In last week’s post about how to buy local on a budget, I said “the one critique” I’ve repeatedly heard about locally-sourced food is the price. Actually, I’ve heard a good deal of skepticism voiced about farmers markets, namely that vendors don’t necessarily raise their animals as humanely or grow their produce with as minimal chemical intervention as one might assume. And that’s true: as with the ‘organic’ label, you can’t take all claims of sustainability at face value. You need to read the fine print, literally or metaphorically – the latter of which might entail interrogating the vendor a bit. Right now, though, I want to briefly address a common argument of economists.
If everyone subsisted solely on what was available to them locally, we would be worse off. I’ll avoid using the economic jargon of comparative and absolute advantage, but, basically, we would be forcing ourselves to grow things that could be much more easily grown elsewhere. This would essentially waste huge amounts of time, money, and energy that could be better put towards specializing in select products. It would mean higher prices to the consumer as well as more environmental detriment via inefficient energy consumption. Not to mention that our diets would also be constrained by the season and regional climate, as some things simply do not grow in certain parts of the world.
In light of these points, raised by my economics professor and in articles all across the Internet, I think I should clarify my approach to buying local. First off, I focus on produce and meat; the breads and cheeses that I find at the farmer’s market are delectable, but I treat myself to them as I would anything at a grocery store. With produce, however, I genuinely believe that fruits and vegetables taste better when they are fresher. Farmers markets also offer a lot of heirloom varieties and ‘ugly’ pieces of produce that you wouldn’t find in your average grocery store due to cosmetic standards, thereby preventing waste of perfectly edible, albeit funny-looking food. As for meat, I’m always willing to pay a little more for something that hasn’t been raised on hormones or in horribly intensive conditions, mainly for the sake of humaneness. Bearing all this in mind, though, I will concede an important caveat: I don’t buy everything local, nor would I ever want to, specifically for the reasons described above. Some fruits and veggies at the farmer’s market are simply too expensive for me, which could also indicate that they’re grown inefficiently. Moreover, I love food and diversifying my diet far too much to ever want to give up on imports.
So, here’s my take on it: locavorism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but the idea behind it isn’t entirely wrong. While it is environmentally beneficial to buy certain things locally, especially when it means preventing waste by supporting ugly food, there are more ecological costs to consider than long-distance transportation. This article makes some good points to that effect. And, of course, you can’t forget the prices. It’s best to stick to relatively inexpensive produce (although most foods will be a bit less cheap than at a supermarket) and check the details behind the meat to see if it’s worth the price.
As a final disclaimer, I want to emphasize that these are my personal beliefs, based on experience and some background information on both sides of the issue. Sure, I could’ve done more extensive research, but this is a blog post, not a dissertation. Feel free to comment with opinions, including disagreements or criticisms, so long as they are civil.