4.26.2009

Confused about the Local Food Movement


With all due respect to my many friends who are into the local foods movement, I have to express my puzzlement. I am not nearly as informed as I should be, given the circles I run in, but as I understand it, the push to produce and consume food locally boils down to the following:

1. Transporting food far distances is bad for the environment.

2. Locally produced food tastes better because it gets eaten faster and doesn't have to pumped up as much with preservatives.

3. Producing food locally creates jobs locally.

4. If we don't preserve our local farms, the big guys win.

5. In an increasingly shaky geopolitical world, you don't want to depend on others for food.

I don't think these are completely invalid concerns. And I certainly give anyone the right to believe and do whatever they want. But I'm not sure if top-down mandates concerning the production and purchase of locally grown foods is the way to go:

#1 is solved by pricing gas more accurately, and then the environmental impact is either minimized (by less travel) or mitigated (by more tax revenues to do things that reverse the effect of travel).

#2 is a matter of personal choice.

#3 is a pure Ricardian "comparative advantage" story - market forces efficiently determine whether it's in our best interest to be a net importer (we can buy and use our extra time for more productive use) or a net exporter (we can sell and use our extra money for more productive use) of food.

#4 is similarly Ricardian - if the big guys can offer us all more quality and/or more choices and/or lower prices, that represents huge gains for all of us.

#5 is a little too alarmist for me, given how fertile a breadbasket the middle of our country is. (Although we Philadelphians had better remember to be nice to any tourists from Iowa and Nebraska, lest we end up having a civil war with the heartland.)

Again, nothing against someone who, on principle alone, wants to make a certain set of choices concerning his or her own consumption and life patterns. But if you want to accrue those principles to a broader sphere of influence, I just don't see how top-down regulations to that effect are the way to go. But believe me, I am open to hearing otherwise.
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