Why We're Losing the Locavore Argument

FuelRon Bailey over at Reason Online takes a swipe at the eat local movement. Here's his positive spin on the industrialization of food:

"...the food trade has been historically driven by urbanization. As agriculture became more efficient, people were liberated from farms and able to develop other skills that helped raise general living standards. People freed from having to scrabble for food, for instance, could work in factories, write software, or become physicians. Modernization is a process in which people get further and further away from the farm."

What grabbed my attention is the last sentence. He sums up modernity as a relentless march away from the land toward efficiencies. His argument is that the local food movement claims to be more sustainable, when the reality is that the far flung and far removed industrial food system is more efficient, uses less fuel, therefore the local food argument is wrong.

The local food movement isn't just a way to save fuel miles and gain efficiencies though. It can't be summed up as an exercise in accounting. It is a reaction against the tendency to reduce everything to its efficiencies. It is a recognition we've moved too far from the farm. I think these arguments about fuel miles too often miss the forest for the trees.

I like the way David Boyle sums up these arguments about efficiencies in his book, “The Sum of Our Discontent”. He says that our obsession with “quantifiable targets, will always – almost by definition – miss the point…Numerical targets change people’s behavior – that’s what they’re for – but only to meet the targets, not to tackle the complex problem that lies behind them.” Unless the local food movement and other efforts at encouraging sustainability get traction on the more complex issues, I'm afraid the argument is lost.

I could see someone respond by saying that conversations about sustainability are knee deep in complexities. This may be true, but the argument in the public square revolves around fuel mathematics. Is there more to it than that? There certainly is for me.