Is the local food movement bad for the poor?

I have an op-ed that will appear in tomorrow's Seattle Times titled, How the local food movement is helping solve the problem of world hunger. It was intended to be provocative so I expect/hope it will provoke some passionate responses from a variety of people in the food conversation. The gist of my argument is that it's inaccurate to say the local food movement is harming the world's vulnerable and hungry. (This seems to be the critique du jour of the locavore trend.) In fact, I argue, it is helping and holds great potential to address the issue of world hunger. 

It was hard to say all I wanted to say on the issue in 650 words or less so consider the following post as an extended-cut version of the op-ed, with more focus on the unfairness of the emerging critique of all things locavore. It is an edited (less sarcastic) version of what I posted earlier in the week.


The local & sustainable food movement has been THE food phenomenon of recent years so it's not surprising that it has provoked a sizable backlash in defense of industrial food. What is surprising is the recent consensus among some that the local food movement is bad for poor people.

Charles Kenny got the ball rolling in last month's Foreign Policy Magazine. He calls the local and organic food movements "misguided, parochial Luddism" and is aghast that federal funds go to support farmers' markets. He writes:

...these First-World food fetishes are positively terrible for the world's poorest people. If you want to do the right thing, give up on locavorism and organics über alles and become a globally conscious grocery buyer. This should be the age of the "cosmovore" -- cosmopolitan consumers of the world's food.

The best way to help poor people eat well is to make healthy food cost less. But the more agricultural land we divert into lower-efficiency organic production, the higher the price of all food will climb. 

Judith Warner at Time followed suit last week with an article titled, The Locavore’s Illusions: As charming as it sounds, growing kale in your backyard won't solve the nation's food ills. She pushes back against the counter-cultural impulse in the movement that is suspicious of "the Man." She quotes a Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, who tries to pull back the reigns on those trouble-making community gardeners that just want everyone to give chard a chance:

Sometimes thinking small and local — without an eye to the systemic and political — paves the way toward rollbacks of progressive policies that really work. Sometimes “The Man” can do a great deal of good, for example,when funding programs that add incentive dollars to SNAP benefits at farmers markets.

Josh Ozersky at Time joined the fray a couple days ago with an article titled, "In Defense of Industrial Food." Josh writes:

There are now 300 million Americans or so, and less space. If the barons of agriculture hadn’t engineered the monstrous phalanxes of corn that everyone is so aghast at, food would be more expensive, and a lot of poor people would be dying from starvation instead of courting diabetes.

Instead of actually engaging legitimate questions about the sustainability and health of the current industrial system, the new tactic is akin to picketing the local food co-op with signs that read: "CSA Subscribers Are Hurting Poor People."

The big picture here is that it's time for Congress to write the next Farm Bill and many people are concerned with the way that local and sustainable food activists are going to shape the debate. Kenny acknowledges that the current Farm Bill only designates 0.00025 percent of its funds for farmers' markets, but he is obviously concerned that they will have a greater influence on the next version. 

These latest criticisms are an evolution of the core argument in defense of industrial food over the last fifty years: There are billions of people in the world, and we can't feed them without intensive industrial agriculture. So the industrialists have for years promoted themselves as heroes of the poor, and given that logic, it's not surprising that those who oppose or question them are being characterized as enemies of the poor. 

The truth of food, agriculture, and world poverty is more complicated than any of us probably want to admit. The champions of organic and sustainable agriculture are loathe to acknowledge that Norman Borlaug and his Green Revolution have actually been instrumental in saving lives and feeding millions of hungry and vulnerable people around the world. And the industrial food complex is hesitant to acknowledge that its subsidies and intensive farming methods have destroyed land and markets, and as a result have trapped millions of people in poverty and made them dependent on handouts. For example, it may look like we are the models of compassion for shipping food aid to places like Haiti, but our cheap, heavily subsidized grains undercut local farmers' efforts to grow crops and sell them. 

To his credit Ozersky hints at this complicated picture:

I’m not saying that our industrial system is ideal, nor even sane, but to conflate industrial with bad is to suggest that we should all just go back to the land. Which, of course, can never happen.

OK, I'll agree to not conflate industrial with bad if you'll agree not to suggest those that aspire toward an alternative are enemies of the poor. 

Photo: Volunteers make preparations for our monthly Millwood food distribution with Second Harvest of the Inland Northwest.