaningful economic development only ever occurred through urbanization, which allowed people to specialize in specific tasks and become more productive as a result. As the Greek historian and philosopher Xenophon observed over two millennia ago:

In a small city the same man must make beds and chairs and ploughs and tables, and often build houses as well; and indeed he will be only too glad if he can find enough employers in all trades to keep him. Now it is impossible that a single man working at a dozen crafts can do them all well; but in the great cities, owing to the wide demand for each particular thing, a single craft will suffice for a means of livelihood, and often enough even a single department of that; there are shoe-makers who will only make sandals for men and others only for women. Or one artisan will get his living merely by stitching shoes, another by cutting them out, a third by shaping the upper leathers, and a fourth will do nothing but fit the parts together. Necessarily the man who spends all his time and trouble on the smallest task will do that task the best.1

Large cities also made it possible to operate significant transportation hubs profitably. Through the wide range of activities cities hosted, urbanization facilitated the development and diffusion of a broad range of skills and the launching of new innovative businesses.

The crucial differences between urbanites and subsistence farmers has never been that the former were inherently harder working and more creative, but rather that they had access to more opportunities to specialize on their insights and vision and to accumulate capital.

The benefits of large-scale urbanization are now more obvious than ever as the per capita income in countries with a majority of people living in cities is nearly four times higher than in countries where a majority of people still live in rural areas.2 And despite long-standing predictions that recent advances in transportation and communication technologies (going back to the development of the railroad and the telegraph) will reverse this trend, it shows no sign of abating.3

Urban agglomerations have also always been essential for agricultural advances by offering large and concentrated markets for rural goods and by generating the technologies and capital required to invest in rural development.

This unique role of cities in economic development is completely lost on locavores. So is the notion that large cities were crucially dependent on substantial food imports from distant locations. As some of Plato’s characters in his Republic observed more than two millennia ago, to find a city “where nothing need be imported” was already then “impossible.” 4

“Urban Farmers”

It’s worth noting that until the second half of the 19th century, many types of food that did not keep or travel well, or that benefitted from the large amount of organic waste generated in cities, were produced in and around large urban agglomerations. In time, however, urban farming was driven out of thriving metropolitan agglomerations.

Perhaps the most celebrated past local “urban farmers” were the Parisian maraîchers. Through the use of about one-sixth of the city’s area, supporting technologies (from greenhouses to cloches and cold frames) and very long hours,5 they grew more than 100,000 tons of produce annually in the late 19th century.6

Unlike today’s locavores, however, not only did Parisian truck farmers do their best to produce out of season (they were already producing green asparagus year-round in the 1820s,7 and a few decades later had managed to grow significant amounts of pineapples profitably), but they also exported their crops to distant urban markets, including London. Interestingly, as two Parisian truck farmers observed in 1845, it was their profession’s ability to defeat seasonality that had significantly enhanced its prestige among the rest of the population, while the greatest ambition of all maraîchers was to find ways to be the first to deliver a specific produce to the market in any given year.8

By the turn of the 20th century, however, Parisian truck farmers had been driven out of business by, among other things: Better transportation and food preservation technologies that made it possible to grow food where nature provided heat free of charge; increases in urban land value that encouraged their conversion to more profitable activities; and better economic opportunities available to urban and peri-urban agricultural workers.

The fundamental and beneficial economic forces that resulted in the emergence of large-scale rural monocultures and the disappearance of urban farming are still relevant today, as can be seen by looking more closely at the shortcomings of some of the locavores’ favorite production alternatives.

Upgraded Subsistence Farming and Pigs in the Sky

Although local food activists often disagree on the exact boundaries of a “regional foodshed” (for instance, should its radius be limited to 100 miles or can it be a whole state such as California?), they are united in their embrace of “polycultures” where, thanks to the supposed positive effects of the interactions between various types of plants and animals, large amounts of food are said to be produced from little more than soil, water, and sunlight.9

To bolster their case, proponents of such alternative agricultural systems often single out the Japanese farmer Takao Furuno who, on his six-acre Kyushu farm, produces enough rice, duck meat and eggs, fish, and vegetables to feed 100 local families.10

Far from being a step forward, locavorism can only deliver the world our ancestors left behind, and which today’s subsistence farmers would gladly escape if given opportunities to trade.

The problem with this pastoral idyll, however, is that what really sets Furuno and other modern polyculture “pioneers” apart from previous generations of subsistence farmers is their capacity to tap into the more advanced technologies and knowledge—agricultural machinery, electricity, carbon fuels, refrigeration, transportation, electric fences, etc.—and much fatter wallets of customers (whose existence is entirely contingent on the historical development of long-distance trade, urbanization, and commercial agriculture). In other words, the very technologies and consumers that make Furuno’s system a reality today could have never been developed in a world that had stuck to locavorism in the first place.

Old-fashioned economic tradeoffs are also important in the case of another locavore favorite production alternative: Vertical farms (i.e., urban skyscrapers in which different types of crops and livestock would be stacked on top of each other). The first hint that there is something fundamentally wrong with this proposal is that the basic idea has been around for about a century, yet no one has ever built them.

