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The Devil Shops Local

Veterans of this blog may recall that some time ago I had a fascinating discussion about the ‘balance of nature’ with a curious fellow who turned out to be none other than the devil himself. Well, blow me if I didn’t meet him again as I journeyed home from the Oxford Real Farming Conference. He was sitting in a shadowed corner of the train carriage, hunched over a thick pile of papers and books, but unmistakeably my old friend Nick. We had another very interesting conversation so I thought I’d write it down as well as I can remember it and publish it here:

Chris: Hello Nick! Long time no see…

Nick (shielding his papers with his arms): Shhh! Don’t let anyone know who I am.

Chris: Oh, sorry. The devil in disguise, huh? What are you reading there?

Nick: As a matter of fact I’m looking at some very interesting findings, and between you and me I don’t think you’re going to like what they have to say…

Chris: Oh yes? How so?

Nick: Well, it turns out that this local food thing that you’re so into isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Chris: Is that so? Who says?

Nick: Well, for starters there’s this very interesting book by a chap called Leigh Phillips.

Chris: Oh god.

Nick: Look, I do read your blog, you know. I realise that you’re not exactly Mr Phillips’ biggest fan. But it’s not just him. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (S&W) say much the same in this new book of theirs. And even someone that I know you rate very highly has written a sniffy article about local food.

Chris: Who?

Nick (triumphantly): George Monbiot!

Chris: Oh god.

Nick (grinning malevolently): You see? Just admit it, you’re onto a loser with this one.

Chris: Look, George is a busy guy, he can’t always get everything spot on. As to the others…Well, I’m going to be publishing a critique of S&W soon, and I’ve already done one (in fact, more than one) for Leigh Phillips. Anyway, let’s leave the personalities out of this. What are their actual arguments?

Nick (rubbing his hands together): I thought you’d never ask. Let’s get started with the concept of food miles. All the authors I’ve mentioned point out some problems with it. Turns out that food grown locally may have a higher carbon footprint than food grown further afield – for example tomatoes for the UK market grown in sunny Spain rather than in heated tunnels in the UK. What do you have to say about that?

Chris: Since when did the devil care about carbon footprints – I’d have thought an overheated world would be right up your street?

Nick: That’s not the point. Do I detect a bit of evasiveness here?

Chris: No. They’re right.

Nick: You what? You agree with them?

Chris: Yes.

Nick: So you don’t even support local food yourself then!

Chris: Let me try to unpack this as succinctly as possible. If you tomato-pick particular examples such as, er, early tomatoes, then you can sometimes show that the non-local product has a lower impact than the local one. It may have other impacts that you’re excluding from your analysis, such as the water issues involved in transporting watery tomatoes from arid Spain to rain-soaked Britain. But leaving that aside, yes if you feel the need to buy early season tomatoes in Britain in the supermarkets you may be better off getting Spanish ones. Favoured anti-localist examples like the tomato gambit aside, I’m not convinced that the globalised food commodities in the average British shopping basket in total turn out better than their localised equivalents, but maybe they do. Localism, however, doesn’t just mean buying local – the point of it is that it’s aiming for a transformation of the food system, a transformation of that basket, so that we move towards a situation in which people start eating mostly what their locales can actually provide at a sensible cost – cost here being measured in carbon, in soil retention and other such environmental measures, as well as financially, and socially. The consumerist mindset expects to get whatever food your money will command from wherever in the world can produce it most cheaply, with any additional considerations such as carbon intensity factored in. If you accept its logic, then you’ll be wowed by figures like the relative carbon emissions of a kilo of British lamb versus a kilo of New Zealand lamb. But if you don’t, you’ll be more interested in how much lamb your local agriculture can realistically and sustainably provide. The anti-localist might say “A kilo of New Zealand lamb sold in Britain may be environmentally better than a kilo of British lamb sold here”. The localist might reply “Fewer kilos of more local, more carbon intensive lamb may be environmentally better than more kilos of non-local, less carbon intensive lamb”. Substantial and sustainable local sufficiency is a long-term goal, though. More pressing currently is retaining small-scale and local agriculture in the first place, so that you have something to work with. I’m inclined to think that that’s more important at the moment than kilo for kilo, theoretical carbon audits of local and non-local products.

