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Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu

Canadian authors Pierre Descrochers and Hiroko Shimizu wrote "The Locavore's Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet."


Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu are preaching a message farmers' market shoppers don't want to hear.

In their 2012 book, "The Locavore's Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet," Desrochers, an economic geographer at the University of Toronto, and Shimizu, his economist wife, lay out a series of arguments that favor global trade and urbanization over the "romantic longing for a way of life from the distant past."

In the introduction, they sum it up:

"Locavorism ... is at best a marketing fad that frequently and severely distorts the environmental impacts of agricultural production.

"At worst, it constitutes a dangerous distraction from the very real and serious issues that affect energy consumption, the environmental impact of modern food production, and the affordability of food."

Positioning themselves as a pair of anti-Michael Pollanites, Desrochers and Shimizu attempt to deconstruct a number of locavore "myths," among them that locavorism helps the local economy, heals the earth and increases food security.

"Local food in season makes sense," Desrochers admitted in a phone conversation from his home in Canada. "But if you believe that freshness is the key, in most places, local food cannot win."

"Defeating seasonality was a great thing" for our health and longevity, Desrochers said. The body doesn't care where calories come from. If Canadians were to eat only local food, their food supply would "kind of suck" most of the year.

One big criticism of farmers' market produce versus grocery store food is cost. If a local apple costs $2 and an apple shipped from New Zealand costs half that, the people who purchase the first apple will have $1 less to spend on something else locally, like dinner out or a haircut, according to the book.

Calculating food miles is problematic, too, he said, because the method of transportation (e.g. diesel tanker versus air freight) makes a bigger difference than miles traveled. The would-be pineapple farmer in Scotland must spend so much money and energy to heat his greenhouse, it's arguably more environmentally and financially sound to buy that fruit shipped from Thailand or the Philippines.

Some of the arguments in "Locavore's Dilemma" seem to encourage damaging monocultures; others seem overly pessimistic. The book all but dismisses the obesity epidemic, calling it a "lesser concern" than the malnutrition of years ago. Desrochers is fond of saying that a cupcake "doesn't spontaneously jump into someone's mouth."

The authors argue that CSA shares are inconvenient, too risky and result in waste because people don't have the time or skills to cook. One chapter insists that local farmers can be just as dishonest as large-scale producers, and because they may be regulated less, they can do more damage.

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"Most local food activists think we can solve social ills," Desrochers said, "by encouraging local producers to focus on a market niche that can only be made viable by charging a premium for what they sell."

But if the point is to help people of lesser means, that concept doesn't work, he asserted. Local food has to be priced competitively — otherwise it's a charity, not a business, he said.

"You don't build a strong local economy on charity."

Desrochers knows he won't convince everyone of the perils of locavorism. Realistically, he doesn't have to — few people in colder climes can resist Mexican peppers and California strawberries all winter long.  

Also, when it comes to people and food, most of us are not as rational as economic geographers. Even when it doesn't make perfect economic sense, we're inclined to help our neighbors.

"We're all wired to root for the local team," Desrochers said. "The local food movement plays to the same emotions."

Lindsay Christians covers Madison life for The Capital Times.

Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.