In his critique of a recent 59-story vertical farm proposal, agricultural economist Dennis Avery highlighted that the additional costs of these structures (from building to lighting, heating and powering them) negate any benefits attributable to an urban location. Avery observed that:

•    Even if a pilot building was erected, about 500,000 such skyscrapers would be needed to make up the 400 million acres of American farmland;

•    Using the average price per acre of Iowa cropland, the usable surface of this building in Iowa would cost about $5 million, a sum that would buy about an acre of land in Manhattan, on top of which a very costly vertical structure would need to be built;

•    Each floor of this high-rise building would have to support about 620,000 pounds of either water or water-soaked soil (by comparison, 200 people and their office furniture weigh about 40,000 pounds);

•    Replacing sunlight with “grow lights” and heating the structure in winter would require gigawatts of power;

•    Sky farms would need to rely on outside suppliers to feed their chickens and pigs. Since a few pounds of grain are required to produce one pound of meat (typically a four-to-one ratio in the case of pigs), it makes more sense to transport pork chops rather than animal feed into cities;

•    As in the past, slaughterhouses would need to be located much closer to downtown centers or else city-reared animals would need to be trucked elsewhere to be processed before being brought back to the city in a usable form;

•    City taxes and labor costs are always much higher than in the countryside.

Significant tradeoffs are also present in more modest urban agriculture proposals. These include rooftop gardening and the raising of backyard chickens. Small size and consequent inability to generate economies of scale (try using a tractor on top of a high-rise building) will always confine the practice to the realm of hobby gardeners or, at best, high-margin luxury producers—either way, a result that is a far cry from the affordable and abundant food promised by locavores.

Looking at Food Production without Green-Colored Glasses

The historian Paul Johnson once quipped that his discipline was “a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance,” for it was always humbling “to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.”11 Locavorism is a case in point. Far from being a step forward, it can only deliver the world our ancestors left behind, and which today’s subsistence farmers would gladly escape if given opportunities to trade. 

What enthusiastic locavores fail to understand is that their “innovative” ideas are up against regional advantages for certain types of food production, economies of scale of various kinds in all lines of work, and the absolute necessity of large urban agglomerations reliant on long distance trade for economic development. These basic realities defeated very sophisticated local food production systems in the past. The locavores’ vision fails to acknowledge that the good old days were more akin to trying times and that long distance trade in all kinds of goods and services remains essential for human progress. The sooner they redirect their efforts toward real agricultural problems—from costly production subsidies to international trade barriers—the better humanity and the planet will be.

Pierre Desrochers is an associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto. Hiroko Shimizu is a policy analyst and a research associate at the Institut économique Molinari in France. Desrochers and Shimizu are the authors of The Locavore’s Dilemma. In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet.

FURTHER READING: Blake Hurst contributes “Our Real Food Problem” and “The Sweet 'n Lowdown on GM Crops.” Douglas Nelson and Alexander Rinkus explain “The Hi-Tech Agriculture Imperative.” Vincent H. Smith discusses “The Grim Reapers of Crop Insurance” and, with Henry Olsen, coauthors “Boondoggle: Fixing the 2012 Farm Bill.”


1. Xenophon. Early 4th century B.C.E. Cyropaedia, The Education Of Cyrus. 1914 edition, F. M. Stawell (translated by Henry Graham Dakyns).
2. Edward Glaeser. 2011. Triumph of the City. How our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Penguin Press, p. 7.
3. For a more detailed discussion of urbanization economies, see Pierre Desrochers. 2001. “Geographical Proximity and the Transmission of Tacit Knowledge.” Review of Austrian Economics 14 (1): 25-46. For a concise overview of recent global urbanization trends, see Anonymous. 2008. “Cities and Growth: Lump Together and Like It.” The Economist (November 6).
4. Plato. Around 360 B.C.E. The Republic, Book II.
5. In the middle of the 19th century, Parisian truck farmers worked between 18 and 20 hours a day during the seven busiest months and between 14 and 16 during the rest of the year. These long hours could be traced back to “normal” agricultural chores in light of the technologies of the time (for instance, controlling pests and weeds and irrigating crops manually) and the unsuitable climate which mandated the extensive use of protective devices like cloches and cold frames that had to be constantly adjusted (i.e., manually propping them open or closing them) to ambient conditions in order to make sure that plants would not overheat in the sun or freeze at night. See J. G. Moreau and J. J. Daverne. 1845. Manuel pratique de la culture maraîchère de Paris. V. Bouchard-Huzard, p. 84.
6. For a more detailed introduction to the topic, see G. Stanhill. 1977. “An Urban Agro-Ecosystem. The Example of Nineteenth Century Paris.” Agro-Ecosystems 3: 269–284.
7. J. G. Moreau and J. J. Daverne. 1845. Manuel pratique de la culture maraîchère de Paris. V. Bouchard-Huzard, p. 85.
8. "Avant l’introduction des cultures forcées dans les marais de Paris, la classe maraîchère… ne jouissait que d’une faible considération… aujourd’hui il n’en est plus ainsi" and "leur seule ambition… est de chercher les moyens d’arriver les premiers à porter des primeurs à la halle.” J. G. Moreau and J. J. Daverne. 1845. Manuel pratique de la culture maraîchère de Paris. V. Bouchard-Huzard, pp. 85 and 83.
9. Michael Pollan. 2008. “Farmer in Chief.” New York Times Magazine (October 9).
10. See, among others, Laura Miller. 2002. “Duck Power and a Tale of Success: From Six Acres to an Ecosystem.” Leopold Letter (Spring). Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
11. Paul Johnson. 2007. Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, HarperCollins, p. 391.

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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