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Debating Locavores: Food to Energy to Smart Action (response to critics)

“Locavores” believe that food produced near final consumers is superior in myriads of ways to distant imports. While they might disagree among themselves on what exactly constitutes a “local foodshed” (a 100-mile radius or the whole state of California?), they have for the most part internalized long standing populist and romantic grievances against modern agricultural science, fossil fuels, large corporations and globalization.

As they see things, our modern-day genetically-modified “corn-utopia” is soaking up a rapidly vanishing petroleum pool while delivering junk food, cancer epidemics, rural poverty, and agricultural pollution. The way forward, they tell us, actually requires several steps backward to a simpler time when consumers personally knew and trusted the farmers that fed them…

Belief Confronts Reality

Fortunately, the locavores’ dire vision is at odds with the relevant data. Although it undoubtedly pains most of them to hear this, we live (much) longer and healthier lives than our ancestors; the overall state of our environment has improved significantly over the last century; and our food supply is cheaper, safer and more secure than ever before. [1]

In our book The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet (reviewed for this blog by Alex Epstein ), we draw on economic logic and basic scientific, geographical and historical facts to illustrate how the long distance trade in foodstuffs played a critical role in bringing about such positive trends.

What the world really needs, we argue, is to get rid of trade barriers, agricultural subsidies and uneconomical and environmentally unsound policies such as the ethanol mandate so that more food can be produced more cheaply in the world’s best locations by ever more efficient farmers.

Politically Incorrect Debate in Full Swing

To our surprise, our politically incorrect piece of work received much (and by and large fair) coverage. Of course, many die-hard locavores quickly denounced us as paid shills of Monsanto. A prominent Canadian food activist called us “baby killers” to our face. An anonymous reviewer on Amazon.com was in such a hurry to point the errors of our way that she didn’t notice that the book was co-authored!

Someone else even accused Hiroko of being a Chinese spy because of a student exchange program she participated in over a quarter of a century ago! To modify somewhat the old legal pun, when you don’t have either logic or facts on your side, fill the comment section of websites with ad hominem attacks!

As could also be expected, a few negative reviews in prominent outlets distorted or omitted some of our key arguments. Luckily, the mastermind behind Master Resource gave us the opportunity to address them concisely. So here goes:

- Locavorism is not really about geography

Writing in The American Prospect, Sarah Laskow  accuses us of taking a very narrow (i.e., geographical) view of “local food,” whereas to food activists “buying local has mostly been a convenient shorthand for buying food that’s grown in a more broadly sustainable way.” Well, guilty as charged on this one. It is apparently very difficult for an old-school geographer (not to say most dictionaries) to interpret “local” as anything other than something related to a particular place.

Of course, one of the main goals of geography as a discipline is precisely to help people understand that no two places are exactly alike. Geographical differences, in turn, give us the opportunity to produce things (whether crops or livestock) more effectively in some areas than others.

The result is not only more food for less money, but also significant environmental improvements as long distance trade has long made it possible to relocate countless productions from less desirable to more desirable locations (say, when grain production was moved from hilly, rocky and erosion-prone terrain to flatter regions endowed with better soils and better climate).

- Feeding a straw man to our readers

Most locavores, it turns out, don’t really want to give up coffee, chocolate and orange juice. And not all of them are romantic luddites – after all, what are urban vertical farms if not revolutionary (despite the fact that the basic concept has been around for something like a century and never profitably acted upon…)!

True, we do make the case against going completely loco, but our goal is not to set up a straw man, but to illustrate that less of a bad thing does not make it a good thing. In other words, if most locavores do not want us to drink a whole bucket of arsenic, they nonetheless insist on a few glasses. Moderation in such cases, however, hardly makes for a healthy prescription.

- All progress can be attributed to the long distance trade in foodstuffs

In his discussion of our book , food writer and self-described “militant locavore” Ari LeVaux reproduces our basic question (“If our modern food system is so bad for us, why do we now enjoy dramatically longer and healthier lives than our ancestors?”) and then chides us for not pointing out that “penicillin helped a lot, as did urban sanitation and many other public health improvements.  There were advances in worker safety protections, in medicine, in human rights and many other factors,” including, yes, “improvements to the food system.”

Truth be told, we did not ignore the role played by these advances, but rather pointed out that “none of the technological advances that made current living standards possible would have taken place in the absence of long-distance trade and urbanization” (p. 146).

In short, there can be no economic and scientific development without urbanization; for at least a few millennia urbanization has been impossible without some significant long distance trade in foodstuffs; and people need to get off the farm in order to become scientists, engineers, managers and (public health) construction workers.

Because of their inherently lower productivity and the fact that they require more people to produce food less efficiently, locavorism and subsistence farming can only hinder the development of an ever broader division of labor and thus negatively affect overall standards of living.

- Jill Richardson’s “Bogus Economic Arguments”

(Almost) fresh from debating Pierre on the radio (for a third party assessment (here), locavore activist Jill Richardson’s published a much quoted piece on AlterNetin which she accuses us of using “arguments from neoliberal economics” that ultimately rest on unrealistic assumptions.

