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Beyond Locavorism: Food Diversity for Food Security (carbon-fuel transport remains essential)

“The diversification of our food supply sources via cost-effective and large-scale, long-distance transportation is one of the great unappreciated wonders of our age…. [T]he best way to improve the security of humanity’s food supply is to press forward with specialized large-scale production in the world’s most suitable locations, backed up with ever more scientific research and greater reliance on (for the foreseeable future), carbon fuel-powered long-distance trade.”

In a speech delivered in 1875, the Australian entrepreneur Thomas Sutcliffe Mort observed that the advent of the railroad, the steamship, and artificial refrigeration had paved the way to a new age where the

    • “various portions of the earth will each give forth their products for the use of each and of all,”
    • “over-abundance of one country will make up for the deficiency of another,” and
    • “superabundance of the year of plenty… for the scant harvest of its successor.”

Humanity’s long history of famine and chronic malnutrition, he pondered, had not so much been the result of God’s not having provided enough and to spare, but rather the unavoidable consequence of the fact that “where the food is, the people are not; and where the people are, the food is not.” It was now, he observed, “within the power of man to adjust these things.” [1]

“Foodsheds”: A Recent Lesson

The prosperous age forecasted by Mort soon came to be and even the specter of famine soon disappeared from the collective memory of the citizens of advanced economies. Indeed, by the late 19th century, even disaster relief had become truly globalized.

One minor problem created by the unparalleled reliability and security of our fossil-fuel powered globalized food supply chain is that too many people have completely lost track of the risks inherent to food production. This wouldn’t be problematic if so-called “locavores” hadn’t so successfully pushed the idea of drastically increasing our reliance on local “foodsheds” (a determined radius – such as 100 miles – from their home).

The last year, however, served as a useful reminder of the risks inherent to putting all of one’s food security eggs in a regional basket. In the northeast alone, a late frost first devastated fruit orchards. This was later followed by what in many regions turned out to be the worst drought in 50 years. To top it off, hurricane Sandy destroyed much infrastructure.

Luckily for northeastern locavores though, they were not yet living in their utopia and, as a result, in most cases did not even have to skip a meal. Few of them, however, gave thanks to the people who developed new drought resistant corn and soybean varieties that mitigated the impact of the drought, to producers in other locations who enjoyed a good growing season and were happy to sell them a portion of their crops, and to logistics industry workers who were able to deliver them.

Forgetting History

The diversification of our food supply sources via cost-effective and large-scale, long-distance transportation is one of the great unappreciated wonders of our age, but this development wasn’t lost on its first beneficiaries.

Writing in 1856, the British historian George Dodd observed that in the “days of limited intercourse, scarcity of crops was terrible in its results; the people had nothing to fall back upon; they were dependent upon growers living within a short distance; and if those growers had little to sell, the alternative of starvation became painfully vivid.” [2]

In his classic Annals of Rural Bengal, published in 1871, another British historian, William Wilson Hunter, noted that an important set of preventative steps against famines included “[e]very measure that helps towards the extension of commerce and the growth of capital, every measure that increases the facilities of transport and distribution… [and whatever tends] to render each part [of a country] less dependent on itself.” [3]

By contrast, to a locavore food security is best achieved by giving up on large-scale monocultures and embracing polycultures (the raising at the same time and place of more than one species of plant or animal). If a crop fails, they tell you, you will always have something else to fall back upon.

Yet, they are apparently unaware that this was the food security strategy pursued by subsistence farmers (who lacked good transportation infrastructure) throughout history. Unfortunately for the quasi self-sufficient peasants of old, polycultures not only delivered mediocre yields, but they also provided very little protection against natural calamities like frost, droughts, and hurricanes.

Indeed, whatever the location and time, diversified subsistence farmers were typically malnourished and periodically starved – and when they escape recurring famine today, it is because relief efforts are able to deliver the over-abundance of much more productive monocultural crops grown in distant locations.

