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.

37 thoughts on “The devil shops local

  1. Ha! Just what I needed on this Sunday morning was another dialog with Old Nick. I very nice defense of local, Mr. Chris. The devil (ahem) is in the details, the externalities that tend to get obscured by clever statistics. A lot to chew on in your wide ranging conversation with the old man.

    I’m not sure the consumer will be won over until consumer capitalism has had its day. The best we can hope for is to refine local models, encourage the availability of local produce and meat, encourage a local food-culture, point out the absurdities and externalities in out-of-season produce, cross our fingers and wait them out.

    • I hope Chris will still comment on this question… but here in OH there are a couple of more serious CSA types who are also acting as brokers for other growers. Some of the “others” range from ambitious back yard gardeners with surplus to smaller or less sophisticated CSA efforts looking to expand without a correlated increase in subscriptions. In my head then one substitute broker for assembly. There are risks to the assembler, the same as risks for a broker. Add on the shelf life aspect of fresh produce and you understand this is no panacea. Still I think the opportunities to expand into market segments (school lunch, commercial grocery retailers for example) that are beyond the reach of most CSA operations make this an interesting approach.

  2. As a literary technique I have to rate your conversations with Nick pretty highly. I can only hope Goethe will not be disappointed.

    The points made concerning waste from local vs global are excellent. I’ve often heard the same gripe from ‘City Cousins’ who make the good willed effort to support a CSA that they get too much “weird stuff”. And having seen some of the baskets I can empathize. I get the point that we need to improve our ability to use what is at hand. But I suspect there might be a softer or more amenable way to broach this than to surprise a paying customer with a plant they’ve never seen or heard of and that may be spoilt by the time they can research what in the devil’s name the thing is and how to make a meal of it. On top of this you have our poor neophyte trying to eat and appreciate something they’ve no expertise preparing. I remember the first cookies my sister baked when she was learning. One had to love her for the effort. If I had paid a premium for some CSA wheat flour and then tasted those cookies and imagined that was as good as it gets… it makes a future sale a very tough nut.

    Now if the world does migrate rather rapidly toward a forced local situation then our neophyte neighbors will not have the luxury of complaint. Learn to prepare it and learn to like it. Until this is their only choice, I suppose I find myself seconding Brian’s second paragraph in the first comment above.

    A notion I’ve kicked around in the hollows left where my frontal lobe should be is to have something like a ‘Stone Soup’ festival. Something to engage the local populace with foods of local origin and how to prepare the same. As much as possible it should be child friendly. Many unusual foods have an ‘acquired taste’ element and benefit from many and varied exposures. If the younger members of our population can find common cause with a twisted carrot… we might see the battle turning.

    • Foods only seem ‘weird’ because we have been eating out-of-season for two or three generations now. What’s available at the store on a year ’round, perpetual basis is a small sampling of what used to be regularly eaten. We have been habituated to a lack of choice. The ‘weird’ produce is part of our heritage that has been lost at a factory farm level. Diversity is the enemy of mass production.

      • David:
        I will only agree with half of your position – we’ve been eating out of season. Your take on the diversity angle is entirely mistaken. If your ancestors from a dozen generations back were living in western Europe they didn’t know of pineapple, banana, or whole host of other foods. Even some very common foods today were not standard fare… potato and tomato were not known in Europe until the beginning of the 16th century.
        There were other foods being eaten that have fallen out of favor, so one might argue there were other foods available – but to assert that: “What’s available at the store on a year ’round, perpetual basis is a small sampling of what used to be regularly eaten.” is just plain nonsense. And I’m not referring to all the various permutations of raw ingredients here. I’ll agree there isn’t any true food diversity between a round cracker sold in a red box with a clown on the front compared to a square cracker sold in a blue box with a bird on the front. But there are differences between wheat, rice, sorghums, millets, and maize. There are differences between plums, raspberries, strawberries, apricots, peaches, apples, and blueberries.

