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Category — Desrochers, Pierre

Desrochers on Food: Politically Incorrect, Economically and Environmentally Correct

A culture war on college campuses today revolves around the politics of food production. In countless departments (history, sociology, anthropology, geography), and in so-called grievance (race, gender, class) programs, students are bombarded with the SOLE (Sustainable, Organic, Local, and Ethical) food narrative.

In an attempt to bring balance to the issuePierre Desrochers of the University of Toronto Mississauga  has developed a series of courses and reading seminars that take a broader perspective on the issue. He proceeds by discussing the economic and food safety and security concerns that led to the development of our globalized food supply chain.

Desrochers is author of the influential The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet and a featured contributor at MasterResource. His courses bring together insights about agriculture, business, economics, globalization, cities, and the environment.

A scholar’s scholar, Professor Desrochers’ food-related courses and readings are provided below for all readers to peruse and enjoy: [Read more →]

August 25, 2014   No Comments

‘Energy Independence’: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

“Unfortunately, at the first sign of political and economic trouble most people are spontaneously inclined to put the brakes on international trade and to increase local production of critical things such as food and energy. This stance often has dire consequences.”

As some apparently inexplicable behaviour illustrates (say, being a die-hard fan of the Chicago Cubs), humans are profoundly territorial creatures. According to evolutionary psychologists, this is because for approximately 90% of their time on this planet, modern humans belonged to small groups that were constantly fighting each other over the possession of land and resources. Deep down, most people’s behaviour is not all that different from that observed on Animal Planet’s Meerkat Manor

Peace and Open Trade

As recent events in the Ukraine remind us, sometimes the other tribe is still out there to get us. By and large, however, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker demonstrates in his book The Better Angels of our Nature that we are living “in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence,” a relatively blessed state of affairs made possible through ever greater international trade and the worldwide exchange of ideas and culture over the last few centuries.

More than two centuries before Pinker, the French philosopher Montesquieu had similarly observed: [Read more →]

June 12, 2014   3 Comments

The Green Benefits of Food Globalization: Markets at Work

“High-yield agriculture and long-distance trade have long delivered a similar outcome—more abundant and affordable food with reduced environmental impact—on a global scale…. So prepare your meal from the most affordable food you can find to do both your wallet and the planet a favor.”

The lessons of history can be very eloquent, if only we are willing to take the time to learn them. In a 2008 National Geographic article, journalist Charles Mann discusses how soil management policies in communist China led to the creation of terrace agriculture in unsuitable conditions, the cutting down of trees, and the planting of grain on steep slopes. The main results were increased soil erosion and soil depletion.

Daring to challenge official edicts, some villagers replanted the steepest and most erosion-prone third of their land with grass and trees, covered another third with harvestable orchards, and concentrated their crops on the remaining lower flat plots that had been enriched by the soil washed down from the hillsides.

As Mann tells his readers, by making better use of their limited supplies of fertilizer on the best land, the dissident villagers were able to increase yields to such an extent that they more than made up for the land no longer under cultivation and in the end managed to deliver both increased output and reduced environmental impact. [Read more →]

May 2, 2014   No Comments

Modern Transportation and Food: How Carbon-based Fuel Kept the ‘Third Horseman’ in Check

“Anti-petroleum activists would have us give up on long-distance trade and the food security inherent to the reliance on multiple suppliers based in a wide variety of geographical locations. Far from keeping the third horseman at bay, their carbon dioxide obsession will bring him back with a vengeance.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter (1940) is generally regarded as the most historically accurate book of her Little House on the Prairie series. It tells the story of how her family and the other inhabitants of DeSmet, South Dakota—but then the Dakota Territory—narrowly avoided starvation during the severe winter of 1880-81. That year, after a lean harvest, a series of blizzards dumped more than 11 feet of snow and immobilized trains on their tracks, in the process cutting off the settlers from the rest of the United States.

As their meager supplies ran out, a rumor spread that a sizeable amount of wheat had been raised and was available within 20 miles of their snow covered houses. Laura’s future husband, Almanzo Wilder, along with a friend, soon risked their lives and eventually succeeded in bringing back enough food to sustain the townspeople through the rest of the winter. With the spring thaw the railroad service was reestablished, abundant food was delivered and the Ingalls family enjoyed a long-delayed Christmas celebration in May.

