Tribalism and locavorism

Salon today reprints an article from Alternet by Jill Richardson, defending local food against an attack by Pierre Desroches and Hiroku Shimizu, who are associated with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and whose work is based, she says, on neoliberal economics. Richardson runs with a fairly standard critique of neoclassical economics, starting with the standard joke about the chemist, physicist and economist stranded on a desert island.

What’s interesting about this debate is that in intellectual terms both parties are on the opposite side to the the one they imagine.

Far from using economic arguments of any kind, Desroches and Shimuzu present an engineering-based (and entirely convincing) debunking of the concept of food miles – the key point is that long distance sea transport uses less energy per unit of food than even a short car trip.

Although they briefly mention the hypothetical possibility of legislation, Desroches and Shimuzu are not primarily concerned with opposing government intervention. Rather, they claim that promotion of local food is wrong and dangerous even in the absence of legislation and is ” a marketing fad that frequently and severely distorts the environmental impacts of agricultural production”.

But wait a moment! When did the Mercatus Center start channeling JK Galbraith and Ralph Nader? Is Mercatus opposed to marketing fads, even fads that may “dangerous distraction from the very real and serious issues that affect energy consumption, the environmental impact of modern food production, and the affordability of food”?  If Mercatus won’t support free commercial speech, who will?

Looking at Richardson’s article, much of it could be a libertarian paean to the amazing diversity of products under capitalism, and to the invincibility of small business. For example

But when chickens can roam freely, eating grass and bugs in addition to chicken feed, their eggs become more nutritious. It would be extremely difficult to produce eggs this way on a large scale and do so profitably. But it’s easy and fun to do for homeowners with small backyard flocks.

Richardson asserts that industrial-scale food production raises GDP, but the very existence of locavores proves this wrong. As far as GDP measurement is concerned, if locavores are willing to pay $2/pound for fresh local strawberries, while non-local strawberries sell for $1/bound, then the local variety is worth twice as much, even if the two physically identical.  A huge part of GDP consists of intangible values llike this, created by marketing campaigns or popular perceptions.

To sum up, true believers in the free market should be entirely indifferent as to the reality or otherwise of ‘food miles’ just as they are to the vast numbers of meaningless marketing claims with which we are bombarded. If ‘buy local’ is a successful sales strategy, why should the Mercatus Centre care whether it is actually saving the planet. Conversely, of course, those who actually care about carbon footprints may find some useful information in the Desroche-Shimuzu critique.

What’s happening here, I think is a manifestation of the fact that, in the US context, tribalism generally trumps ideological consistency.  Mercatus is attacking the locavores because they are (seen as) elitist liberal DFH types, and the locavores are fighting back in the same terms.


Posted via email from John’s posterous

18 thoughts on “Tribalism and locavorism

  1. “while non-local strawberries sell for $1/bound, then the local variety is worth twice as much, even if the two physically identical.”

    should be “while non-local strawberries sell for $1/pound, then the local variety is worth twice as much, even if the two are physically identical.”

  2. Yes we are seeing the full flowering of one of the phenomena first described by the admirable C Northcote Parkinson. Every aspect of public discourse in the USA now seems to have fallen victim to the adversarial culture that is a feature of the legal system. As Parkinson observed, it is not necessary to engage in constructive argument, because there is no room for discussion, only debate. One side is self-evidently wrong while our side is right, and the only problem that arises occasionally is knowing which is which. However both sides, especially conservatives, have anointed various cheerleaders to point the way. Once we get the correct cues, we know who to cheer for and who to boo.

    Nowhere was this process more contemptibly evident than in the killing of Trayvon Martin earlier this year. The frenzied partisan conflict would be comical if the cause of it had not been so tragic.

  3. I’ve done comparisons, admittedly subjective and biased, yet found that total spend organic vs supermarket or farmers market vs supermarket is pretty much the same. Individual items might seem expensive but quality and density balances out – you need less of the pricey stuff.

    I would argue that the conflict is more subtle – those that prefer supermarkets enjoy being able to purchase what they want when they want and not be frustrated by the vagaries of supply and seasonal conditions. Using stuff from markets and organic shops means that you might have to make do with what is available, be creative. So in a way supermarkets cater to thise thst do not really favor a free market.

  4. What we can learn from this is that GDP is in the eye of the beholder, or in the hands of a good advertising campaign.

  5. I have a few chickens and grow some of my own veggies but I don’t do it for environmental reasons or to save money. I do it because it is a great hobby. Plus my ISA Brown chickens are super cute and I think of them as pets 🙂

  6. food miles is for food snobs. food miles is no different from wanting to eat kosher food. It’s your money. fools and their money are soon parted.

  7. I want my meat to have the sort of send off God decreed! In the value adding department there is also the anti-vegetarian trick of turning bread and wine into body and blood. Never mind the kharma.

  8. Crikey, this is concerning. It’s a topic on which I have no settled opinion. This is frustrating for a truculent, opinionated curmudgeon like me.

    I can’t read Desroches and Shimuzu’s work on this. (Paywalled I guess?)

    Certainly it is clear that you can’t compare the energy intensity of car, truck, train, ship and aircraft miles. I suspect the issue of car miles cancels itself out in a sense. Almost all food (local or imported) in Western countries is taken by car from supermarket or market to home. It might even be the case that some locavores use more energy in cars by driving to several more distant local markets rather than to one very local supermarket. I don’t see too many locavores backpacking, cycling or taking some sort of “mini-volt” electric car to local markets.

