Saturday, July 04, 2015

Why "eating local" is not necessarily a good thing

I was shopping at the Fred Meyers grocery last night, and saw something new in the produce section. For much of the produce, they had a little sign saying where it was from. For instance, there was a sign for the cabbage that we bought, stating that it was grown in Puyallup, Washington, about 50 miles away. I assume that they only put these signs up when the food came from somewhere nearby. I've seen these kinds of signs at high-end places like Whole Foods (also known as "Whole Paycheck"), but haven't noticed them so far in Fred Meyers, which is more an everyday grocery.

Also, we had a celebration dinner at the Herb Farm recently, a high-end very fancy restaurant in nearby Woodinville. They made a big fuss about everything that was local - apparently they were even able to find shrimp that were from within 100 miles - and also told us that they were planning a meal in which absolutely everything would be sourced from within 100 miles. Instead of lemon, they'd have to use lemon scented herbs, they'd have to find a special local source for salt, alternatives for pepper, etc.
These things, among others, have made me realize that "eating local", or at least attempting to, has become the accepted morally superior choice. I have no problem with people eating local, or raising their own food, going to farmers markets, or wanting to visit farms, etc. That's a perfectly valid choice. 

I do have a problem, though, when choosing to eat local is portrayed as a morally superior choice. The assumption is that if you don't really care where it came from, if price and quality and convenience are what's important to you, and not how far away the food was raised - then you are deficient in morality. This has definitely happened with eating local - it's become what morally conscious people aim for. 

Also, when the government starts promoting and subsidizing locally sourced foods, forcing schools, prisons, etc, to buy a certain percentage of their produce locally - that's when it really gets bad. The current secretary of agriculture - Tom Vilsack, has said, "In a perfect world, everything that was sold, everything that was purchased and consumed would be local, so the economy would receive the benefit of that". Huh? The guy is completely ignorant of basic economics.

Here's a couple reasons why I think that's baloney.

- It's very expensive to raise foods away from where they naturally grow best. Regions naturally specialize in the foods that grow well there. For instance, potatoes grow very well in Idaho, but poorly in Alabama - it would take twice as much land to grow the same amount of potatoes. We could grow absolutely everything, including tropical fruits, in every region, but it would take much more energy and land, potentially growing things in greenhouses, making the food much more costly. We lose the whole comparative advantage of people (and regions) doing what they're best at.

- Transportation costs are a small portion of total costs for food - usually less than 5%. The inefficiencies you cause by producing things locally far outweighs reduced transport costs. Also, distance shouldn't be the only metric - efficiency should. A farmer driving an old pickup to bring some boxes of vegetables to a farmers market could have a vastly higher transport cost and carbon cost, per unit, compared to a tanker that brought many tons from overseas.- If you're serious

- By pushing "eating locally", you're depriving farmers overseas - usually much poorer than farmers locally - of the income provided by trading with us.

I can totally understand the desire to visit and buy food from a local farm or farmers market, and be more aware of the basics of food production. It's fun, and interesting. But asserting that it's a morally superior choice, instead of a different way to shop, and/or conspicuous consumption is a flawed path.

There's a lot of background information in The Locavore's Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet, a really well-written rebuttal to the whole local foods movement.

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