        Squashes and sunflowers, beans, tomatoes and potatoes are all New World donations to the global larder. They were being eaten by First Nations people in the New World, but not by Charlemagne or other pre 16th century Europeans.

        So put me down for living within one’s means – if the true costs – all externalities factored in – limit one’s access to foods not adapted to their locale… then eat what you have.

        Better than importing food from all over might be to increase the range of adaptation for those species amenable to such a change. This would increase local diversity (as having potatoes in the UK) and with proper attention to constituent balance in the breeding of our foods we can further enhance the quality of the local foods and attendant diets.

        Diversity is a good thing. Trying to argue for it with blatantly soft arguments is not.

  3. Yes, I’m moderately sympathetic to well-intentioned customers who are struggling with another celeriac surprise served up by Vallis Veg from the very fires of hell. But I’m not very sympathetic to people who invoke such points to suggest that local food systems are inefficient.

    Food Assemblies are like farmer’s markets except customers pre-order online what they want, so that the vendor knows ahead of time exactly what and to whom they’re selling. It has its pros and cons, but generally seems to work pretty well for small concerns like hours. One advantage is that the collection period is just a couple of hours, which makes it quite time efficient – though on the down side of that you have to be quite organised in packing the produce for market.

    Clem’s examples are interesting – I think there’s a lot of scope for collaborations of this sort between local producers and processors…but only if there’s enough of them still standing to collaborate!

  4. I think I have mentioned, Chris, that I found Leigh Phillips’ protests that you had not read his book a little too precious, as his comments about the 100 Mile Diet at his book launch made it clear he had not actually read the book, as all of his criticisms are addressed point by point. Indeed, I have yet to hear a criticism of the 100 Mile Diet that is not addressed in the book. (For the American readers, it is sold under the title of Plenty, by MacKinnon and Smith.)

    Furthermore, the leftists you mention, who cannot fathom a world in which they might meet a new vegetable, or not have any food they desire in any place at any time of the day or night, have excellent company in another noted radical—George H. W. Bush—who said, “The American way of life is not up for negotiations.” They really have lost their way, and as “progressives” who advocate for policy that can only further the power of corporations, sound like one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse.

    It is true that if I simply must have a tomato-shaped unit of soggy cardboard in March (as we still have green tomatoes ripening indoors well into December) then I must buy it from Mexico. But instead of that, we can have our home-grown and, at their peak of ripeness and flavour, home-canned tomatoes. On any day, at any time.

    I am also very struck by the food assembly. Our local markets insist the farmer must be present, and can only sell what they have grown or made. This is just one of the reasons I have been saying for many years that our markets are retarding the local food movement, and making the world a worse place.

    Some farmers are trying to get to four markets a week, leaving precious little time left for farming. Some of the things I have wondered about are:

    A centralized cashier in the market, so farmers can actually do their alleged task of talking to customers, instead of making change as fast and furiously as possible.

    A cooperative stall, perhaps with four farmers rotating, so each farmer comes to the market only once a month. Time four markets, each farmer would still be doing one market a week, but would have four times the reach, and customers would still have a quite reasonable ability to access the farmer.

    Our oldest local market also sets a price window for produce. This is great for farmers, but excludes people like me, who would regularly buy several hundred pounds of tomatoes. I need to pay much less than $4 per pound. Until we actually scale local food up to the point that people can afford to buy in bulk and preserve, we will remain a boutique movement.

    • Hi Ruben, I’m in your part of the world on Vancouver Island; thought you (and others) might be interested in a recent endeavour by farmers here in the Cowichan Valley, who have been long supported by the amazing Cowichan Green Community. They have organized the “Cow-Op” (, in order to create exactly the kind of centralized cashier you’re wondering about. Customers can order online from one account, selecting from products made available by a wide range of local farmers, all of who them pool their products for a centralized pick-up. It’s an ambitious project; I’ll be interested to see how it plays out.

      (Not addressed specifically to Ruben) In the meantime, though, I’ll continue to grow my own. Not having to pay the labour costs of a portion of my food supply makes a big difference to our budget. I know this isn’t fair to local farmers (whom I count myself among, even if I don’t patronize them as much as when I was a city consumer), but I’m actually quite worried about the future of ethically produced local food in a contracting economy. I know that we have made decisions to eat less of something, leave it out, or substitute when the cost of a local food went up dramatically, and we’re committed local foodies making good incomes…As a food studies academic here in Canada, I know all of the arguments (and agree with all of yours, Chris–I’m a big fan of your work), but I think we’re all in for some tough times in the short term as the messy transformations take place and basic survival priorities send more of the middle-class into typical lower-class diets of cheap processed carbs and fats, regardless of how they might want to eat.

      • Thanks for your note. The Cow-op looks fantastic—maybe more of a retail food assembler. I was imagining the central cash in the Market context. Great to see that.

        As far as local food in a contracting economy, I have similar concerns—I wrote about it in this post,Is our localism too artisanal?

        I think there is a lot to talk about in that post, but I will let you read it there if you are interested, rather than rehashing it all here.

        I mentioned Ralph Borsodi in the comments here a few weeks back, and link to him in that post as well. I think you will really enjoy his writing. He advocates for not trying to make money from your land, but rather use it to reduce the money you must make elsewhere.

        And, on another note, my wife and I are losing our minds here in the city, but we have a co-parenting situation that will keep us here another seven years. But we have decided we need to figure out where we will be going, and Cowichan has been mentioned a lot.

        It would be great to connect with you, and come visit you when we make a trip up. I couldn’t find contact info on your website—please contact me at victoria dot jugs at gmail dot com. (that sounds like a porn site, but I actually got it when I was trying to get people to give me their empty juice jugs for cidering, so now it is a handy email to post online for the robots to steal)



      • The co-op looks great. It would be very handy for us to be able to sell stuff when we have it but not have to commit to regular farmer market attendance or regular supply to restaurants.

        To be able to list non-food items like firewood and kindling would also be handy.

      • Thanks for commenting Ms/Mr Feast …interesting point about the tough times ahead which I suspect is spot on. And thanks for the link to your post Ruben, much food for thought. Questions of land values, landownership and urbanism haunt this issue…I must try to engage with it more directly soon…

    • Hi Everyone,
      In Tucson, Arizona where I currently live there is a great program led by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona (which is a fantastic organization). The Food Bank runs a number of markets in the Tucson area throughout the week, and they all only allow approved growers and producers of value added products. Additionally, they run a consignment program where anyone can sign up (as long as they don’t use chemicals – not sure the details on this) and the Food Bank will try to sell their produce with a consignment fee of only 10%. Most of their products are good quality, and as far as I can tell they run through a lot of stock each week. The Food Bank table always is competitive with local growers at the market (which has its ups and downs). Here is a link:

      Another thing the food bank does in its markets is allows use of Federal SNAP benefits (nutrition assistance dollars), and they will match up to $20 dollars, so patrons spend $20 in nutrition assistance and get $40 in farmers market dollars. I see a lot of customers each week with this money.

      Thanks for all of the great posts on this blog and all of the commentators here. While I don’t understand the nuances of everything that is posted, I appreciate the ideas presented, and the critiques that are accepted, and when appropriate, rebutted. As I see it, in the near future everyone will have to look at fulfilling their own resource needs, and I am glad to read perspectives steeped in history of pre-industrial times to gain understanding of how that might turn out.

  5. Apologies that I haven’t been responding – I’m currently reliant entirely on sunlight to stay connected with the world (as indeed we all are, ultimately). It’s been cloudy, so I had to prioritise keeping the lights on. Ah well, enforced adjustment to natural limits is appropriate enough given the theme of the blog.