Conclusion

It is our hope that one of the main lessons (re)learned in 2012 is that the best way to improve the security of humanity’s food supply is to press forward with specialized large-scale production in the world’s most suitable locations, backed up with ever more scientific research and greater reliance on (for the foreseeable future), carbon fuel-powered long-distance trade.

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[1] Thomas Sutcliffe Mort, Speech delivered on September 2, 1875, Lithgow Valley Works (Australia). Quoted in “Mort, Thomas Sutcliffe (1816-1878)” in David Blair. 1881. Cyclopaedia of Australasia. Fergusson and Moore, Printers and Publishers, pp. 245-247, p. 247.

[2] George Dodd. 1856. The Food of London: A sketch of the chief varieties, sources of supply, probable quantities, modes of arrival, processes of manufacture, suspected adulteration, and machinery of distribution, of the food for a community of two millions and a half. Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, p. 27.

[3] William Wilson Hunter. 1871. The Annals of Rural Bengal, fourth edition. Smith, Elder and Co, p. 55.

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Pierre Desrochers is associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto. Hiroko Shimizu is a private consultant. They are the authors of The Locavore’s Dilemma. In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet (PublicAffairs, 2012). Desrochers and Shimizu previously authored Debating Locavores: Food to Energy to Smart Action (response to critics) at MasterResource.

7 comments

1 Beyond Locavorism: Food Diversity for Food Security (carbon-fuel transport remains essential) » coalitionoffreedom.com { 02.22.13 at 1:01 am }

[...] Food Diversity for Food Security (carbon-fuel transport remains essential)22 Feb 2013JonBy pdesrochers and hshimizu “The diversification of our food supply sources via cost-effective and large-scale, [...]

2 Tony Fleming { 02.22.13 at 11:48 am }

While I agree with the jist of this post, I’d like to call attention to one statement and its myriad implications: “Few of them, however, gave thanks to the people who developed new drought resistant corn and soybean varieties that mitigated the impact of the drought…”

Generally, corn and soybeans are not used to feed humans, rather they are increasingly used in a variety of industrial processes unrelated to food or to produce various food-like byproducts that have questionable health qualities…in addition to their traditional primary use as animal feed. As has been repeatedly pointed out at MR and elsewhere, for example, some 40% of the US corn crop now goes to fuel the ethanol scam. In short, we are producing way too much corn and soybeans due to market distortions created by a subsidy-driven agricultural model.

As for drought tolerance, not so much. Last year put the hammer on the artificial ethanol industry here in the Midwest, something I’m not the least bit sorry to see. The varieties engineered for ethanol generally performed worse than most. So much for the biotech boys and their claims of drought resistance. Like wind energy, genetically engineered crops seem to be way overrated by their proponents, as there is precious little independent empirical evidence supporting claims of drought resistance, higher yields, etc. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of conventional plant breeders working behind the scenes at land-grant colleges, private seed companies, and other arenas, developing drought resistant, regionally-adapted varieties of wheat, maize, and vegetables… these are the folks who deserve our praise, though we seldom hear about them in the mainstream media, perhaps because such efforts don’t have the sleek allure and PR machine of biotech (kind of like the comparison between fossil fuels and wind turbines)

All of which leads to my key thesis: our farm “policy”, such as it is, is antithetical to the worthy goals of food security and resilience expressed by this post. No reasonable person could argue that the direction of American agriculture isn’t wholly influenced by its array of bloated subsidies and rent seeking by agribusiness and “farm states” (the only reason they are “farm states” is their reliance on production subsidies to the big 4 crops; in this context, it is interesting to note that the largest food-producing state–California–is not considered a “farm state” in most definitions of the term). Using 90% of our arable acreage to overproduce a handful of heavily subsidized crops that are mostly not used to feed humans is not an intelligent strategy. Yet we continue to pour massive subsidies (or mandates, in the case of ethanol) into corn, soybeans, cotton, and sugar (and seemingly will continue to do this ad infinitum), to the exclusion of other crops that actually do sustain humans.

