Another Romantic and Ridiculous Assault on Modernity

by Don Boudreaux on August 31, 2008

in Environment, Food and Drink, Myths and Fallacies

Here’s a letter that I sent yesterday to the Washington Post:

From across the country activists have converged on San Francisco for the ‘Slow Food Nation” rally (“As Food Becomes a Cause, Meeting Puts Issues on the Table,” August 30).  These activists insist that consuming non-local foods harms the environment, exploits workers, severs community ties, and numbs our taste buds.

Overlook the fact that these claims are not supported by empirical research or sound thinking,* and let’s get into the rally’s spirit, which refuses to be dampened by facts or reason.  Start by asking: why reject only non-local foods?  Why not also reject non-local news – such as this very report from San Francisco?  And why not also reject non-local culture?  Surely we Washingtonians would be happier and more in touch with ourselves if we read only novels written by locals such as Christopher Buckley and not those written by the likes of Milan Kundera, Margaret Atwood, or Larry McMurtry.  And what’s with the Kennedy Center bringing in performers from outside the Beltway?

How much CO2 is unnecessarily emitted into the atmosphere whenever the Kirov Ballet flies in from St. Petersburg or when James Levine comes down from Boston?  And how many local artists do we overlook in our thoughtless insistence on seeing non-local acts performed on our local stages?

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux

* See, for example, Andrew Lilico, “Buying local is not necessarily green,” Economic Affairs, Vol. 28, June 2008.

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{ 18 comments }

Ronald Hayden August 31, 2008 at 5:11 pm

Professor Boudreaux, stop before you give them more ideas!

While your suggestion of applying restrictions on non-local culture may seem clearly outrageous and to show up some of the silliness of the local food movement, I assure you they will take your ideas to heart, as proven by the situation in Canada.

Canadian law already puts numerous restrictions on broadcasters in order to ensure "Canadian content" and keep non-local content out.

For reference, here is Wikipedia's summary:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_content

Traditionally this has been done in the name of preserving Canadian culture and encouraging Canadian cultural producers…however, I am sure those involved would be delighted to add the excuse of "reducing carbon" to the list of justifications.

Nitzan August 31, 2008 at 6:10 pm

When I lived in England a couple of years ago, supermarket ads encourages us all to buy only "local English carrots" and such. Now I live in the SF Bay Area, and I have noticed that "local" has an entirely different meaning in these two places. In England, buying "local" food is an expression of a broader English nationalism. Importantly, it means the food wasn't imported in Euros. "Local" seems like a wonderful new euphemism, easily adapted to justify exclusive practices around the globe.

gappy August 31, 2008 at 7:16 pm

I am Italian, so I have yet a different perspective on Slow Food. Slow Food was a reaction to MacDonald's entry in the italian market. It was originally called ARCIgola. ARCIs are cultural associations linked to the former Communist Party and current Democratic Party of the Left. There are a few converging currents underlying this movement: first, fear of Globalization; second, good ol' nativism; third, anti-americanism; fourth, the universal pleasure of feeling superior. But most important of all, profit. Slow Food is just a successful business idea. They created a global brand, a distribution network, etc. and carved a global niche against a global competitor. It's a form of self-hating capitalism, like only Italians can devise.

J. Cuttance August 31, 2008 at 7:18 pm

A more valid reason to boycott the Kirov Ballet would be in remembrance of the thousands of innocent victims of Sergei Kirov, the Bolshevik leader after whom the company was named. That might encourage them to pull their heads in and change it.

Gary August 31, 2008 at 8:18 pm

I'm convinced the "buy local" movement is a classic example of markets at work. Apple built an empire on convincing a niche group of people through marketing that their products were better than PC makers. This massive group of anti-establishment types have helped Apple rise to a point where, as digital music goes, Apple IS the establishment.

Let the "go local" types have their fun. They're just doing the bidding of some brilliant marketer who wants to sell more California grapes at the expensive of foreign bananas. As for his new found locavore customers? A fool and his money… as they say. They'll change their tune when kids in Africa continue to starve because the "go local" crowd doesn't want them to have imported wheat.

Ray G September 1, 2008 at 12:25 am

Buy local is just one more facet of the war on capitalism, and our individual rights. Period.

Apple is hardly an empire; their grasp on the computer market is still scant, and their grip of the digital music world is weak.

