Q & A: The 10,000-mile diet

TORONTO – While consumers flock to farmers’ markets for local produce, fostering a fledgling farm-to-table cooking mentality, a University of Toronto professor is going against the grain.

Pierre Desrochers, a geography professor, is urging Canadian consumers to rethink the 100-mile diet, a growing trend that insists on forming your meals around local produce.

It’s expensive, it’s not necessarily healthier and, contrary to what most people think, the 100-mile diet doesn’t create more jobs and may even hurt the economy, Desrochers argues in a new book titled The Locavore’s Dilemma: In praise of the 10,000-mile diet.

Desrochers grew up in a rural town in Quebec and has worked in agriculture. He specializes in studying economic development, transportation and international trade.

Global News interviewed him to discuss his take on why Canadian locavores should reconsider buying locally.

Story continues below advertisement

Global News: Can you tell readers, who are encountering the 10,000-mile diet for the first time, about this concept and how you thought of it?

Desrochers: This is a pun on the idea of the 100-mile diet. We just wanted to convey the notion that distance really isn’t very important in the grander scheme of food production things.

Global News: Your support for a 10,000-mile diet is contentious, especially in today’s society where consumers are interested in buying local ingredients and knowing where their food comes from. Why do you prefer the 10,000-mile diet over the popular 100-mile diet?

Desrochers: Several reasons. Among the most important ones, having multiple suppliers in different geographical locations spreads the risk inherent to food production. All regions will have bad years, but regions that have good ones can send their surplus to regions that have bad ones. This is how malnutrition and famine were defeated historically. Concentrating specific food productions in the best locations will also deliver more food on less land, thus allowing us to spare nature and to make food more affordable than if more of it was produced locally and more inefficiently.

Global News: You had said that some countries rely heavily on importing food, simply because of lack of space or suitable conditions. Can you provide some examples of countries that do this and are still thriving?

Desrochers: Hong Kong, Singapore, the Netherlands, Japan. The important thing is to be able to create wealth and you can be very prosperous without growing your own food.

Story continues below advertisement

Global News: On the other hand, doesn’t relying on other countries for certain food make you vulnerable? What if they encountered a poor harvesting season because of bad weather, or decided to increase prices for their produce or if transportation barriers stood in the way?

Desrochers: The key is to rely on multiple suppliers. Whether all your suppliers are found locally or in one other country doesn’t matter as you will be in trouble at some point in time. The key is to have multiple suppliers in different regions.

Global News: Buying local is what many farmers, local businesses and restaurants and even Canadian consumers swear by. In a shaky economy, isn’t it better to spend your money on food grown by farmers and foster job creation?

Desrochers: Not if you are paying more for lesser quality products. The extra money you spend on food is then no longer available to buy other products, including some that will be produced in your community. Foreign exporters who are no longer able to sell you their products have also less money to buy goods made in your local economy. Creating uncompetitive agricultural jobs this way can only come at the cost of more jobs being destroyed in the rest of the economy.

Global News: Food that’s been trucked over from as far as South America, compared to fresh produce grown within the province has to be more nutritious. Is that a factor in the 10,000-mile diet?

Desrochers: There are different modes of transportation (container ship, railroads and trucks), but in today’s container-based system large volumes of goods move over long distances very quickly. In season, competitive local produce will be fresher, but a local diet during the remainder of the year means that the local produce has to be preserved in some way (freezing, canning, etc.). As such, a local diet can only be less fresh overall during a whole year, as the globalized food supply chain delivers very good fresh produce year round, even if they’re not as good as those delivered by competitive local producers for a few weeks each year.

Story continues below advertisement

Global News: How about food safety? After E. coli outbreaks and contamination and tainted processed foods incidents, consumers are cautious. Is buying local safer in that aspect?

Desrochers: No. What matters is how the food is handled, not where it is produced. Large corporations have various ways to control for problems along the production chains, even if they set up operations in less advanced economies. By contrast, small-scale local producers often lack that knowledge. E. coli and salmonella are all around us and no operation, big or small, can avoid these problems. Large firms, however, have better resources to deal with them.

Global News: You had called the trend of buying organic, local produce a niche market. In a world of bustling farmers’ markets and with farm-to-table restaurants popping up, what is keeping this movement popular and do you see it dying down?

Desrochers: There have been many local food movements in the last century and half, such as during wartimes and depressions. None of these movements lasted once consumers had better options. Even today despite all the talk to the contrary, only a few percentage points of our food provisioning can be traced back to “local initiative.” The present local fad will vanish in time as, in the past, consumers will ultimately vote with their wallet even though they might say something else to pollsters.

Global News: Are there policies the municipal, provincial and federal governments could implement to persuade you to buy local? Say, something between the lines of tax subsidies for consumers or initiatives for farmers?

Desrochers: Governments are already forcing us to “buy local” through supply management schemes such as through the government-enforced cartelization of milk and poultry. These schemes benefit a few producers who will fight tooth and nail to keep them, but they penalize taxpayers and consumers who have to pay higher prices. Counterproductive government interventions such as these should go.