Local Foods Advocates Fight Back

Pierre Desrochers (co-author of the excellent book The Locavore's Dilemma: In praise of the 10,000 mile diet) alerted me to this paper just published in the journal Agriculture and Human Values by Helen Scharber and Anita Dancs.  The authors asks, "Do locavores have a dilemma?"  The authors take issue with the sorts of arguments made by folks like me, Pierre, and a host of economists and other writers.  They write:

Local food critics have recently argued that locavores, unaware of economic laws and principles, are ironically promoting a future characterized by less food security and more environmental destruction. In this paper, we critically examine the ways in which mainstream economics discourse is employed in arguments to undermine the proclaimed benefits of local food.

The article provides an excellent literature review of the case against local foods (even if they did miss my article on the topic with Bailey Norwood in Library of Economics and Liberty).   But, ultimately, I find their case against the case for local foods unsatisfying.  

In the end, they seem to conclude that the typical economic critique ignores power dynamics, externalities, and choice.  In other words, "big food" is warped by capitalism that generates market power and externalities, and local food is a solution to these evils of capitalism.  

They argue that local foods are not an either/or and they should exist alongside other markets in a way that increases availability and choice.  I agree!  As I've said many times: I'm not against local foods, I'm against bad arguments for local foods.  And, I'm against government policies that subsidize local food activities.  Why?  Precisely for the reason opposite of that argued in this paper: I see no compelling evidence that local foods meaningfully internalize any of the important adverse externalities associated  with food production.  Moreover, I don't see the local food movement as one that is anti-capitalistic: precisely the opposite! Lots of competition, innovation, competition and entrepreneurship is at the heart of the movement. Sellers who don't offer high quality, affordable products won't be at the farmers market for long, and those that do will grow bigger. Finally, what is it about local foods that meaningfully changes the power dynamic that so worries these authors?  Let's be frank, the local food movement has largely gained steam because it is desired by relatively rich, largely white Americans.  As Charles Mann put it in a New York Times interview:       

if your concern is to produce the maximum amount of food possible for the lowest cost, which is a serious concern around the world for people who aren’t middle-class foodies like me, [local food] seems like a crazy luxury. It doesn’t make sense for my aesthetic preference to be elevated to a moral imperative

I'll wrap up by pointing to this new paper I just came across published in the journal Appetite. The authors, "conducted a detailed cross-sectional assessment of all [farmers markets] in Bronx County, NY, and of the nearest store(s) selling produce within a half-mile walking distance (up to two stores per [farmers markets]). The study included 26 [farmers markets] and 44 stores." Here are the author's highlights and findings:

•Farmers’ markets (FMs) may offer a means to get fresh produce into needy communities.
•But FMs operate overwhelming fewer months, days, and hours than nearby stores.
•FMs carry less-varied, less-common, more-expensive produce than nearby stores.
•FMs offer many items not optimal for good health (e.g., jams, pies, juice drinks).
•FMs might provide little net benefit to food environments in urban communities.