Locavorism vs Culinary Xenophobia

On a recent episode of Jian Ghomeshi's Q on CBC radio, he had chefs Jaimie Kennedy and Peter Gordon debate locavorism. (You can click here to listen to the podcast.)

As we would expect, Toronto-based local food champion, Jaimie Kennedy, hailed the virtues of local harvesting. This whole movement has resulted in more farmers' markets cropping up around urban centers and a shift in cultural awareness about where our food comes from. Locavorists take ownership over their regional economies, reduce greenhouse gases and increase overall food quality. (Tree-ripened food tastes different!)

Kiwi chef Peter Gordon took the opposition with the rather compelling perspective that locavorism is at risk of creating a kind of culinary xenophobia, echoing sentiments he had divulged in a recent article he wrote for The Independent. Gordon feels that by limiting the ingredients we permit ourselves to use, we limit our culinary imagination and potentially risk stunting culinary evolution.

By taking locavorism to an extreme, Gordon uses a rather compelling example of a Bengal family living in London and posits: what would they do if you suddenly told them they couldn't source any of the spices they use in their family's cooking?

The debate got my brainy juices flowing. If you had the chance to listen, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Is there a risk to localizing (and de-internationalizing) the foods we eat?


  1. While transportation is a significant factor in the environmental impact of food, it is not the only one. When we can produce a food far more efficiently in one climate, requiring less land, less irrigation, less chemicals, and less energy, that is often enough to offset the environmental impacts of shipping it half-way around the world. I think local eating is often a good idea, but the locavore movement is simplistic and often does as much harm as good.

    From a nutritional standpoint, I don't doubt that long shipping times reduce foods' nutritional content, but I think that is outweighed by the nutritional benefits of a highly varied diet, especially since almost no fruits on vegetables grow in the winter in certain climates.

    I kind of hope that large-scale urban agriculture will become cost-effective enough to eventually make all these arguments irrelevant, although I'm sure many people will reject warehouse-grown foods as too artificial.

  2. I also listened to that episode and found it compelling. Imagine what Toronto, or NYC, or SF would be like without the flavours of the world lining their streets.

  3. Tom, I think you're right about locavores' resistance to warehouse-grown foods. Organic and field-grown requirements seem to go hand-in-hand with local as growing criteria.

    I'm not too sure about the hard facts on nutritional value for foods that get shipped long distances, but I know that has an impact on flavour. For instance, the green truck-ripened bananas that we eat here in Toronto taste a lot different than tree-ripened bananas from Costa Rica.

    Amanda, I know what you mean. That was my big takeaway from the debate. Like so many things, it would seem that one can only be a locavore in moderation. (Did you ever see that 100-mile show on Food Network Canada?)

  4. I haven't had a chance to listen to the podcast yet, but I will.

    When thinking about localizing the food we eat, I had never thought about spices before. I always focused on local fruits and vegetables.

    Immediately when I saw that example of the Bengal family, all I could think about is how boring my life would be without the spices my mother uses in her Sri Lankan cooking.

    It would be sad to lose the flavours of the world and so I think you're right, one can only be a locavore in moderation.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Uma! I'm totally in your boat. I had never considered spices until that example was given by Peter Gordon.

    Jaimie Kennedy counters that argument by saying that we still haven't figured out the extent of what we CAN grow in Ontario, but, like you, I foresee lots of limitations.

  6. I think there are several limitations to the localfood movement that are now slowly being addressed by the general public and media.
    The perfect example is the bengal family that Peter spoke about during the debate. I try to support as local as possible, whenever possible, even if its sometimes painstakingly expensive to do so. However, that being said, I will not in the foreseeable future give up the international foods that I grew up with (India,Nigeria,Sri Lanka). No way. I love my mangoes, I love my spices, and I'm not keeping my fingers crossed that they will be locally grown someday. That's besides the point.

    As Tom pointed out above, there are other factors than just eating local. There is a balance and I hope we slowly get there.

  7. I like what you're saying, Suresh. I feel the same way. To be honest, I hadn't considered the real implications of a locavore diet until I listened to the debate. I love too many things that came from far away.