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Sound Economics Protects Us from Locos

Here’s a passage from pages 84-85 of Arnold Kling’s hot-off-the-press – and superb – new book, Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics:

Many people believe intuitively that it saves resources to “buy local.”  Surely, we think, cheese and vegetables from a local farm must save on the energy required for transportation.  However, if the grocery store sells cheaper produce that comes from hundreds of miles away, some factor must offset the higher transportation costs.  Chances are, the land elsewhere is more suited to growing crops, so that fewer acres are used to produce a given amount of output.  The local land might be better used for housing or as wilderness.

Water or other resources may be used more heavily locally than on distant farms.  Whenever produce from distant farms is cheaper than locally grown produce, the price system is telling us that “buying local” wastes resources.

Some of my friends respond to the above argument by insisting that the case for buying local rests on the fact that locally grown and locally butchered foods taste better than, or are more nutritious than, ‘distantly’ grown and slaughtered foods.  This fact might well be true; indeed, I’m sure that it’s true in some cases.  And when it is true, it makes economic sense for someone to pay the higher prices for these tastier and more nutritious local foods if that someone values the better taste or higher nutrition by more than he or she values whatever it is that he or she gives up by spending more money on these local foods.

I myself, for example, typically pay a premium for better tasting foods and wines.

But this case for buying local is misleading, for at least two reasons.

First, this case is not really one for “buying local”; instead, it’s a case for “buying tastier” or “buying healthier.”  Why conflate one’s understandable desire for better taste and better nutrition with a desire to buy local?  “Buy tastier” or “buy healthier” fully capture the goal of the consumer.  Calling it “buy local” only confuses the issue.

It won’t do to respond that “buy local” is nevertheless a good goal and guide because the taste and nutritional quality of locally grown and slaughtered foods are so generally superior to ‘distantly’ grown and slaughtered foods that “buy local” suffices to describe an economically sensible action.  This response would be true only if its premise were true.  But the premise – namely, that locally grown and slaughtered foods typically taste better than, or are more nutritious than, ‘distantly’ grown and slaughtered food – strikes me as false.  Locally grown corn, tomatoes, eggplant, and strawberries are, to my taste, often better than ones bought from supermarkets.  But are locally grown bell peppers, chili peppers, pineapples, apples, oranges, ornamental pumpkins, cherries, peaches, cranberries, cauliflower, broccoli, and onions better than ‘distantly’ grown ones?  If so, my taste buds are too incompetent to detect this difference when they’ve tried.  (In some cases, they’ve never tried: living all my life east of the Mississippi,* but never in Florida, I’ve never tasted a locally grown – as in, for example, a Louisiana or Virginia grown – orange or pineapple.)

Likewise, my taste buds detect no difference between high-quality ‘distant’ meats and fish bought at supermarkets and ‘local’ meats and fish bought at farmers’ markets.

Second, and according to the logic of the environmentalist creed that often is inextricably intertwined with the buy-local movement, to buy local because locally produced foods taste better is to selfishly damage the environment.  The lower prices of ‘distantly’ grown foods sold in supermarkets mean that their production and distribution consumes fewer resources than do their locally grown alternatives.  That is, supplying these lower-priced ‘distantly’ grown foods is better for the environment than is supplying their locally grown alternatives.  Because of this fact, environmentalists should condemn as greedy, thoughtless, and environmentally careless anyone who pays a premium for foods simply because such foods taste better!

Please understand that I don’t share this typical environmentalist arrogance: if you so value the better taste of some locally grown kumquat or a locally slaughtered pig over the tastes of their ‘distantly’ supplied alternatives, the fact that more resources are required to produce these tastier local foods does not mean that such resource use is wasteful or otherwise to be condemned.  But the (il)logic and arrogance that is at the heart of the typical modern environmentalist’s assessment of food production and distribution should lead these environmentalists to be in the front lines of those who criticize people who, simply for taste reasons, buy higher-priced local foods.


I remind readers that the single best book on the many myths and illogical turns of reasoning of the ‘buy local’ movement is Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu 2012 volume, The Locavore’s Dilemma.


* Well, technically, from the ages of 4 to 22 I lived practically on the western bank of the Mississippi – in Jefferson Parish, immediately across the river from New Orleans.  It was only about about three miles from being east of the Mississippi.  So close enough.


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