For University of Toronto Mississauga professor Pierre Desrochers, being appointed in the Department of Geography gives him the best of both the academic and policy world. “I was born to write ‘serious’ stuff [like] policy-relevant things in the hope of making the world a better place,” says Desrochers. “But geography as a discipline gives me more freedom to do so than any other academic discipline that I am aware of.”
Desrochers didn’t always intend to become an incorrigible interdisciplinarian. After completing a BA in political science at the University of Montreal, he began graduate school at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa with the goal of specializing in the writing and administration of free-trade agreements. However, he came across the work of urban theorist and Toronto icon Jane Jacobs along the way. Her work convinced him that that the “essence of human creativity” involves tackling interesting problems by borrowing from a wide range of perspectives and disciplines and eventually led him to get his PhD in geography.
Recently Desrochers has turned his attention to the “locavore” movement “I had some previous knowledge and interest in agricultural history, energy policy, the transportation industry and international trade,” explains Desrochers. “The food miles debate was therefore a ‘natural’ topic for me.”
Supported fondly by environmental activists, the food miles concept is based on the premise that buying food produced far from one’s residence creates much environmental and economic damage. Desrochers disputes the claims that buying local food is overall more beneficial for the local economy, more nutritious, provides local consumers with increased food security and less damaging to the environment due to less greenhouse gases emitted while shipping food products.
In his article Buy Global: The ‘Food Mile’ Perspective Distorts the Environmental Impacts of Agricultural Production, he describes the food mile perspective as a marketing fad built around false premises “In short, [locavores] do not understand the importance of productivity differentials or comparative advantages between locations, in which parts of the food supply chain use more energy, and simply pay no attention to stupid policies (such as ethanol subsidies or water subsidies to grow things in the desert) that have a much more significant environmental impact” states Desrochers, who feels that in our global food market, voluntary trade leaves everybody (with the exception of inefficient local producers) and the environment better off. “You don't build a strong local economy on charity by paying more for products that can't compete with stuff produced elsewhere,” says Desrochers. “Doing so leaves less money in people's pocket to buy other things that are produced by other people, including competitive local producers.”
According to Desrochers, the locavores’ emphasis on transportation-related greenhouse gas does not stand up to scrutiny. “Transportation has become ever more efficient over time and represents only a small portion of total energy use,” says Desrochers. Interestingly enough, the largest greenhouse gas emission in the process of obtaining food products is attributed to consumers making constant car trips back and forth to their local market. “If you’re driving past a conventional grocery store on your way to your local farmer’s market,” he says, “chances are you’re not helping the environment.”
As for future plans, Desrochers takes it all in stride. “I have never made any real plans in terms of future research projects.” Before starting his next research endeavor, Desrochers hopes to wrap up several ongoing projects, and write accessible books based on his current work. He is presently on sabbatical for a year, taking a break from his usual routine of researching, teaching, and writing. It seems, however, that academia isn’t quite ready to take a break from him. This multitasking professor’s work is rarely ever finished. “Well, I guess sabbatical ain't what it used to be,” jokes Desrochers. “Life is treating me well, but it is not the complete break I was hoping for.”
And life is that much sweeter with the awards and recognition Desrochers has received for his research, including two paid visiting scholarships during his sabbatical years. Closer to home, he was the recipient of the UTM Dean’s Special Merit for Excellence consecutively in 2007 and 2008, and he was also profiled in the December 2009 issue of Toronto Life for his world-changing and innovative ideas on his food miles research. Desrochers hopes his work on the food miles will serve to impact society by shedding light on legitimate agricultural issues as opposed to promoting misleading marketing fads. “As the old saying goes ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions,’” says Desrochers, noting his Catholic upbringing. “I wish more activists would keep that in mind.”