06/07/2010 08:19 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Refocusing the Locavore Message

Those of us who love strawberries and live on the East Coast recognize that California must produce a lot of wonderful, juicy strawberries. Unfortunately, we never see them. The only California varieties we see are the ones shipped eastward by rail -- the ones that have been picked too soon and are largely devoid of flavor.

Strawberries are only one example of why locally sourced food makes sense. Shorter distances between producer and buyer are also better for the environment because it means less energy is used for transportation. Yet, as laudable as the goals of sustainability and local sourcing may be, any movement can go too far.

Consider a Japanese restaurant called Wafu, which is located in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia. Pinned to the restaurant's front door is a list of policies aimed at upholding "our responsibility toward the environment and sustainability for the future." Among the policies is Wafu's practice of giving customers a 30 percent discount if they eat all of the food they order.

Do Western diners waste a lot of food? Is Wafu's policy overbearing? The answer to both questions is yes.

I welcome the locavore movement, but I'm not ready to follow the vehement locavores who have vowed not to cook or eat any foods that weren't produced within a 100-mile radius. If they're willing to make that commitment, good for them. Personally, I'm not prepared to refuse to eat every fruit, vegetable or meat that was grown or raised in a different time zone. And here's why.

First of all, not all foods suffer the same consequences from being shipped long distances to grocery stores. Sure, local raspberries taste best, but the season is so short here in the mid-Atlantic that there are significant periods of the year when we simply can't buy local raspberries.

There are also some marvelous foods that can't be grown in many micro-climates. Avocados are a good example. Avocado trees need soil and weather conditions that exist only in a few areas of the globe -- not in the mid-Atlantic and northeast seaboard. I think it's asking too much to expect tens of millions of Americans never to eat an avocado or a grapefruit unless they happen to be visiting one of the few states in which these are grown.

In addition, there are at least some cases in which proximity produces a nutritionally or environmentally inferior option. For instance, reports that cherries grown in the U.S. are three times more likely to be contaminated with pesticides than imported cherries.

Moreover, we can't lose sight of the bigger picture. James E. McWilliams, author of Just Food, contends that transportation-related costs account for only about 10 percent of all energy involved in food production. McWilliams encourages Americans to consider other factors such as how food is grown -- not just where it was grown -- and how it is cooked.

Finally, locally sourced foods still aren't easy to find, even at boutique, green-image grocers such as Whole Foods. Meat is a case in point. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on the consequences of a shortage of slaughterhouses for small livestock farmers. "Fewer slaughterhouses to process local meat," noted the Times, "means less of it in butcher shops, grocery stores and restaurants."

The existence of locavore guides and blogs attest to this movement's growing momentum. That's welcome news. Yet I share the hope expressed by McWilliams that this movement will not become "fundamentalist." If it's viewed as extreme, the movement's ability to shape food and agricultural policies in a meaningful way would be compromised.

Felix Salmon, Reuters' financial blogger, recently argued that a locavore strategy holds the greatest promise for the Third World. Too many developing countries, Salmon contended, encourage farmers to embrace "monoculture" -- growing just one crop at a time. If this particular crop fails because of weather or if domestic turmoil prevents it from being adequately distributed throughout a country, the population faces dire consequences.

"Locavorism gets right to the root of this problem," wrote Salmon. "By growing multiple crops close to home, less is likely to spoil and more will reach the table."

Encouraging locavore practices in less developed regions of the world could give the movement a chance to elevate the debate. Even the most cynical observer can't brand a movement as "faddish" for wanting all of the world's people to get enough to eat.