Locavorism, the latest trend in yuppie food politics, is clearly a boon for the environment. Eating vegetables from local farmers and small farms cuts down on emissions from transporting foods; reduces chemicals in the soil because small farms are more likely to be organic; and invariably tastes better, too. But locavorism may be about more than smug new-wave chefs blissing out over Vermont ramps and heirloom garlic: "Locavorism" might be the key to food security and better nutrition for all.
You may say, of course, that locavorism is far too expensive to feed anyone who lives outside the privileged confines of Berkeley or Brookline: Who can afford $3 tomatoes and $12 loaves of bread? But in fact, the costs of the modern agriculture industry are far greater, and more insidious, than the costs of returning to a more localized model of farming would be.
For the last several decades, farmers in places such as the United States, Europe, Brazil, and India have concentrated on growing just a handful of staple crops -- wheat, soy, rice, corn. International agribusiness conglomerates now produce these grains in quantities that individual farmers could have once barely comprehended. From there, these staple crops -- corn especially -- are transformed into all manner of secondary foodstuffs, from chicken and beef to Coca-Cola, at ever-decreasing prices. Yet though this certainly does help make more food, it can also serve to increase the risks associated with such industry, most of which come down to one thing: monoculture, or growing just one crop at a time.
There are three big problems with monoculture, all of which can be addressed with a more sensitive, bottom-up, heterogeneous, small-scale agricultural model.
First, monocultures are, by their nature, prone to disastrous bouts of disease. Ireland's population was decimated by the potato famine; France's vines were wiped out by phylloxera; a disease called huanglongbing now threatens all of California's citrus crop. If you only grow one crop, the downside of losing it all to an outbreak is catastrophe. In rural Iowa it might mean financial ruin; in Niger, it could mean starvation.
Big agriculture companies like DuPont and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), of course, have an answer to this problem: genetically engineered crops that are resistant to disease. But that answer is the agricultural equivalent of creating triple-A-rated mortgage bonds, fabricated precisely to prevent the problem of credit risk. It doesn't make the problem go away: It just makes the problem rarer and much more dangerous when it does occur because no one is -- or even can be -- prepared for such a high-impact, low-probability event.
A more natural and heterogeneous system, by contrast, is inherently much more resistant to disease because few (if any) diseases can successfully wipe out a wide range of crops. Natural resistance is also much more likely to be found where there are a wide range of native varieties growing in the same place. Nature abhors a monoculture, and a system of smaller farms growing a large number of crops will be able to resist any disease in a way that no single crop can. If one or two of them gets hit, the damage done is manageable rather than devastating. It doesn't have the same economies of scale, of course, and it might not have magical flood-resistant properties. But it works, all the same.