    Anyway, agreed Ruben on some of the limitations of farmers markets. I’ve been having some interesting conversations recently about methods of local retail – it’s something that I (and, I think, society collectively) need to devote more thought to. The important issue I think is how to stop middleman capture of retailing.

    Thanks for commenting David, and for responding Clem. Interesting debate – I wonder if the variation within particular categories of fruits, vegetables and for that matter livestock was greater in the past…and whether this matters…?

    • Was variation within groups greater in the past? And would it matter? Excellent questions.

      Because a very substantial piece of the developed world’s food is VERY commoditized there is far less diversity than one might expect if we were still provisioning ourselves the way our ancestors did. BUT – there is still a great deal of diversity in existence, one just has to go in search of it. For instance – in the US alone there will be approximately 90 million acres of corn production this summer (I’m referring to dent corn only)*. For this entire expanse of production there is a fairly short list of unique hybrids. [Unique is being used here as a hedge word, if someone needs more definition I’ll defer to a corn breeding colleague]. My point being that there is still a great deal of biodiversity in the Zea mays germplasm – in fact the breadth of diversity is far greater now than it has been in mans experience with the species. What’s going on? We are not routinely employing all the different types available. Indeed we generate millions of new types all the time and then discard the vast majority of it. Responsible breeding efforts are still shepherding the diversity in their programs, just not growing it all out all the time. So diversity within groups is not disappearing, it is growing (or being enhanced). Diversity is not lacking, the market for diversity is.

      * For comparison, there would have been less than a million acres of corn production in all of North America in 1492 when Columbus paid his first visit – and the landraces being grown by the indigenous populations then would have had little in common with commodity corn grown now. As long as we’re comparing, factor in the number of people being fed by the 1492 crop and the coming 2016 crop.

      Does it matter? Well yes, and in a perverse way – no. Yes it matters because breeding depends upon diversity. If we wish to continue to make improvements in our domesticate crops and herds and flocks we have to have variation to work with (read diversity and variation as nearly synonymous). And if we wish to enjoy different versions of the same sort of product – think wine, or beer or other foods we’ll need different grapes or barleys or hops to give us the various flavors and aromas we desire. Diversity matters and in some instances the market for greater diversity is working.

      Commoditizing tends against diversity and embraces uniformity. But commoditizing by itself is not necessarily an evil. I wrote a post on this last spring:

      To the advantages of commodities diversity is insignificant (and in a certain sense even antagonistic). For me the take home is more nuanced than diversity good, uniformity bad.

      • Interesting points. I guess there’s a question there as to whether the best custodians of diversity are professional breeders serving large-scale commodity production, or amateur breeders serving their own ends, or various points in between…

  6. Taking a blatantly irrelevant, textbook romp through the 16th century when it has no bearing on choice from small farm growers with weird vegetables versus industrial suppliers to supermarkets since both groups have access to the same variety of seed stock is more than a little self-indulgent.

    The loss of diversity brought on by industrial farming practices in the 20th century is a pretty well covered topic, and this seemed like a very well educated crowd so I apologize for offering a ‘blatantly soft argument’ by glazing over it by simply mentioning the change in diversity over the last 2-3 generations. This was my first time posting on the site, so slight miscalculation. There’s the film ‘Open Sesame’ by documentarian Kaminsky that offers a good overview. “In the past century, we have lost an astonishing 90% of the fruit and vegetable seeds once available.” – Kaminsky.

    Having lived through a large part of that era, in a farm community, I find the comments trying to make the conversation about the 16th century laughable. (Sure, contact with the New World brought a lot of diversity to what has been described as a boring or bland European diet. However, it’s not germane to the loss of diversity in the 20th century brought on by the rise of industrial agriculture. Whatever the diversity was, including New World plants, it became less.)