Nick: Well, you say that – but Monbiot points out that a kilo of lamb protein produced on a British hill farm can cause more carbon emissions than someone flying to New York. That’s a stunningly high carbon cost. And Phillips says that it’s better to import fresh granny smiths all the way from New Zealand during the English summer than keeping British ones in cold storage…

Chris: I think George is overreaching himself a little there – those crazily high figures derive from an outlying datum on farm-level soil carbon. Soils have highly variable properties as sources or sinks for GHG emissions for reasons not directly related to how they’re farmed, so I don’t think it’s really fair to say that upland British lamb is always worse than lamb from elsewhere, or indeed from arable products. Saying the carbon cost of local food “can be higher” prompts the question of how often it actually is. And Leigh Phillips – hmm, I think he’d be better off wondering why there’s been a massive diminution in apple varieties (such as long keepers) associated with the rise of the global food system, or even – now here’s a radical thought – contemplating the possibility of not eating things that are out of season.

Nick: Ha! Anybody would think you’re opposed to the notion of consumer sovereignty.

Chris: Yes I am, as elaborated in some detail in my writings. One advantage of localism is that it stops people from thinking and writing in terms of consumerism’s generic ‘we’, replacing it with a more specific one. So it’s not “where should ‘we’ buy our apples from” as some global supply-chain efficiency issue. It’s where should ‘we’ here in our town or village buy our apples from as part of our own self-provisioning. And if the answer is “nowhere right now” or “nowhere very easily, because we live in a city of 30 million people” it prompts a much more interesting and urgent set of questions about producer-consumer relations in the present political and environmental context.

Nick: But the implication of all this is that a local food agenda involves a top to bottom overhaul of the entire political economy.

Chris: Quite.

Nick: Are you some kind of dangerous radical?

Chris: Look who’s talking.

Nick: Keep me out of this. Anyway, S&W – who, by the way, are radical leftists – say that the problem with the local food idea is that it flattens the complexities it’s trying to resolve into a simplistic binary of local-global. The bigger question, they say, relates to the priorities we place on the types of food we produce, how that production is controlled, who consumes that food and at what cost.

Chris: Yes, and those are exactly the questions raised in the local food movement. S&W’s critique is fatuous. It’s like saying that the problem with leftism is that it flattens the complexities it’s trying to resolve into a simplistic binary of left-right. Leftism. Localism. They’re just labels referencing diverse, dynamic and complicated movements. The point is that we ‘localists’ can’t see any plausible ways of tackling the profound problems we face in the contemporary world without a stronger turn to the local. S&W do have some interesting thoughts on this, and I’ll say more about them in another post, but the idea that localism only amounts to minimising food miles or buying artisanal bread or whatever is sheer nonsense. It suggests to me that the likes of Phillips and S&W just haven’t bothered to do much proper research into the local food movement.

Nick: OK, OK, but Phillips makes the interesting point that small-scale local production uses up more land than more technology-intensive agriculture because not every plot of land is equally well suited to all types of plant and animal. That’s got to be right – regional specialisation surely makes sense?

Chris: Phillips is mixing up a few different things here. The ‘uses up more land’ point sounds like the land sharing/land sparing debate which I and many, many others have written extensively about. I’m not going to dwell on it here, but much depends on what gross outputs the two agricultures produce, and also on whether ‘using’ land for agriculture turns out to be the same as ‘using up’ land. The other point about regional specialisation is more interesting. Of course it’s true that different locations are differentially suited to different products, and there’s been agricultural specialisation for centuries (such as dairy on the claylands and arable on the chalklands in my neck of the woods – chalk and cheese as they say). But specialisation operates at different spatial scales, and at larger ones it starts to get problematic. Some soils and climates are better than others for just about any crop, but beggars can’t be choosers – we can’t grow everything the world needs in the Ukraine or central California. Sometimes land that’s good enough to grow something is good enough. The real issue isn’t soil quality, but the logic of capital, which forces farmers to try to economise in every conceivable way. Finding the optimum soil for the crop is only one such way. Finding cheap and pliant labour is another. Developing large diesel-hungry machines to substitute labour yet another. Often enough, you get all of those combined – for example in East Anglian vegetable production, where vegetables are grown on deep, fertile, well-drained, stone-free soils, employing massive labour-saving and energy-hungry machinery and below-minimum-wage illegal workers furnished by criminal gangmasters. The soil I have isn’t as good for growing veg on, or probably as good for growing anything on, and I can’t produce vegetables as cheaply – but I guarantee that I can produce them at a lower carbon cost and without criminal labour exploitation. Talk of optimising agricultural production on global scales is all very well, but under conditions of globalised capitalism what that amounts to is basically soil-eating, labour-eating, climate-eating lowest common denominator consumerism. Substituting local for global production doesn’t necessarily overcome that in and of itself, but it’s a start. Localism negates the logic of unbridled capital accumulation.

Nick: Maybe so, but local agriculture has its own problems, doesn’t it? I mean, Phillips points out that customers of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes complain about getting too many weird vegetables that they don’t really know what to do with and end up wasting them. So local agriculture isn’t necessarily very efficient, is it?

