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.