    I experienced the crisis in the U.S. But it must of been an issue other places, or else the seed varieties would not have been lost. In the eighties I met farmers and seed collectors from England, Australia and the USSR, permaculturists who had travelled to Nepal and India and they spoke of similar challenges. All of them were quite passionate about what was being lost. Many seed saving organizations got their start at this time or soon after as a result of what was happening. I remember that companies like Pioneer Seed and Monsanto were in a panic and spending lots of money collecting heirloom varieties because their business model was directly responsible for the growing loss of genetic diversity. Today, these companies have quite extensive seed inventories to draw from, but this wasn’t always the case. When they needed to develop a new strain to fight, say, resistance they often went out and looked for it in seed varieties from farmers. But farmers had been buying hybrid seed each year from seed companies long enough that their old seeds were becoming unviable. At the same time, government seed banks were in a sorry state. One article talked about seed samples, at a repository, on the ground with the boxes broken open and the roof leaking so the ground was wet.

    It appears that ‘diversity’ can be applied in diverse ways. In the context of this current post and its mention of weird vegetables from local, small farm producers, pineapples and bananas don’t really fit in that category. In terms of ‘local’ fruit, apples for example, there were once around seven thousand varieties catalogued in the U.S. Alone. Today, different seed saving organizations put the number of varieties remaining to only a small percentage of that number.

    “In the mid-1800s, there were thousands of unique varieties of apples in the United States, some of the most astounding diversity ever developed in a food crop. Then industrial agriculture crushed that world. The apple industry settled on a handful of varieties to promote worldwide, and the rest were forgotten.” Mother Jones.

    According to National Geographic, “Of the 7,000 apple varieties that were grown in the 1800s, fewer than a hundred remain.” (Some seed saving organizations put the number closer to one thousand, though hundreds of varieties may be represented by only one tree or a small handful of trees.)

    I wonder how many of those Apple varieties you have available to choose from at your supermarket. I have 5-8 depending on the time of year from the supermarkets near me, but more than three dozen varieties throughout the season from local farmers in my area. The loss of diversity came about, in the U.S. for example, when the red delicious was developed for its color and ship-ability (certainly not for its taste or texture) and whole orchards of other varieties were ripped up to be planted in red delicious.

    In “Biological Meltdown: The Loss of Agricultural Biodiversity” by Hope Shand, “Just two Apple varieties account for more than 50% of the entire U.S. crop.” She offers staggering numbers for the loss of diversity for many crop varieties and livestock breeds. (As a side note, she mentions that 99% of all turkeys raised in the U.S. come from just one breed; a breed that has been selected for breast size and therefore cannot self reproduce – poor tom cannot mount his good lady because he’s at least a double D. I happen to have volunteered with the professor who invented turkey masturbation, a regular industry activity that allows this, what is to me surreal, type of agriculture to be practiced. It also illustrates the pitfalls of lack of diversity. This breed can no longer continue without the constant and perpetual intervention of man.)

    If you want to talk bananas, there are approximately 1,000 varieties, but only one variety – the Cavendish – is available in most stores. Again, like the red delicious it was picked for appearance and ship-ability and not for flavor. It is ironic to me that Clem used banana, where you have zero choice, other than take it or leave it, as an argument for diversity in the supermarket. Having been on permaculture farms in places where bananas grow, the cavendish isn’t eaten. Its texture and flavor is inferior to anything else. It is the pasty red delicious equivalent of the banana world.

    Pick most any vegetable sold in a grocery store and you will find that there are from several hundred to sometimes over a thousand varieties or sub-varieties of that vegetable in existence, but only one, two, or a small handful of varieties grown and offered commercially. There is a small farm in South Florida, Swank Specialty Produce, that offers over 350 varieties of organic produce. I didn’t get to 150 items in the produce section of my closest supermarket, and that is with imports like bananas and pineapples thrown in. I even counted bananas twice – organic and conventional – even though they were both the cavendish. The diversity of one small farm blows any chain supermarket I have ever been in out of the water.