Chris: Would this be the same Leigh Phillips who thinks that the Earth has a carrying capacity of a hundred quintillion people?

Nick: Yes

Chris: And he’s worrying that CSA schemes produce slightly more waste than conventional food systems?

Nick: Yes


Nick: You’ve gone all quiet. Are you all right?

Chris: Sorry I was just rendered temporarily speechless.

Nick: Here, sniff a bit of this brimstone.

Chris (gagging): Yuk – thank you, that’s better. OK, so here’s the thing – the difference between CSAs and mainstream retail isn’t that the CSAs produce more waste but that the waste in the system is borne by the consumer who pays for it, and therefore notices it. Surely that’s a good thing? There is literally no waste production on my farm. We sell what we can, and since our customers are resourceful types who know how to cook a twisty carrot we waste less on that front than the mainstream retailers. What we can’t sell we try to eat ourselves. What we can’t eat we try to feed to our livestock. What we can’t feed to the livestock we compost to help restart the growing cycle. All Phillips is pointing to here is the fact that food waste in local production has more consumer visibility, rather than being hidden within a huge supply chain. And that people don’t know how to make use of fresh, local vegetables. That’s supposed to be a problem?

Nick: Fair enough. Still, there are some big kit technologies that people need which are never going to be furnished by all you silly little wannabe peasants. Take some of the GM technologies supported by Phillips, like releasing transgenic mosquitoes to tackle malaria…

Chris: Is this the same Leigh Phillips who emphasised conservation biologists’ inability to predict what would happen when a few wolves were released onto a small Canadian island?

Nick: Yes

Chris: And he thinks it’s a good idea to release transgenic mosquitoes over vast stretches of malarial country?

Nick: It would seem so, yes.


Nick: More brimstone?

Chris (gagging): Thank you.

Nick: He mentions other food-related GM technologies too, and takes a well-aimed swipe at Séralini’s laughably flawed glyphosate study. Anti-GM types love latching on to Séralini because he’s a properly credentialed scientist who published in a credible journal. But his paper has now been retracted. In Phillips’ words, “Pointing at Séralini’s work and shouting “Look! Science-y” ain’t enough”.

Chris: I’ve pretty much given up debating GM. One day the truth will out: I suspect that GM will have some kind of role to play once it’s been properly detached from corporate control – probably one that will confound both its strongest critics and its strongest proponents. I also suspect that glyphosate will turn out to be quite dodgy. Meanwhile, it seems pretty clear to me that publication bias is in play, with findings uncongenial to the GM case receiving way, way more critical scrutiny than their pro-GM counterparts, both in the research community and in the shouty realm of the blogosphere where such self-appointed biostatistical experts as Marc Brazeau – food writer, chef and trade union organiser – like to hold forth. I’m tempted to say that pointing at Séralini’s work and shouting “Look! Retracted!” ain’t enough either. However useful GM techniques ultimately prove to be, I’m not convinced that they’re a major point of economic transformation in the food system, which is still geared to the good harvest/bad return conundrum. Meanwhile, as Phillips himself concedes, we’re already starting to experience various social and agronomic problems with the current range of GM crops, such as the emergence of glyphosate-tolerant weeds…

Nick: Ah well, Phillips covers that – he points out that it can be tackled by various methods, including use of more locale-specific seeds…

Chris: How do more locale-specific seeds make any difference to weed resistance if they have glyphosate-tolerance built in?

Nick: He doesn’t say.

Chris: I don’t suppose he would. Ach, I’m done debating GM in general and Leigh Phillips’ take on the world in particular. Life’s too short to work my way through any more of his non-sequiturs and tendentious logic. Besides, I’m nearly at my station. Let me just summarise: we need to ditch the notions that food miles or the relative per kilo carbon intensity of given foods or the arguments in favour of so called ‘land sparing’ exhaust the rationale for local food production. We need to ditch tendentious and evidence-free notions about CSAs creating food waste, and we need to give scientific research around GM crops at least – oh, another century, I’d say – before anyone’s likely to be in a position to say anything with much confidence about them.

Nick: Gosh, well you’ve certainly convinced me. From now on, I shall be mingling with the tattooed and bearded twelve dollar marmalade-smearing kale botherers down at my local farmers’ market.

Chris: You’re just saying that, you old devil.

Nick: No, honestly…

Chris: So the farmers who live in your neck of the woods – are they mostly small-scale, local operators or big agribusiness types?

Nick: Big agribusiness types, on the whole.

Chris: Ha! I rest my case.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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