Consumers, critics consider pros, cons of eating local foods
By KELSEY THALHOFER
The word "locavore" was never meant to be controversial.
Jessica Prentice coined the term in 2005 to describe the way she eats -- cultivating relationships with farmers, avoiding highly processed foods and eating locally grown crops.
In 2007 Oxford University Press voted "locavore" as its Word of the Year and terms such as "100-mile diet" and "food miles" grew popular as a new food culture became chic.
Though new rules of eating have sprouted up around terms like locavore, the woman who invented it remains less strict about its implications.
"I've never been dogmatic about eating locally," Prentice said. "To me, it's a pleasure."
She enjoys chocolate and coconut milk on occasion, but gets most of her food from growers near her San Francisco area home.
While Prentice says she's no radical, "locavore" has evolved into a multinational movement that's catching the attention of activists, legislators and critics. Authors of a new book worry that some locavores are pushing growers, consumers and public institutions too far and needlessly spending public money.
'Truth in advertising'
In "The Locavore's Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet," husband-and-wife authors Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu of Ontario, Canada, argue that eating local food is not necessarily efficient, economic or sustainable, and they worry that consumers who pay more for "local" food may not know what they're buying.
"We honestly wrote the book because we believe in truth in advertising," said Desrochers, an associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto-Mississauga. "People should disregard geographic origins. They should go for quality-to-price ratios."
Brand names provide accountability and uniformity, they say, and in many cases shipping food long distances is actually more energy efficient.
Desrochers and Shimizu pose the question: If the global food system is so flawed and inefficient, why did it replace local food in the first place?
The book has received withering criticism from the local food community; many say the couple has created a "straw man" out of weak local food assumptions.
"There is dumb localization and there is smart localization," said Michael Shuman, an economist, lawyer and author who researches the local food movement.
Shuman encouraged consumers to think local first, but take advantage of nonlocal food if it's a better deal.
"One of the reasons local food is taking off is that it is becoming more competitive," he said.
A growing trend
A representative of Sysco, a national food distribution company that distributes both local and nonlocal food, echoed his attitude.
"It's a trend as opposed to a fad," Randy Gehrig, director of business resources for Sysco in Portland, said of the local-food movement he's seen building. He noted that although prices at farmers' markets tend to be relatively high, the local food his company distributes is more competitively priced.
Desrochers and Shimizu say they don't oppose eating locally grown produce in season or shopping at farmers' markets for the experience, but they are concerned about the impact activists have on legislators, public policy and consumers.
"'Local equals good' is not necessarily true," Shimizu said.
Desrochers said public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, military bases and government agencies have become major focuses for local food programs.
President Barack Obama and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are among the many political leaders working to get more local food into school cafeterias through farm-to-school programs.
Though consumers can vote with their wallets, Desrochers and Shimizu said, public institutions can be coerced into buying local food -- even if it's more expensive -- by programs like these.
Desrochers, who grew up picking apples, raising rabbits and tending maple trees, said most conventional farmers side with his views on locavores.
"Agricultural romanticism occurs with every generation," he said, alluding to the back-to-the-earth hippie revolution of the 1960s. "While I don't pretend to be a farmer's kid, I think I know about the reality."
For instance, he said, the widely accepted concept of "food miles" claims that shortening the distance from farm to plate saves energy and delivers fresher food.
But the couple found that cultivation, fertilization and pest control create the vast majority of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by food production and transportation adds only about 4 percent. That's why producing foods in massive quantities where they grow best and transporting them to market is more efficient and environmentally friendly, they said.
Without the right soil and climate, Desrochers said, farmers will use more resources, machinery and chemicals to produce less food than those growing the same product in a more ideal locale.
"You're not helping anybody but a few inefficient farmers," Desrochers said of consumers who buy local foods that are grown in greenhouses or other energy-inefficient environments.
Even small-scale growers say farmers' markets are not always efficient.
"There's local and there's 'local,'" said Aimee Clark, of Willamette Valley Produce. Though her Salem fruit farm is a short drive from the farmers' market she sells her crops at, some other farmers drive long distances to several markets around the region instead of making a single large shipment to a distributor.
However, Clark said that while she doesn't think any food system is perfect, she likes the accountability of local markets.
"You are more cautious and careful about the quality of your produce and how you present yourself," she said.
JoAnne Smatlan, who operates High Country Orchard near Spokane, Wash., said she expects interest in local food to continue growing, citing consumers' concerns about healthful eating and a desire to connect with farmers. Her 20-acre orchard is one of the 30-plus members of Green Bluff Growers Association in Colbert, Wash.
"They want to hear right from you," she said. "They want to know what kind of peaches we have, what do they work best in, what are best for canning, how do you preserve them? A lot of people are preserving things again."
What is local?
Though many farmers' markets monitor vendors, the Derochers said consumers can't be sure of what they're buying without careful research and inspection.
That is why brand names developed, Shimizu said.
"If you have a brand like Heinz Ketchup or Quaker Oatmeal, you can expect the same taste and price," Shimizu said. If consumers aren't satisfied, they can return the product.
Some states, such as Colorado, Idaho and Pennsylvania, have their own certified local food labels, but for others "local" can mean almost anything.
Producers see more profit when they claim "local" status. A 2010 study by Colorado State University found that consumers showed a higher "willingness to buy" apples that carried the state's local food label than USDA-certified organic apples.
"You will typically get more expensive niche products," Desrochers said, adding that if consumers will pay, producers can maintain higher prices on local food.
As for taste and nutrition, the writers argued that consuming a diverse diet of moderately fresh produce outweighed the nutritional value of eating a few locally produced preserves all year long.
Ultimately, Desrochers said, he'll shop for price and buy local if it's worth it to him, and he thinks most consumers will do the same.
"Good food has to be grown somewhere, and if it's in my neighborhood, of course I'll consume it," he said. "That's just common sense."
Time will tell
Jessica Prentice, who now runs a community-supported kitchen called Three-Stone Hearth, hasn't read the book and doesn't plan to.
Though the original locavore welcomes conversation about both local and nonlocal food, she said time will tell which approach is ultimately more sustainable.
"In 500 years we'll know which side of this debate was right," Prentice said. Experience has shown her that eating locally is the more ecologically responsible choice, and she believes large corporations could benefit financially from a story that says otherwise.
"In contrast," Prentice said, "there isn't a huge amount of money to be made from promoting (local food)."
For Prentice, knowing her 3-year-old can tell her where his milk comes from is payoff enough; she doesn't see a good reason for anyone to argue with that.
Still, the fact that her word has sparked an international debate might reveal that the locavore perspective is catching on more than she could have imagined.
"It's kind of intriguing to me," Prentice said. "People think that eating locally is such a huge movement that a whole book has to be spent debunking it."