Commentary | The locavore myth

Eating our way to a better world. Really?

Locavores are people committed to buying and eating food produced locally. The ‘locality’ of a product can vary widely, from province-wide to the 100-mile diet. Eating locally has many advantages that explain its increasing popularity: fresher, healthier, and tastier products; less environmental impact via reduced transport, packaging, and processing; and cheaper products when there is no agent between producer and consumer. Buying local is a thumbs-up for the local economy, supports responsible land development (preservation of green spaces and farmlands), and creates community by connecting buyers and farmers. Being a locavore is a political statement, an environmental choice, a health-conscious act, and a way to support producers near your home.

Or so the conventional wisdom goes.

The reality is that the locavore ‘movement’ – or rather, ‘trend’ – faces serious limitations in both its aims and form.

By taking for granted that local food systems are inherently good, the locavore trend does not fully take into account all of the environmental and social implications of its followers’ actions. When the only environmental aspects addressed are food mileage (from farm to plate) and the amount of food processing/packaging, buying local food does not accomplish much for the environment. Other aspects of food production, like the inputs at the farm itself (chemical fertilizers, pesticides, use of oil-powered machinery, irrigation, et cetera), are largely relevant in assessing the sustainability of a local food system, yet they are ignored by locavorism.

Additionally, issues of social justice are not addressed by the locavore fad. Since locavorism does not look at the production and distribution of food past the lens of distance, the living and working conditions of farmers and workers along the food production line – especially migrant workers – are not considered. Although large farmers and those who find a spot in their local farmers’ market would benefit from a locavore food system, small farmers who would have to provide big retailers like supermarkets would have to sell their products at highly competitive (i.e. very low) prices, maybe too low to fulfill their needs.

Furthermore, there is no active support of workers’ rights in the locavore ideal. Workers (migrants, temporary or other) can be found on the farm and in the production line – where they process, package, and distribute food not bought directly from the producer. Many of these workers are underpaid, work in dangerous conditions, and are generally already marginalized people. Locavorism is not concerned with the conditions of workers or small farmers, and hence fails to address issues of social justice in the local food system.

By definition, though, locavorism cannot even adapt its aims to such criticism, and can’t address broader environmental and social issues like the ones outlined above. The locavore trend is individualistic in nature and fuels the belief that changes in personal consumer behavior can solve structural and systemic problems. It is focused on comforting and accommodating the individual consumer rather than correcting inequities that are endemic to the capitalist system. Moreover, the locavore is reduced to a unidimensional consumer: it is assumed that the only way to effect change is to ‘vote with your dollars.’ However, market participation is not community participation: ‘one person, one vote’ doesn’t apply to the marketplace. Instead of giving equal power to all voices, the locavore food system allocates votes according to wealth, and traditionally marginalized people, far from being empowered, continue to be marginalized.

Along the same lines, the locavore lifestyle is generally only accessible to middle- or upper-class individuals. Since money and time are not distributed equally among everyone, local food products tend to be less accessible to people who have less money and/or time on their hands due to multiple factors, including but not limited to race, gender, ability, and education. Many working- and lower-class people simply do not have the time or resources to find locations that sell local food products, and pick up food from a location that may be far from home. Locavorism, by once again ignoring the needs and conditions of marginalized people, makes it impossible for them to participate in and benefit from local food systems.

Locavorism means well, and it does get the ball rolling on pointing out some major problems within our system; however, just consuming local food is not enough. We need to be considering all aspects of the food industry and making sure that every problem is addressed. We cannot ignore the people that the locavore movement leaves out and we cannot ignore the environment. A full blown local movement is necessary to do that, for in order to make widespread structural change, everyone needs to be involved. A movement like this is already in the works, we just need to join it!

Campus Crops is a student-run urban collective on McGill’s downtown campus. They organize workshops and film screenings on food politics issues, and have an on-campus garden space used to share and learn gardening skills by growing food. Find out more about Campus Crops at campuscropsmcgill.blogspot.ca.

Join them for a film screening and discussion on food politics on Monday, December 3, at 4:30 p.m., Madeleine Parent room (former Breakout Room; Shatner building, 2nd floor). 


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