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How Locavores Could Save the World

The latest yuppie craze could do more than just cut emissions -- it might also help feed the poor.

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.

The second problem with monoculture is that new, high-tech, disease-resistant crops tend to come with something that is just as unwelcome as disease: patents. Many of these high-tech crops can't reproduce organically and need to be bought afresh each season from the patent holder. And all of them come with layers of intellectual-property laws too complex for most non-lawyers to decode. So how do we expect impoverished and often illiterate populations in some of the most remote areas of the world to take advantage of them? Non-engineered crops, the natural ones that replicate themselves, are patent-free.

Finally, monoculture is based on the principles of trade and comparative advantage. It's supposed to work like this: Enormous areas specialize in growing, say, corn and soy; they then sell those crops and use the cash they get in return to buy a wide variety of foods.

This works in the United States, but it doesn't work well in the rest of the world, where trade barriers are often high, and selling crops for money and then exchanging that money for food is a complex and fraught process. Farmers growing cash crops in remote areas are often taken advantage of by middlemen, who take a cut of the profit and pay the growers much less than the market rate.

Matters are even more complicated when borders are closed altogether. During the commodity boom of 2008, for example, food prices rose sharply, and several countries, including big producers such as Vietnam and Argentina, either banned agricultural exports or taxed them at punitive rates.

What's more, crops are bulky, heavy things that are prone to spoilage, especially in hot and humid countries that lack luxuries like interstate highways and refrigerated trucks. While locavores in Seattle count their food miles because they're worried about their meal's carbon footprint, in poorer parts of the world food miles are much more immediately relevant: The farther away your food is grown, the less likely it is to reach you, and the more likely you are to go hungry.

It's also worth bearing in mind that there's already more than enough food being grown to feed every person on the planet. Right now, when we grow more food, the main consequence is more obesity and waste in rich countries. In fact, we have reached such a level of excess food that powerful agricultural lobbies -- supported by big businesses like ADM -- have been pushing for food crops to be turned into biofuels, especially in the United States and Brazil. It simply isn't the case that we are at risk of shortages without these monoculture crops.

The hunger that persists is a question of distribution; calories don't just magically trickle down to the people who really need it. Locavorism gets right to the root of this problem. By growing multiple crops close to home, less is likely to spoil and more will reach the table.

To be sure, the life of a subsistence farmer is not an easy one. Subsistence farmers make up a large proportion of the world's poor. But local farmers growing local food can create a much more sustainable life for themselves and those around them than Western agribusinesses can. At the very least, locavores should be an important part of the mix.

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