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A trader selects tomatoes from a stall with a euro price sign at Athens central market in Athens, Greece, on Tuesday, June 19, 2012. Greek voters are likely to get a reward for backing pro-euro parties, with European creditors set to ease bailout terms on the debt-swamped country mired in the fifth year of recession. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)
A trader selects tomatoes from a stall with a euro price sign at Athens central market in Athens, Greece, on Tuesday, June 19, 2012. Greek voters are likely to get a reward for backing pro-euro parties, with European creditors set to ease bailout terms on the debt-swamped country mired in the fifth year of recession. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Margaret Wente

Take the romance out of farming and ditch locavorism Add to ...

Nothing beats the taste of a homegrown tomato. I should know. I’ve been growing them for years. My idea of heaven is a ripe, fresh-picked tomato still warm from the sun, eaten plain with a little salt.

Mind you, tomato-growing has its challenges. Drought , damp and blight are constant problems. Some years it’s too rainy and some years it’s too cold. Sometimes everything goes great until August, when the tomato leaves suddenly turn brown and shrivel up. And no matter how we try to stagger our harvest, we always have too few tomatoes (11 months a year) or too many (the other month). Every fall I wind up making eleventeen quarts of tomato sauce from our surplus harvest. I call it our special hundred-foot sauce. I now have frozen sauce dating back to 2007.

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And that’s what’s wrong with locavorism. It’s the most wasteful, inefficient way to feed the human race you can possibly imagine. It’s also bad for the environment.

Case in point: Our own idyllic countryside, an hour and a half’s drive from Toronto. In the mid-1800s it was settled by hard-working farmers who all, by necessity, had 100-mile diets. I pity the poor wretches who tried to eke a living from our stony, hilly, clayey soil, whose only good feature is the views.

Subsistence farming was backbreaking and unprofitable work. It was also terrible for the environment. The land wasn’t very productive, so farmers needed a lot of it to grow stuff. Soon most of the forests had been chopped down and serious erosion had set in. The area turned into a giant dust bowl.

Today, vastly more efficient methods allow farmers to grow a lot more food on a lot less land. Now they can specialize. Some of our local land is ideal for potatoes, so farmers grow trainloads of them and sell them all over Canada. They do very well. Not only does long-distance trade maximize output and lower prices, it’s also good for the environment. Today much of the crummy, unproductive farmland (such as ours) has reverted back to forest. The area is greener and more hospitable to wildlife than it’s been for 150 years.

Locavorism makes no more sense for food than it does for clothing or computers. It wouldn’t occur to people to assign extra virtue to a locally manufactured iPad, or to develop personal relationships with the folks who made it. So why is it the rage to look in the eye of the people who grow your vegetables?

My theory is that the farther we get from life on the land, the more we romanticize it. We also have a powerful longing for the personal and artisanal, and for connectedness. As the writer Rod Dreher put it, “Learning the names of the small farmers, and coming to appreciate what they do is to reverse the sweeping process of alienation from the earth and from each other that the industrialized agriculture and mass production of foodstuffs has wrought.”

Today the countryside around our place is thronged with a brand-new generation of farmers – eager young idealists who have fled back to the land. Every weekend they show up at the little farmers’ market with their colourful bouquets of organic carrots and their tender non-commodified artisanal greens. I love these people. They work like dogs. Their produce is delicious, and I am thrilled to shell out a dollar a carrot to support them. I am certainly not about to argue to their face that everything they believe is wrong. I’ll leave that to folks like Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu, the Canadian authors of new book called The Locavore’s Dilemma. In it, they systematically dismantle the cult of locavorism that has sunk its roots so deeply among the urban upper-middle class.

In fact, the globalization of the food supply is nothing new, and the more of it there is the better off we have become. Modern mass-produced, globally distributed food (not junk food, real food) is cheaper, more nutritious, safer, higher-quality, more reliably available and far less wasteful than the local kind. Modern food systems have done wonders for our standard of living and have liberated humankind from the chains of rural serfdom. They have increased, not decreased, food security and made famines (except for those that are politically induced ) all but extinct. As for food miles, numerous analyses have shown that claims made for the alleged benefits to the atmosphere of eating food grown close to home are largely bunk.

On top of that, the core beliefs of locavores – that organic is best, chemicals are bad, and genetically modified crops are evil – are responsible for keeping large parts of Africa mired in poverty and food deprivation.

Does all this mean that I’ll stop patronizing the farmers’ market and the Hundred-Dollar (I mean Mile) Store? Absolutely not. I love those places. I love the sense of community and chatting with the neighbours. It’s much more fun than shopping at the superstore, and when the produce is in season there’s nothing that tastes better. In spite of all the rot and blight and inefficiencies and waste, nothing beats the taste of a homegrown tomato – either mine or anybody else’s.

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