    I’ve eaten nine different varieties of beet this past growing season (14 varieties were on offer at the farmers market, but I only got around to nine.) and more than a dozen kinds of radishes. This kind of diversity was not offered at any supermarket. There are four different chain stores near me and all season, all four of them offered just the same two varieties of beet and only four kinds of radish between them. For years I have lobbied my organic supermarket to carry more than the one kind of rutabaga to no avail. Apparently, I am told, there is only one kind commercially grown.

    I regularly purchase from local growers many different fruits and vegetables that I have never seen offered at a supermarket. I guess these would be the ‘weird’ ones. And there are dozens of them at my local farmers market.

    This season, I purchased eight kinds of kale, four kinds of dandelion greens (never seen a dandelion green in any supermarket), seven different sweet potato varieties (again, more were on offer but… Arrrgh! TOO MUCH DIVERSITY!), eighteen different potato varieties (4 different purple potato varieties alone) and so on. Even our small scale rice farmer offers more variety than the supermarket. Unless you start counting things like Uncle Ben’s. The other night I made Purple Fried Rice (forbidden rice has a spectacular taste to match its beautiful color) to wild acclaim from the family.

    Around here, the small scale farmers grow primarily heirloom varieties and raise heritage breeds, and picking from amongst what remains, after the loss of diversity of the 20th century, of these varieties provides a much greater diversity, by multiples, than what is available from the industrial system. I’ll even let Clem throw in his exotic, imported fruit and it still won’t be close.

    • David, I appreciate you stopping by here and taking the time to expand on your thoughts – which I find interesting, so I hope you’ll stop by again… I’ll leave it to Clem to respond if he wants. Time pressures (and lack of personal expertise) are such that I don’t think I have anything much to add myself at this point, but I’m delighted to be able to host, and learn from, the diversity of opinions on this topic. From the perspective of a humble local veg grower, I’d have to say that it troubles me more than a little what a narrow foundation of food varieties our current diet seems to be built on.

    • David:
      Thanks for the reply. I’m sorry to duck the majority of it at the moment – I’m on the road. Will come back with more specifics. Until I can get to those, you may want to have a look at:

      This article goes directly to the apple matter.

      I also want to acknowledge that your last sentence in your first comment above “Diversity is the enemy of mass production” is entirely correct and we seem to be on the same page there – so I should have offered that we’re agreeing at 2/3 – my mistake and I’m sorry for that.

      When I get back I will take up the issue of whether true diversity of seeds has been “lost” as Kaminsky and others are suggesting. The apple story in the link should offer some clues.

        • Thanks for the link Chris. The comment there by Dave Wood is precious. Short, succinct, and very well done. I will still make some point to point comments here to David’s comment.

          I should also get busy and leave a comment to Dave Wood at agro.biodiversity… there are a couple things I’d like to know a little more about.

          • Interesting perspective. In my past dealings with Dave I’ve found him overly-anxious to lay the blame for the plight of poor small farmers at the door of do-gooding alternative farm activist types such as myself, to the extent that (rather ludicrously IMHO) he sees the food sovereignty movement as an attempt by wealthy westerners to keep poor farmers poor. It seems to me he’s at it again rather in his latest comment, but as I’ve said before I’m no expert in these matters, so I’m interested in your perspective.

          • Thanks for that… I will keep it in mind as I work through the material I’ve lined up. If this goes too far into the weeds for a succinct comment here I’ll summarize and point back to GP for a fuller treatment. I’m guessing I’d have been most sympathetic to Dave’s perspectives a couple years ago… mostly before hanging around here and absorbing some notions of peasant consideration.

      • Regarding diversity being the enemy of mass production, I was just reading Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America, and he talked about the loss of what sound like assembly markets—systems in which a family could sell a bucket of cream or a few dozen eggs.

