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The 10,000-mile diet? Toronto professor and his wife’s new book angers local food community

Sheryl Nadler
Shine On
June 13, 2012

A University of Toronto geography professor and his economist wife are raising eyebrows and the ire of the local food community with their new book, The Locavore's Dilemma, In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet.

Co-authors Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu challenge the notion that eating locally produced food is more environmentally sustainable and generally make us happier, healthier people. They do it by knocking down each of the five tenets of the local food movement:

1- Buying from local producers — and especially getting to know them — will improve social capital, 2- buying more local food is good for the local economy, 3- buying more local food is better for the environment, 4 — buying local food increases food security, and 5- local food improves nutrition and food safety.

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The local food movement has been lying to us, they say. None of their claims are true. Yet, despite their bold accusations, Desrochers and Shimizu manage to keep their heads up as they come up against some pretty heavy criticisms, particularly in the past couple of weeks, in the days leading up to the start of their book tour.

"In Toronto, my department had organized a debate with a food activist who called me and my wife baby killers without giving any reason," says Desrochers. "But other than that, people have been willing to listen."

So what of the local food movement's theories that buying locally produced food will help build social capital? Desrochers and Shimizu argue community and social capital are built in ways that don't necessarily revolve around eating locally-produced food. They cite the annual Taste of the Danforth festival in Toronto which brings an entire community together for a huge food festival on Danforth Avenue, but most of the delicacies being cooked and served have not been locally grown.

So what of their theories? Well, as for the argument that buying local food helps build social capital, they have several arguments, one of them being that local food festivals like the Taste of the Danforth in Toronto help to build community and social capital while still importing food from elsewhere.

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Economic reasons for buying local?

"You don't grow an economy by making people poorer," says Desrochers. "And what local food essentially does is provide typically lesser quality food at a higher price. You're killing a bunch of other businesses that nobody pays attention to because everyone is focused on the few hundred jobs that are created in farming."

Environmental? If a Canadian apple is picked in September, says Desrochers, it will be kept in a refrigerated warehouse throughout the winter to be sold in April. But shipping apples via container ship from New Zealand leaves less of a carbon footprint than does operating a refrigerated warehouse, he claims.

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Obviously, not everyone agrees with Desrocher and Shimizu's theories. Patricia Cameron, executive director of Green Calgary -- a non-profit urban environmental organization -- says that while we are only beginning to dabble in the true "cost" of flying food and other products around the world, "we do have very precise information on the labour and human relations problems that have been created by the globalization of the food system."

"As we look at oil — the energy source that makes the 10,000 mile diet possible — and see  triple digit prices coming again, many rational, well-informed people have concluded that the 10,000 mile diet is totally unsustainable," she continues. "We are already seeing huge spikes in food prices world-wide which have lead to hunger, and civil unrest."

Desrochers argues what their critics fail to see is they, too, are concerned with sustainability and social awareness. They just have a different approach to the issues.

"She was very emotional," he says of the food activist whom he debated with at the University of Toronto. "When we encounter people like that, they're so convinced that they're right, they're not willing to entertain the thought that people who also want to do the right thing might disagree with them."

Watch the video below about how to incorporate healthy whole grains into your diet.

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