It’s taken a long time, but I think I’m finally breaking out of the student mentality where all calories are perfect substitutes for one another and “fried” is synonymous with “edible.” I have the refined tastes of a toddler, but with my wife’s help, I’m learning to enjoy and appreciate food. I’ve also explored issues such as the benefits of eating local.
To that end, I’ve recently read Tyler Cowen’s An Economist Gets Lunch, Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, and Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu’s The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet.
What do these books have to do with one another? The Cowen and the Desrochers and Shimizu volumes are explorations in applied economics, and Goldacre looks at the proliferation of quackery and bad science reporting in the media.
The locavore movement has noble goals.
One of the media darlings of the last decade has been the locavore movement, a movement that promises, to paraphrase Desrochers and Shimizu, to heal our bodies, our communities, and our planet while bringing us tastier meals. It’s a worthy goal, to be sure. Cowen — one of my favorite economists, and easily one of the most interesting people I know — writes that “every meal matters” and notes that eating is one of the activities people spend much of their time and energy on.
Now, I’m willing to believe that local foods might taste better, but all else equal, there is nothing especially virtuous about choosing local foods. Indeed, the outcome is actually vicious: if you’re buying local just because it’s local (holding quality constant), you’re wasting money and helping to ensure that land and labor are used inefficiently.
Many supposed benefits of eating local are myths, though.
I implore you not to misunderstand. It’s your money and you’re free to do with it as you please. If you value having a relationship with the person who grew your food, that’s perfectly fine — it’s certainly one of the benefits of eating local.
Just don’t kid yourself about it being “good for the economy” to pay more for stuff just because it’s “local.” The low-cost producer is the one who uses the fewest valuable resources to produce something, and if you’re paying a premium for something because it’s “local,” you’re consuming more valuable resources — more labor time, more land, more raw materials, more gas — to have that thing produced in a certain way. You might end up with more pieces of paper currency floating around in your community — keeping dollars in the community is an assumed advantage of buying local — but what matters is not the pieces of paper per se. What matters is what they can buy.
You would reduce greenhouse gas emissions more by going vegetarian one day per week than by eating an all-local diet.
Another supposed benefit of the locavore movement is the minimization of food miles, the distance food travels from production to consumption. Food miles are nonsense, though. Transportation represents an infinitesimal portion of the resources that go into getting your food to your plate. Cowen points out research showing that you would reduce greenhouse gas emissions more by going vegetarian one day per week than by eating an all-local diet.
The locavore movement, like many parts of environmentalism, has an unfortunate tendency to dress itself in the clothing of science before lapsing into mysticism. The emperor isn’t naked, but Cowen (and Desrochers and Shimizu) point out the witch doctor outfit under the lab coat.