  7. David Wood took a shot at Pat Mooney’s video that is linked to the agro biodiversity post you link to above (comments getting too squished so I’ve come down here). I watched Mooney’s remarks and came away underwhelmed by his effort. He lays out a fairly accurate history, and goes to pains to allow that folk involved in the Green Revolution were not nefariously motivated.

    I think Mooney gets it wrong at about 4:43 in when he suggests scientists in the big ag companies (read Monsanto) were not concerned with genetic diversity until the mid 80s. Concern with genetic diversity – at least within the soybean community – goes back further than that. I was there personally (not Monsanto, but I knew them). And while profit was the driving motivation within the private sector then, as it is now and as it was with Dutch tulip houses in the distant past, there can be good things coming from for profit enterprise.

    Mr Wood gets hot about a couple other issues, and I’m not able to follow exactly why – so I asked. Will see if he responds.

    The loss of diversity issue is mostly a red herring. But it is easy to see how someone like David Gibson could follow what’s being peddled. In the early 90s I had a run in with the folks at Seed Saver’s Exchange and we agreed to disagree. Much of that kerfuffle melted down to what diversity is, what value it has, methods of enumerating the same, and exactly who is responsible for maintaining it, who has access to it, and so forth. Hope Shand (she wrote a piece that David refers to) is like Pat Mooney – pretty good at what she’s up to. But there is still a need on her part to assign blame without a smoking gun. We as consumers are as much to blame for there being less choice in the market. Most of the germplasm – real, different, unique germplasm – still exists. It is not available in most markets (David is correct on this) – but quite a bit of it can be accessed. And indeed quite a bit available today was never available in the past – say Honey Crisp apples – now available through modern breeding efforts (and Honey Crisp is a publically developed variety… Monsanto had nothing to do with it).

    All the orchards torn up to plant fewer varieties – yep, consumer driven ultimately. The apples planted were more productive and thus less expensive to consumers. A consumer then is left with income for other pursuits (gadgets, etc). In a very real sense, diverse and less commodity like foods then are not directly competing with commodity foods… but with the opportunity cost of their difference in price. Are the commodity apples of poorer quality? Depends upon one’s metrics for quality. Flavor? – probably. Appearance, consistency, bug free… that’s a tougher get. The masses spoke, commodities won. Not saying this is how it should be… just this is a closer read on how it got to be like this.

    There is a whole lot more to this subject than David or I have even hinted at. I was afraid I might “get into the weeds” and so it is. I am thinking I may have a run at spelling out my take in more detail at GP. I’ll say something here if I get it done.

    • Clem, I suppose I might take issue with the ‘consumer driven’ line of argument. Firstly because consumer choice is expressed in the context of market arrangements and economic levers which consumers haven’t actively chosen – personally I’m not really persuaded by the notion that because people shop or otherwise express their preferences within a particular economic structure then it follows that that structure emerges from their preferences. And secondly because of unintended consequences of action – I suspect if shoppers were asked whether they think it would be good to preserve more diversity in the foods available to them they’d most likely say ‘yes’, but the unintended consequence of lots of marginal decisions (again, within the context of a particular economic structuring not of their making) is for those varieties to disappear from the shelves.

      • Perhaps I’m thinking about this wrong, but it seems to me some of the economic levers available in today’s marketplace have in fact been chosen (at least by a significant number of consumers). For evidence I would cite the change in small town markets here in the US with the advent of mega stores like Walmart. Just in the last 40 odd years the traditional ‘downtown’ of many rural towns and small cities has been upended by the low price behemoth. To be sure this is not complete market destruction, but it is enormous. The internet has been transformational as well. Fresh fruit is easily ordered online and delivered to wherever a valid street address can be offered. Are these not levers that consumers have chosen? I would agree that consumers did not design these systems a priori… but that through their choices they have allowed them to flourish (to the eventual deterioration or severe crippling of other retail options).