Thus, my interpretation is that we could have a much more diversified, productive, and resilient food system if (first choice) agricultural production subsidies were removed and government support was redirected to supporting traditional R&D, or (a very distant second choice) subsidies were modified to include fruits, vegetables, and small grains.

3 Jon Boone { 02.22.13 at 1:20 pm }

Tony:
Thanks for your erudite comment. I agree with virtually all you say, although I would limit future government support to primary research, with very little development. I also would urge eliminating or at least greatly reducing the scope of the Department of Agriculture.

4 Pierre Desrochers { 02.22.13 at 4:18 pm }

Well, we certainly don’t support market distortions of any kind, but I should point that Hiroko was in the MidWest at the end of the drought and that the farm on which she was (sort of) learning to drive a combine had yields that, according to the farmer, would have been impossible to achieve a few years back without drought-resistant varieties…

5 Weekly Climate and Energy News Roundup | Watts Up With That? { 02.24.13 at 10:38 pm }
6 Ronald Walter { 02.26.13 at 4:31 am }

You mean roundup ready (TM) genetically modified seed. Without roundup on the emerging roundup ready corn seed, the crop, under drought conditions is toast. Roundup is applied after the gmo is in the emergent stage. Corn should be about 2 inches in height when applied. After roundup has been applied at a rate of a quart per acre, everything that is growing dies except for the roundup ready corn. To watch it happen as it grows takes you aback. You are baffled at how efficient the herbicide is. The only plant that is growing is the corn. The water in the soil all goes to the corn, no weeds to cultivate, saves fuel by eliminating conventional, now obsolete, cultivation. Roundup saves big time from what I see. With limited rainfall like I saw last year, the roundup ready corn crop was still a success. No water, no matter what kind of seed, means crop failure with too little ground moisture conditions. In the case of roundup ready gmo grain seeds, they do definitely help the crop grow to maturity when there is little to no competition from weeds. Roundup saves crops, especially in years of low precipitation. I’ve seen it happen.

What I have experienced with locally grown vegetables is that there is a huge interest in them.

Locally grown vegetables sell and sell fast. I did just what is promoted. Bought a small farm for vegetable production. It was a no-brainer. All pesticide-free vegetables sell. It is work. Cucumbers sell like hot cakes. I had 45 zucchini plants. All zucchini sell out. Beets, gone. Everything, gone.

Compelled to do it. Locally grown vegetables are a gold mine. Not for monetary reasons, just the desire to grow food for others. The customer base is growing leaps and bounds. I knew it would.

As for ethanol, a carload or two of corn derailed into a water-filled ditch out in Montana many years ago now. The bears in the area discovered the ditch full of corn mixed with the water. The bears returned time after time to drink their fill of moonshine.

The ethanol industry, in its nascent stage, was developed because the corn market was depressed, prices were under 2 dollars. Voila! Ethanol!

The industry became as such to develop a market for corn, so it is no surprise. Nobody was buying that much corn back in the mid-eighties, so the market needed a solution.

Still though, the corn by-products make feed. Although, it is time to find a new use for corn other than ethanol for fuel. However, true to the land farming practices do encourage the use of corn as fuel as long as it does not leave the farm. Proper use of the grain doesn’t necessarily involve feed for livestock or human use for food. A world famous advocate of local farming to feed the world does just that, grows corn on her farm and burns it for heat in the winter.

I would much like to have the amount of grain that flies out the back end of a combine in one year. I’d be worth millions.

7 Nick de Cusa { 02.26.13 at 5:39 am }

In case you know anybody French-speaking you would like to share this article with, here it is in French translation, republished on http://www.contrepoints.org, the free market news site:

http://www.contrepoints.org/2013/02/26/116021-locavore-une-bonne-idee

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