A Bit More on the Locavore Movement
Local foods are a big fad lately, and although I have commented negatively on the idea of “localizing” our commerce and our food, I was called out by a sharp commenter who said that not every instance of localizing our food sources is negative.
This is, of course, true. There are multiple reasons why one might choose locally grown foodstuffs, and certain of them are very persuasive. Indeed, when it comes to arguments for quality, freshness, and health, my farmer’s market beats the supermarket probably 80% of the time.
That said, I still do not find the environmental, gustatory, or protectionist arguments at all persuasive, and I see nothing immoral or destructive about sourcing our food far away from where we live.
But there are costs on both sides, and a true accounting of the economics of local foods would require that we account for all costs, seen and unseen, on both sides of the equation. A recent article at Reason called “My Subsidized Food Choices are Better Than Yours” points one cost that is all-too-often hidden: subsidies.
The question, which is not a new one, has reared up again recently as the result of a debate between Freakonomics blogger Steve Sexton and Tom Philpott of Mother Jones. Sexton, in a post earlier this month, took aim at a “Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act” he said would award “about $200 million to local farm programs.” In Sexton’s post, titledThe Inefficiency of Local Food, he goes on to argue among other things that a
local food system would raise the cost of food by constraining the efficient allocation of resources. The monetary costs of increased input demands from forsaken gains from trade and scale economies will directly bear on consumer welfare by increasing the costs of food.
Philpott counters by pointing out that any honest discussion of purported inherent efficiencies underlying the system Sexton favors must take into account subsidies. Philpott’s 100% right about that, especially because Sexton’s argument not only picks on local food but on subsidies for local food.
In any accounting of the economics of a particular market – in this case agriculture – one must account for the distortions of that market. Subsidies by their very nature produce distortions, but it seems as if the question being asked among the locavore vs. mass agriculture debaters is not “what costs are imposed by subsidies generally?” but “what costs are imposed by subsidies for the other guy?”
In this debate, neither side comes out smelling like a rose. Of course, we would know far, far more about the efficacy of the various types of farming if we were able to determine which could stand on their own.