You're mistaking momentum for dominance.

Dominance is Microsoft Office, momentum is the iPod/iTunes.

Gary September 1, 2008 at 1:00 am

The iPod has 70% market share in terms of units sold, and 84% in terms of dollar volume in the US mp3 player market.

January and February 2008 data indicate that Apple is now the largest retailer of music in the country. Its also the 7th largest internet retailer of any kind in the country http://www.internet retailer.com/top500/

As for the locovores… sooner or later they'll figure out that the carbon footprint of locally produced food can be just as high, if not higer than global food. When they do, I'll proudly proclaim that I supported the global food movement before it was all the rage with the neo hippies.

John Dewey September 1, 2008 at 6:03 am

"sooner or later they'll figure out that the carbon footprint of locally produced food can be just as high, if not higer than global food."

I doubt that. Environmentalists are still proclaiming the silliness that recycling paper saves trees.

Speedmaster September 1, 2008 at 8:17 am

Slow food – for slow minds. ;-)

Chris September 1, 2008 at 8:39 am

"numbs our taste buds" — this is the one place where I think the slow foods movement is partially right. One of the results of global food shipping is that fruits & vegetables are bred to survive long distances. That breeding is often incompatible with breeding for flavor.

Now, in many cases, this means that people can buy foods which have no local alternatives — I may not be getting the very best mangoes, but they're better than nothing.

On the other hand, locally grown tomatoes, plums, apples and peaches are much more flavorful than those imported from the far-reaches of the country. And, fresh-picked corn is a million times better than corn that was picked two days earlier.

Now, of course, the problem for the slow-foods folks is that these problems can be solved — 20 years ago, supermarket pineapples were bitter. Today, they're sweet, thanks to the development of the Golden Pineapple.

Nate September 1, 2008 at 11:50 am

The slow food movement is a step up from the failure of the "organic" movement. Organic used to mean, "I'm better than you because I spend more on my food." Now that there are affordable organic options for the average man, a new, more unsustainable over-priced monstrosity has stepped up to the challenge of excluding the poor from the righteous.

Joshua Holmes September 1, 2008 at 4:02 pm

You know, I just read that entire article, and I didn't see a single reference to a government program or a single call for government funding. Oddly enough, I thought that liberty meant the right to choose among different lifestyles and products so long as no one's rights were harmed. I don't see a single rights violation in that paragraph.

Oddly enough, the farm system as we know it is impossible without massive government subsidies. The interstate highway system, the Department of Agriculture, massive agricultural subsidies and tariffs, giant welfare queen agribusiness, and a blind eye to runoff pollution are all part of modern American agriculture.

If libertarians are just corporate apologists, all this makes sense. Sign me up for the Archer Daniels Midland PR campaign. If libertarians are interested in liberty, we're going to have to take modern agriculture to task.

gappy September 1, 2008 at 5:54 pm

Joshua, call some odds, and unless they are ridiculous I am ready to bet that Slow Food is<\em> subsidized in its country of origin. Also, you're attacking a straw man. No one is calling for a ban on Slow Food or "buying local". What I am against is i) the flawed economic reasoning; ii) the self-righteousness according to which the enlightened should educate our taste; iii) the hypocrisy. As I mentioned, this is just another business idea whose main differentiator is a feeling of superiority.

Joshua Holmes September 1, 2008 at 7:35 pm

I never said anyone here was calling for a ban. I was pointing out that the Slow Food movement wasn't, either. So, why do libertarians care so much about it then, especially since our current system has little to do with free markets?

Joshua Holmes September 1, 2008 at 7:38 pm

End italics

vidyohs September 1, 2008 at 8:36 pm

Clear thinking and iron clad reasoning like this is the prime reason I come back to this blog.

This is "bitch slapping" "up-side yo face" presentation of tight logical thought on the subject of, "if'n you want the one, then logically you have to accept the other."

gappy September 1, 2008 at 8:59 pm

Joshua, sorry for the italics. I don't think libertarians care much about slow food. In contrast, every libertarian I know is irked by agricultural subsidies.

Niki Buchen September 5, 2008 at 11:48 am

Joshua, thank you for your mind impulses :-)
There must be time for slow and fast food. Only when it comes out that it is only fast food what we consume it is not ok. And by the way what would be slow food without fast food? Greetings, Niki

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