Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Why Locavorism is a Pipe Dream

I grew up in California and I've lived here all my life. While I don't necessarily want to stay here forever, I do love the state. As a foodie, California's appeal is apparent. The incredible bounty of the state is unparalleled by anywhere else in the Union. California's climate and soil conditions are so versatile and suitable to a wide variety of produce. Visiting New York, I hated paying a premium for fresh fruits and vegetables that look like they came from the bottom of the sale bin at 99 Ranch. Considering my love for the ingredients here, its easy to appreciate the utopian dream of the locavore movement.

Sure, eating local foods seems to be a great concept for building self-reliant communities. The food on your plate comes from no further than your nearest farms and ranches. The huge carbon footprint on that Australian rack of lamb is enough to deter some environmentalists. Why not have lamb from the farmers' market instead?

Well as Stephen Dubner and James McWilliams argue on the Freakonomics blog, the local food movement is just not very sound from an economist's perspective. When you emphasize small farms, you lose economies of scale. When you lose that, you create inefficiencies may have other undesirable effects. True, agri-business sounds pretty sinister these days, but mostly because these large companies are efficient at what they do. The Green Revolution has been credited with feeding groups of people with cheap and readily available foods, but perhaps at the cost of the environment. Yet how many people are willing to give up most of the foods on their local grocery shelves for the sake of the environment. I like to eat bananas, but they don't grow anywhere near me. How many of you are willing to make that sacrifice?

Not everywhere that people live is suitable for agriculture either. California is lucky in that sense, but ask the people in Arizona if they're willing to only eat locally. Would it be worthwhile to heavily irrigate Arizona for the sake of growing oranges? How can that be good for the environment.

On paper, the local food movement is quite appealing. But in practice, it just doesn't address all the complexities. Our agricultural system is flawed, but certainly not broken.

No comments: