Local Food From Cave 73

“Buy local,” “Eat local,” and watch your “food miles.” So say earnest people who sincerely want to live responsibly and make a better world, helping both the environment and neighboring farmers.

The general sentiment is admirable. But, as so often, the specific policy is actually misguided.

First, regarding environmental impact, “food miles” are relatively unimportant. Modern technology makes food transport so highly efficient that its cost, and carbon footprint, are not a big part of a food item’s overall profile. Far more important, environmentally, is the manner of production. It’s better to produce a food where climate and other factors are most favorable, and then transport it, than to produce it locally: to grow lettuce in sunny California and ship it to Maine than to grow it in an energy-guzzling Maine hot-house. This is true even if the best production site is half a world away. (One study found it more energy efficient for Brits to buy apples, lamb and dairy items from New Zealand than from British farmers.)

But there is a mentality that simply hates the idea of products coming from all kinds of foreign places; as if it’s somehow lamentable that a car is today made from parts crafted in 18 different countries. Maybe it’s romanticizing a supposedly simpler time when everything you consumed or used came from nearby (and life was pretty wretched, partly in consequence). And maybe it’s the deeply embedded ancestral human xenophobia and distrust of strangers. Thus the hostility to globalization in all its manifestations. Not much anyone can do about it; but the “local food” thing does provide at least one way to strike a blow against globalization.

And, in fact, this strikes a blow against non-local producers – many of them actually poor people overseas – whose poverty anti-globalizers are also always bemoaning (and blaming on capitalism). “Eat local” helps keep poor foreign farmers poor. (And that poverty is far worse than anything in America.)

The locavore movement deems it admirable local loyalty to buy your neighbor’s products rather than others. Likewise do many feel that buying something made in China betrays our own kind, whose jobs are being poached – rather than feeling they are actually helping some poor peon in China become a bit less poor. (Why else would Chinese peons flock to these “sweatshop” jobs?)

Carl Reiner with Mel Brooks as the 2000 year old man

Thus I find the whole locavore and anti-globalist attitude small-minded and ugly. Its tribalism reminds me of Mel Brooks as the “2000 Year Old Man” recalling how cave-dwellers invented national anthems. This (in full; sanitized version) was his:

Hooray for Cave 73!
Everybody else can go to Hell!

It also reminds me of the Biblical injunction, “Love thy neighbor” – which was meant literally, applying only to your own tribe-mates. All other people could be freely slaughtered (as God himself often commanded). Yuck.

The rise of an integrated, globalized world economy is beneficial, for both people and the environment. It’s good when a car’s parts come from 18 different nations. Promoting production in the places where it’s most efficient makes more and better goods available to more people, with actually smaller environmental impacts. And, by enabling more people to participate in the global economy, and to benefit from the resulting efficiencies, it gives the average world citizen a better quality of life.

Sure it’s imperfect and there are downsides; some lose jobs or pay; but the gains of the winners – people in rising nations, as well as consumers everywhere – are vastly greater. Globalization reduces world poverty. Period.

It also helps to overcome the Cave 73 (and Biblical) mentality. Adam Smith commented that an Englishman who’d suffer torments about the loss of his little finger would sleep like a babe after the earthquake deaths of a million Chinese – because he did not know them. Well, today, because of globalization, we do know them. It is making for a world in which we not only trade with each other more, but understand each other better, trust each other more, care about each other more, and help each other more. To me that’s a better world.

Think globally. Act globally. Eat globally. Rise up from Cave 73.

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12 Responses to “Local Food From Cave 73”

  1. Scott Perlman Says:

    The “eating local” movement also distracts us from another significant phenomenon that impacts global production of food and that is local government subsidies. Agricultural subsidies, in the hundreds of billions of dollars, distort production and trade and greatly increase inefficiencies and harms lower cost producing nations. The bottom line is eliminating subsidies will result in more food production with a lower carbon footprint. Subsidies are just a government sponsored “eat locally” initiative that is equally irrational as the local supermarket promoting locally grown vegetables.

    [FSR: Scott, thanks, an excellent point.]

  2. joe krausman Says:

    I agree with your take on the locovores. Your are a very smart guy, However, I disagree with you (and your friend Christopher Hitchens, may he rest in peace) take on our invasion of Iraq. It was a mistake that we were lied into by George Bush.
    Better to be a Rational Optimist, than an irrational pessimist. However, our friend Peter Heinegg is a rational Pessimist.
    Season’s Greetings without reference to an omnipotent diety.

    [FSR comment: Joe, thanks for your comment. But by bringing in Iraq, on a post about food, you are in danger of being a monomaniac. Nevertheless, I’ll respond as I did at my Hitchens talk: I deplore what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it. (Well, maybe not to the death.)]

  3. Lee Says:

    A minor quibble: there is evolutionary advantage in diversity. To the extent that a global product pushes from the market “less efficient” local food products can be devastating to diversity, and a disease that takes out the “winner” could leave us with next to nothing. In short there can be good reasons to thwart globalism.

    [FSR comment: Surely buying global rather than local makes for greater diversity in an individual’s diet.]

  4. Lee Says:

    That people associate with those who are geographically near appears to be deeply ingrained in our lives. My political representation is shared with those who are near me. My clubs, churches, restaurants, etc. tend to be near me. If a person with whom I associate happens to be a farmer then I may wish to buy local for the social aspects of it all.

    For people I don’t yet know face to face, but who are local, should I favor them nonetheless? I’d say there is a sliding scale. Those I know best get the most favor, etc. Whether this is enough to get me to buy locally, depends on the cost / quality difference among the alternatives. If there isn’t much difference, I may break-the-tie with the social criterion … buying locally.

    [FSR comment: But why is that the deciding criterion? Why not base it on which vendor is needier?]

  5. Kate Cooper Says:

    Surely it’s not global or local, but global and local.

    Cities aren’t places for growing food in the quantities needed for its citizens. However, food growing is increasing in cities; in my home city of Birmingham, UK, there are 151 allotment sites (the largest over 35 acres) with about 7000 allotment holders growing mostly veg and fruit . . . London has pledged to have 2012 community veg plots in time for the Olympics next year. And there’s an amazing project in Todmorden, a small ex-cotton town where local people have planted edible plants for anyone to have (for that story, see here: http://newoptimists.com/2011/12/07/mary-clear-on-todmordens-incredible-edible/)

    Sure, this kind of food production won’t feed but a tiny fraction of the population. But it does a heck of a lot of good for society . . . there’s loads of evidence that veg plots somehow create all sorts of benefits for hyperlocal communities, far lower crime, lower obesity rates — and if a school has a veg plot, truancy rates go down while educational attainment levels rise.

    And very fresh food tastes brilliant!

    Additionally, in cities such as mine, the traditional manufacturing industries no longer require tens of thousands of workers. Growing food, creating small companies with high-value added food products for hyperlocal niche markets are ways of giving youngsters a sense of place, identity and value.

    And as I write this on my kitchen table in this Midlands city on this small misty northern island, I look across and see a half-eaten mango and half a dozen slightly unripe bananas ripening in the weak and pale December sunshine . . . and remember the joy my 2 year old grandchild had picking peas from the plants outside, podding them carefully for the family meal whilst also stealing a few . . .

    [FSR response: Kate, thanks for your comment. I am certainly not AGAINST growing food locally! And certainly recognize the benefits to growers. What I am against is the attitude that buying food grown far away is a “bad thing” to be avoided.
    By the way, there are no “allotments” in USA and Americans are unlikely to know what you’re talking about.]

  6. Kate Cooper Says:

    An addition: See the Todmorden Incredible Edible newsletters here: http://www.incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk/resources/incredibly-viewable-newsletters

    The latest Sept 2011, full of good stuff!

  7. Kate Cooper Says:

    Thanks for reminding me that you guys might not understand what an “allotment” is. In the UK, every local government authority has a legal obligation to provide a patch of land which individuals can have for a peppercorn rent to grow stuff, and keep the odd hen or two.

    Many pioneering Victorian industrialists set aside land for allotments, too and/or provided gardens attached to houses for their workers (e.g the Cadburys and Nettlefolds in Birmingham, the Gregs in Styal near Manchester). Wartime shortages meant these allotments and gradens became important sources of nutritious food for many people. Indeed there was a campaign called “Dig For Victory” during World War II when blockades interrupted our food supplies; people grew over a million tons of veg.

    Remember the UK is a small place. The population increase from industrialisation onwards meant that we couldn’t feed ourselves. So both international trade coupled with encouraging local food production are very much part of who we are.

  8. Prerna Bholah Says:

    What about wanting to receive the freshest produce possible? People who want to eat local might also be thinking that getting foods from local farmers implies a healthier diet. In that case, is the lettuce grown in sunny California and transported to the east coast fresher than the one grown nearby?

    [FSR reply: Actually, maybe. Again, refrigerated transport today is very efficient. Of course if you eat something right after picking, it’s fresher, but if you don’t know when it was picked, you can’t assume that local produce is fresher.]

  9. Lee Says:

    Thanks — you’re right — buying from a needier vendor would be of higher priority than buying from a local vendor.

    Happy (Chinese) New Year!

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