The Economics of Eating Locally

On July 10, 2012, in economic theory, by admin

Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu. The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet. . Public Affairs, 2012, pp. 256, $26.99 In a July 1, 2012 article, The New York Times highlighted the growing trend toward growing and consuming locally grown and produced food. One of the individuals profiled in the Times was a wealthy [...]

Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu. The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet. . Public Affairs, 2012, pp. 256, $26.99

In a July 1, 2012 article, The New York Times highlighted the growing trend toward growing and consuming locally grown and produced food. One of the individuals profiled in the Times was a wealthy former technology manager who proclaimed that, “the future is local.” The following day, the Times ran an article in which some top chefs acknowledged, without shame it would appear, how good some corporate food products truly are. At a time when Congress is debating the Farm Bill and the merits of agricultural subsidies, it behooves those interested in economics and food policy to reflect upon the growing strength of the local food movement, born out of the notion that one should buy and eat as much as locally grown food as possible.

The husband-and-wife team of Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu, however, are having none of it. In The Locavore’s Dilemma, Desrochers (University of Toronto) and Shimizu argue that if it were to be widely adopted, either voluntarily or through government mandates, “locavorism can only result in higher costs and increased poverty, greater food insecurity, less food safety, and much more significant environmental damage than is presently the case.” The authors do concede that some local food is “perfectly fine with us.” The main point of their recently published work, however, is to counter local food activists who contend, wrongly in the authors’ opinion, that local food, because it is local, is necessarily better for the economy and for the environment than food that has traversed the world, finally to rest upon a neon-lit supermarket shelf.

Desrochers and Shimizu devote five chapters to debunking what they identify to be five myths regarding locavorism: that it improves social capital, has economic and concomitant social justice benefits, generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions and is better for the environment, promotes food security, and is fresher and more nutritious than food from distant lands. Underlying their arguments is their belief that, “our modern food system is an underappreciated wonder that is the culmination of thousands of years of advances in plant cultivation and animal breeding; harvesting, storing, and transporting food; and retailing and home cooking techniques.” The author’s follow-up sentence concedes that while well intentioned, the locavore movement advocates flawed policies. “Only through greater technological advances, economies of scale and international trade,” write the authors, “can we achieve the locavores worthy goals of improving nutrition while diminishing the environmental impact of agricultural production.” Not satisfied with merely criticizing locavorism, Desrochers and Shimizu call for an even more globalized food system.

Steeped in both history and economics, the authors make numerous valid points about the flaws of locavorism. Intuitively, one would expect that local food from a small family farm could be more expensive than mass produced food from a large agribusiness. Also, it is quite logical to expect that if one were to fully adopt a local food diet, one would certainly be deprived of many good and nutritious foods. A strict locavore in New England, for instance, would not see many bananas in his kitchen. “Providing the basic necessities of life at ever more affordable prices should be the starting point of all discussions on local social capital. Locavorism should at least do as well as a our modern food system in this respect.”

The authors also contend that the food activists’ economic rationale for locavorism also is largely without merit. Citing the work of classical economist Adam Smith in a discussion of physical geography and agricultural specialization, Desrochers and Shimizu go on to argue that, “the most glaring shortcoming of the locavores’ economic rhetoric is that it ignores productivity differentials—and therefore production costs—between agricultural locations.”

With regard to the environmental impact of locally grown food versus food transported across great distances, they cite the work of scholars whose works lead to the conclusion that transporting food requires less energy than producing it. Finally, with regard to safety, the authors do not buy into the locavore argument. “Humans who benefit from the global food supply chain are now taller, healthier, and live longer than ever before.” While this may indeed be factually true, it is also the case that the modern food supply exists in tandem with modern medicine, advances in contraception, and penicillin.

The authors should be commended for writing a comprehensive and an impassioned study of locavorism. In many ways, their assessments are, from a theoretical viewpoint, perhaps largely correct. But the question remains: how likely is it that locavorism will really take over the way Americans or Canadians think about food? Mandating that schools buy a certain percentage of local food is perhaps economically inefficient and unsound public policy, but it will likely not have any great impact on the national economy. Furthermore, the effects of climate change will unfortunately make it even less likely that consumers will be able to purchase a wide array of food solely from local farmers. If individuals want to purchase local food and are willing to pay more money for it, that is their choice and it should be respected. Some people like to eat vegetarian, others fast food, and others local. In some locations, eating local is perhaps a very sensible option.

In conclusion, Desrochers and Shimizu, in The Locavore’s Dilemma, provide a thoughtful critique of the local food movement. Their arguments, especially regarding the economic and environmental implications of locavorism, should be given serious consideration. One, however, does get the sense that the authors do not see a problem with much of the modern food system. This is unfortunate, as there are indeed serious problems with it and with the quality of food that is churned out at cheap prices. In order to save money and get food at the lowest prices, one could easily eat fast food several times a week. But this does come at a health cost. The authors have convincingly demonstrated that locavorism does have significant drawbacks. But so does eating large quantities of what could be best described as junk food.

Jonathan Eric Lewis (c) 2012

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