        On the matter of what consumers might say in a survey vs. how they will respond during an actual shopping/decision making scenario – I will have to dig for it but it occurs to me there have been plenty of surveys indicating consumers are in favor of non-GMO choices for food but then will exit a store with GMO foods in their basket when a non-GMO option was available. Don’t assume my memory is right about this latter point – I’ll get back with the data if I find it. If this sort of data does exist it suggests to me that folks may want to behave in a certain way until they are faced with a price.

        So I suppose what I’m suggesting here is that I’ll remain persuaded by the notion our current market system is the result of consumer choice (or is in fact ‘consumer driven’). I like the notion of context… so help me understand how the market arrangements and economic levers were not somehow the result of consumer choices.

        If there is a silver lining to offer here it would be a recent resurgence in farmer’s markets and a trend toward greater acceptance of organic foods. These are still relatively small provisioners of total calories in the overall food system, but they offer some promise for the future. Consumer choice is driving this turn around, such as it is. One difficulty for the moment is that the Walmarts of the world are getting into the organic act – and this mass marketing will do the same thing for diversity – limit it. Still, if enough momentum can be maintained and consumer habits gain some traction then variability in food choice may come along next. For evidence of this sort of reaction I would point to the explosion of the craft brewing industry here in the US. Barley and hops are both gaining a lot of commercial interest now that craft brewing is catching on.

        • Here is an example of the sort of survey research I was referring to above:

          Hu and Cox ’09 Consumers’ stated choices versus purchasing desires: case of Hawaii food baskets. Agricultural Economics Review 10:5-16. Available at the following link:

          Your statistical bent should eat this up. Indeed if you have a disagreement I’d love to hear of it – there may well be some context issues I wasn’t able to discern.

        • “Telling more than we can know” is a classic research paper, and is one of the most cited papers in psychology.

          To sum it up, surveys are useless. I have asked two different polling companies about this, and they both basically agreed that most polling is worthless, and that it takes very sophisticated polls and analysis to get good data.

          • Thanks for the links, I’ll try to follow them up. I’ll aim to write some more on this shortly because it’s important I think. But a quick response for now:

            First, I don’t think we should get hung up on the matter of surveys, which I agree can produce misleading results. The more important point is that the ‘choice’ or purportedly ‘revealed preference’ of consumers is presented as some kind of purposive decision, but in fact is an aggregate property (within a constrained decision set not of the specific consumer’s making) of countless actions which were never oriented to that decision. You can express it in terms of information asymmetry or unintended consequences of action, which I don’t think can be dismissed as lightly as you do – essentially you seem to be saying that if a retailer makes the decision not to stock an item because sales fall below some level deemed to be critical, this is the true and only real measure of what people actually want. I can’t say that I agree.

            I suspect there’s a philosophical issue here which isn’t entirely resolvable with respect to evidence – are there emergent properties of social systems that are not given in the properties of the system constituents, such as individual people? I think so, but not everyone does.

            Or you could look at it historically in the way that monopoly retailers deliberately set out to destroy competitors – William Cronon’s book ‘Nature’s Metropolis’ about the invention of global agribusiness in Chicago has numerous examples, as does Raj Patel’s ‘Stuffed and Starved’ – the subsidised use of loss leaders, free transport etc until the competitors have gone under, whereupon the prices go up and the free transport disappears. You could argue that the shoppers chose to go with the monopoly provider while their prices were cheap, that this caused the other providers to go under, and that therefore the shoppers somehow wanted or ‘effectively’ wanted the other providers to go under. But it’s not a line of argument I find convincing.

  8. Just a short comment to say how happy I am to have read this article. Great discussion – and of course I’m happy to see that someone is saying what I was more or less thinking though this discussion puts it far more eloquently and from a position of far greater knowledge and experience. Can’t wait to work my way through the rest of the blogs – whilst I’ve still got the time as this Summer I will be taking on a small farm of my own and know that time is about to get very scarce!

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