To 21st century readers, “The Long Winter” is as a valuable reminder of how common and lethal crop failures and geographical isolation once were before the advent of modern farming and transportation technologies. Indeed, two additional footnotes to this true story are that Almanzo Wilder’s parents had to leave the town of Malone in Upstate New York in 1875 due to crop failures. And secondly, soon after the winter of 1880-81, three years of drought and prairie fires forced most of DeSmet’s settlers to relocate their farms and homesteads. [Read more →]

February 3, 2014   2 Comments

Locavorism vs. Resource Efficiency

“By concentrating the growing of crops in ever more suitable locations, hydrocarbon-powered long distance trade not only maximized output and drastically lowered prices, but also significantly reduced the environmental impact of agriculture.”

“Turning our back on the global food supply chain and, in the process, reducing the quantity of food produced in the most suitable locations will inevitably result in larger amounts of inferior land being put under cultivation, the outcome of which can only be less output and greater environmental damage.”

An article of faith among local food activists is that modern industrial agriculture damages the environmental more than decentralized food systems. The article of faith is that concentrated impacts are worse than multiple, smaller operations–negative environmental  scale economies, as it were.

This belief is erroneous, creating a gulf between (good) intentions and result. The low-productivity practices now advocated by locavores, ironically, are the very ones that previous generations of environmental activists blamed for deforestation, massive soil erosion, depletion and compaction, and outright ecological collapse.

Agricultural Alarmism Historically Considered

In an often quoted passage, Plato complained that Athens’ hinterland hills–once “covered with soil,” the plains “full of rich earth,” and the mountains displaying an “abundance of wood”–could now “only afford sustenance to bees.” Like the decline of small islands, Athens’s “richer and softer parts of the soil [had] fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land … left.” [1] 

Even though some scholars now suggest that the Greek philosopher was exaggerating to make a point, [2] fears of widespread land mismanagement and irremediable top soil losses recurred from then on.

In the 1939 classic, The Rape of the Earth: A World Survey of Soil Erosion, [3] for example, British writers Graham Vernon Jacks and Robert Orr Whyte argued that “as the result solely of human mismanagement, the soils upon which men have attempted to found new civilizations are disappearing, washed away by water and blown away by wind.” [Read more →]

July 18, 2013   5 Comments

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. [Read more →]

February 22, 2013   7 Comments

The Globavore’s Achievement — A Review of ‘The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet’

“When reading this book, I had two feelings that I often have when reading Desrochers and Shimizu’s work–’Why was I never taught this?’ and ‘Everybody need to know this!’ …. The Locavore’s Dilemma will give you an appreciation of the unappreciated glory that is capitalist agriculture, which is responsible for the fact that you are alive, will live a long time, and in greater health than nearly anyone in history.”

One reason why the modern Green movement has won Americans’ hearts and minds, even as it advocates anti-development, anti-capitalist policies, is that the advocates of capitalism have spent too little time explaining, in vivid detail, the staggering improvements to human life that capitalism, and only capitalism, brings.

Advocates of capitalism have too often played defense, allowing anti-capitalists to control the debate: the anti-capitalists blame every problem (or pseudo-problem) under the sun on capitalism, and the pro-capitalist painstakingly refutes the charges point-by-point.

This is a futile strategy, because its best-case scenario is that observers hold the absence of a negative view about capitalism.

But why not make the positive case? Why not showcase the amazingly positive nature of capitalism, both its ingenious inner-workings and its glorious results?

If we frame the debate on our terms, the anti-capitalist side clearly gets exposed for what it is–an anti-freedom movement that seeks to interfere with and expropriate individuals whose lives would be much better without the anti-capitalists’ coercion.

Taking a positive approach to defending capitalism is one of the chief virtues of Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu’s must-read The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet.

[Read more →]

July 16, 2012   6 Comments

“Energy and Society” Course: Professor Desrochers’s Model for the Academy

Pierre Desrochers is a scholar’s scholar. His prolific research, writing, and teaching facilitate our own research and learning. His reference and use of some of our work is a vindication of sorts.

I recently encountered Professor Desrochers syllabus for Energy and Society, a course that he is currently teaching at the University of Toronto Mississauga.  Wow! Lucky are his students; this course is a model for its subject for North American and far beyond.

Desrochers sets out three main objectives for this course:

• To cover the basic physical, technical and economic issues related to energy use;
• To cover broadly the history of energy development and use;
• To introduce students to past debates and current controversies.

He describes the course as follows:

The development of new energy sources has had a major impact on the development of both human societies and the environment. This course will provide a broad survey of past and current achievements, along with failures and controversies, regarding the use of various forms of energy.

Understanding of technical terms, physical principles, creation of resources and trade-offs will be emphasized as a basis for discussions about energy options. The local and global dimensions of the economics and politics surrounding the world’s energy resources will be recurring concerns in this course.

The lecture titles and readings follow. [Read more →]

October 7, 2011   1 Comment