Yet, we always insist on presenting ourselves as “policy analysts” because we do not want to be associated with the type of approach decried by Richardson. Suffice it to say here that the academic economist to which our book owes the greatest debt is institutionalist Thomas DeGregori. It is no coincidence that Richardson didn’t provide any direct quote to some unrealistic assumption made in our book, for there aren’t any.

At any rate, let’s look at each of her arguments.

1. Assume the players are rational: As Blake Hurst writes in the foreword to our book: “our world is not rational, and most of what passes for thinking about food is as full of air as an elegant French pastry” (p. xiii). Besides, those of us who have had the displeasure of debating Jill Richardson know first-hand that food activists are rarely opened to rational arguments.

2. Standardization of food: Richardson argues that goods are different and that standardized goods are typically not as good as local produce in season. We are shocked – because we said the exact same thing on pages 146-147: “Freshly picked ripened local produce is tastier than identical items shipped over long distances. No one—not even us!—will argue over that. The important issue here, though, is freshness, not “local” character.” Of course, some local items will indeed be sub-par and end up as livestock feed or pie filling, but the perhaps the true magic of locavorism is that some low quality products are now sold at premium prices in farmers’ markets because customers think that imperfections and blemishes are an indicator of authenticity.

3. Creative destruction: Richardson acknowledges our basic point that all types of work will eventually become obsolete, but that specific activities should be pursued as long as they are profitable. She apparently dislikes large-scale monocultures because of their reliance on pesticides, but fails to acknowledge their higher yields which translate into more abundant and affordable food produced on less land.

4. Comparative advantage: See #3 and substitute “toxic agrochemicals” to “pesticides.”

5. Legal System: According to Richardson, because some bad things happen in less developed countries, we should ban all imports from these places… and in the process deny all poor farmers and workers access to more lucrative markets. We don’t see any (social) justice in this stance.

6. GDP Meets Human Health: According to Richardson, to “those looking for GDP growth, it’s better if you buy a bottle of Heinz ketchup than if you grow tomatoes from seed in your garden, and it’s better if you buy a Snapple made with 10 percent juice than if you eat a piece of fruit.” Apparently this is because the work we do preparing our own food is “free” whereas salaried workers prepare our bottled ketchup. Of course, if Richardson has a valid point, we should also make our own clothes from scratch because they will be of much better quality than those we can buy in retail stores…

The fact that Richardson’ strawman critique is taken seriously by prominent local food thinkers such as the University of Massachusetts’s John Gerber probably says a lot about the fragile intellectual foundations of the locavore movement.

“Bring It On”

We concluded the preface to our book by inviting locavores “to let us know where [they] think we went wrong in matters of economic logic and factual arguments” and promise to answer their challenge.

Our invitation still stands and we are more than willing to debate any open-minded critique as we proved in an exchange we had with Dr. Lenore Newman of the University of the Fraser Valley (British Columbia).

So locavores, bring it on!


[1] See Indur Goklany. 2007. The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet. Cato Institute.

10 comments

1 Wintercow { 08.10.12 at 7:08 am }

Thank you for posting this. My sense is that the economics of roundabout production are so counterintuitive (see Bastiat) that no amount of reason or logic can make any headway. I was also in a discussion the other day when I pointed out the land use of organic farming and the sometimes practice of using trawled fish as fertilizer instead of factory produced nitrogen … The response? “that can’t be right! And that’s just YOUR belief.”

We’re doomed.

2 Thomas R. DeGregori { 08.10.12 at 1:04 pm }

“Freshly picked ripened local produce is tastier than identical items shipped over long distances. No one—not even us!—will argue over that”

You concede too much on this point. Apart from the huge array of food items that can not be grown locally and can be obtained and be very tasty and fresh thanks to the 747 and successors, there are a range of products that are as fresh or even fresher than local products when produced and marketed industrially.

The freshest and tastiest peas are those grown in large fields and flash frozen in the field. For sweet corn, the saying used to be start the water boiling before going out to the field to pick it since in 4 hours or less the sugars started turning to starch. Thanks to a couple of mutations discovered by breeders in the 1980s, it takes about 4 days for this to begin and even longer if the corn is refrigerated in the field and shipped in refrigerated trucks or trains.

That means for Houston, for example, when the local corn is finished growing, any local corn has been stored losing freshness while the corn brought in from Colorado and kept cool from the field to the store is very fresh. I could go on, but to reinforce the central thesis of Debating Locavores, the much maligned modern industrial agriculture, combined with modern science, technology and plant breeding, has produced the richest, tastiest, most nutritious array of foods that the world has ever known.

And as a percentage of income, food is cheaper than ever. Even so, even though incredibly cheap, there are still those who can not afford it. This is the central food issue, and the locavores have nothing to offer here except more expensive less productive food.

3 Pierre { 08.10.12 at 6:22 pm }

Dear Tom, thanks for the reply. Yes, looking back we conceded too much in the nutrition section in order to make a basic point: if freshness is really the key, then local cannot win for local productions can only be in season for so long… The original draft even had something along the lines of canned tomatoes are more nutritious because they’ve been cooked… Well, if there is a revised version, we will go for the jugular and further pick your brains :)

4 rbradley { 08.11.12 at 2:58 am }

I might use this opportunity to say that Tom DeGregori (http://www.uh.edu/~trdegreg/) is a rare resource that I found in relation to institutional economics and ‘resourceship.’ Pierre Desrochers also found a mentor in Tom re a number of food/agriculture issues.

Tom is a national treasure of policy-rich applied economic thought who we take for granted because he is still living.

Thank you Tom!

5 T. Caine { 08.11.12 at 9:47 pm }

Pierre & Hiroko,

Thanks for the well written article. I’m interested in the full story in your book. As someone who openly professes a concern for the health of our environment (and its direct link to our own health) I have to say I’ve been on the fence about the locavore movement and eager to hear arguments from both sides.

“What the world really needs, we argue, is to get rid of trade barriers, agricultural subsidies and uneconomical and environmentally unsound policies such as the ethanol mandate so that more food can be produced more cheaply in the world’s best locations by ever more efficient farmers.”

I’m completely with you here as long as the assumption is intact that we are acknowledging the “cost” as a net cost, including costs to the environment as a whole. In that vein, I am curious as to what actually falls under your umbrella of “environmentally unsound policies.” Does that include environmentally unsound farming practices? I’m sure we can agree that despite the rise in yield and the decrease in cost of produce over the last century, the amount of chemicals that go into farming has also increased (and cyclically continues to increase given the resilience in disease and pests that we encourage through stronger applications of killing agents). Eventually a lot of this gets flushed into waterways until it finds a home in the Gulf of Mexico. What about the degradation of top soil quality and quantity? Do you see any of this as a problem—an externality of cheap food?

“The result is not only more food for less money, but also significant environmental improvements as long distance trade has long made it possible to relocate countless productions from less desirable to more desirable locations”

I assume that you would then not endorse situations of food types being ground in environments completely inhospitable to them for the sake of having local access—such as growing cranberries in the Californian desert? I would think that in this case we spend more energy and exert more harm trying to make food “local” where it doesn’t belong rather than shipping it.

I think I agree that the locavore argument can be challenged, but I don’t think that the only metric is yield and efficiency. Until the environmental costs (and the cost of their eventual remediation) are more boldly illustrated in the equation then “economic logic” has to be a component of the reasoning method, not the endgame. The fact that coal power is the cheapest form of electricity doesn’t make it the best holistic solution.

Best-
Tyler

6 Jon Boone { 08.13.12 at 9:51 am }

Nice comments, Tyler. Accounting for all the costs in any energy conversion to power formulation, which is what food ultimately represents, is the real task. Some of these costs are immediately apparent; others won’t be noticeable until their cumulative effects emerge after quite some time. Food production is not immune from subtle predator/prey relationships that, obeying the second law of thermodynamics, make such production ultimately unsustainable.

To a remarkable extent, ingenuity has allowed our species to anticipate the ebb and flow of these natural processes and to tactically intervene with increasingly sophisticated technological organization in order to keep food supply coming, even to meet unprecedented levels of demand.

But even with great economies of scale and advances in chemical/molecular, even atomic technologies, feeding 10 billion people over the coming century will be a daunting task–one that will dominate much economic and cultural activity. And continue to shape the meaning of environmentalism.

7 Weekly Climate and Energy News Roundup | Watts Up With That? { 08.13.12 at 8:03 pm }
8 eaglesoars { 08.14.12 at 10:55 pm }

I will respect the locavores just as soon as they explain to everyone in Michigan why they will never taste orange juice again unless they plant the carbon footprint to fly/drive to Florida or California.

And ANOTHER thing. EVERY farmer is a local farmer to someone. Do you really want your Florida citrus producers’ market restricted to ‘local’? How many producers do you think would survive?

This is a discussion/argument that should have been riduculed out of the public square years ago.

9 MarkB { 08.18.12 at 9:32 pm }

Others have touched on this, but…. here in Massachusetts, you only hear about locovores during the spring and summer. During the six months of misery we live through each year, they disappear. What are they eating – winter squash, cabbage and carrots out of the root cellar? No – they’re off to their favorite Thai restaurant, eating veggies shipped in from Arizona. I just wish somehow locovors could be forced to actually live on local produce for a year. By the nine month point, they’d be shooting themselves.

10 Pat { 12.05.12 at 10:49 am }

“What the world really needs, we argue, is to get rid of trade barriers, agricultural subsidies and uneconomical and environmentally unsound policies such as the ethanol mandate so that more food can be produced more cheaply in the world’s best locations by ever more efficient farmers.”

I look forward to reading your book, in hopes that this is further explained in a way that shows economic and political barriers ensure that food products are grown or raised on a field with the same rules. Some countries allow the use of DDT or other products that are banned in North America (for various reasons). Yet these countries are allowed access to our markets. This is unfair and makes a strong arguement for cost-of-production (COP) systems that protect producers AND consumers.

Oh, and Oranges that are grown in Florida and consumed in Mich., all carpooled to the supermarket.

-Pat

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