    Is it cheaper (in energy costs) to bring oranges from California to Brisbane by ship rather than from Australia’s orchards wherever they may be (Riverina, Central Qld?)? The other issue not to forget is that Californian oranges still get trucked from the farm gate to the wharves so ship imports still have a trucking component.

    I would suspect that the entire journey of most overseas import products will contain trucking or rail components as well as shipping or air components. The locavores are probably still right. Stuff from close by will have less “embodied energy” in most cases. It’s just that the concept food miles would need a more complicated formula taking into account each component.

    If we only had a rational energy policy, no subsidies for fossils and proper costing of negative externalities then this problem would largely shake itself out. Of course, it still wouldn’t solve the fact that we have hit the limits to growth.

  9. I wonder if there is a parallel between libertarians love of centralised power production (nuclear, coal etc) and the centrists favouring of distributed power generation with a market pricing of carbon. A prime example of this idiocy was from Austin Williams on counterpoint a few years ago railing against the rampant individualism of owning solar panels, and the potential loss of community solidarity fostered by large scale coal fired power stations.

  10. “Richardson asserts that industrial-scale food production raises GDP, but the very existence of locavores proves this wrong. As far as GDP measurement is concerned, if locavores are willing to pay $2/pound for fresh local strawberries, while non-local strawberries sell for $1/bound, then the local variety is worth twice as much, even if the two physically identical. A huge part of GDP consists of intangible values llike this, created by marketing campaigns or popular perceptions.”

    I can’t believe someone could make such a basic error. It does raise productivity and maybe he was factoring some assumptions concerning external trade increases… dunno. It’s all a very cold, antisocial, anti community way of looking at economics. We already have enough of that from our prime minister, opposition leadership, banks and supermarket duopoly.

  11. I suspect the food miles movement is as much about making the food production processes transparent as it is about carbon footprints. If you could, at least in principle, go and see the place where your food is produced it gives you some connection with that food. Compare two identical kilogram packets of minced beef – the only difference being that one comes from a little abattoir a few km away, and is processed from local cattle. The other has no information about origin. A customer could legitimately choose to pay more for the packet with the origin information and gain a benefit from the knowledge that, should she so choose, she could hop in the car and see for herself the conditions the animals lived in prior to slaughter, and even inspect the slaughter process. Just the knowledge that something is possible gives the consumer the feeling of being in closer contact with the process.

    Countering alienation from the food production process is a significant social movement – witness the various ‘reality tv’ shows taking people out in the country and to desert islands where they are forced to grow and find their own food, killing animals for meat, butchering them and cooking them. The popularity of farmers’ markets is another side to the same thing – consumers like to meet the people growing their food face to face, or even to meet the people who’ve actually met the farmers (as is often the case). Again, consumers are prepared to pay a premium for this experience, which is a quite different experience from the Coles/Woolies meat and vegetable sections.

    The movement towards more authentic food purchasing models is not unrelated to other sentiments and attitudes capable of being labelled ‘green’. So it is surely to be expected that ‘green’ arguments about carbon footprints get drawn into the debate.

    It might well be that oranges from California can be brought to the tray in the supermarket with no more carbon emitted per fruit than oranges from Gayndah, but the importation of oranges from California for sale in supermarkets is part of a global agribusiness and food model that is generally harmful to the environment and consumers know this. Walking past the imported oranges, a supermarket consumer is confronted with water imported in glass bottles from Europe, prawns grown in Asian cesspits, rice imported from undernourished Pakistan, and products containing palm oil grown where orang-utan used to roam. Common sense recoils against the suggestion these are environmentally sustainable supply chains.

    California oranges are, for example, produced in vast monocultures under production techniques involving lots of chemicals and the use of underpaid illegal immigrant workers. Even the pollination of such orchards involves trucking huge numbers of bees around the countryside, thus speeding the spread of the various epidemics affecting the European honey bee.

    It may well be that locally grown food is produced under similarly dire conditions (although I doubt it), but consumers can make decisions about conditions of production if they have the information. For example, ‘free range’ in relation to eggs means different things in terms of conditions birds are kept in, and this is starting to be reflected in information provided on packaging. It costs more to keep a hen in ideal conditions such as fresh forage with 5 square metres per bird than it does to keep them on a concrete slab with half a square metre per bird. Producers treating their hens well are entitled to advertise the fact and demand a premium. Price is not and never has been the sole determinant of consumers’ food buying decisions.

    I say all this as a consumer living in a rural environment where I grow a fair proportion of my food myself or swap my surplus with neighbours for different foods they’ve produced. Although the labour expended is far in excess of what it would take to acquire the same calories for cash at the supermarket, doing this adds no doubt to my overall happiness, which is something we all pay for in one way or another.

  12. Mel :I have a few chickens and grow some of my own veggies but I don’t do it for environmental reasons or to save money. I do it because it is a great hobby. Plus my ISA Brown chickens are super cute and I think of them as pets

    as a member of a local community garden the idea of a locavore type ideology being my incentive is a sad,sad joke.

    i paid $10 to join,$50 for a 3m x 1m plot,approximately $60 for sheep and cow manure,mushroom compost,mulch and liquid seaweed spray.
    these are my costs for one year.
    disease and insect infestations are kept in check with proper non-poisonous management on a garden wide basis,so predator populations are healthy and active.
    apon picking any produce i price it at current retail supermarket prices.
    given that three sprigs of parsley currently cost $2 and i eat at least 7 x $2 =$14 worth of parsley a week, the amount of food i obtain from that 3m x1m piece of ground over the year i have been obtaining unsprayed,super fresh food grown in ground in good heart, has ,over the year has come in at over $1500.oo.
    over the year carrots,broccoli,peas,thyme,tarragon,english spinach,swiss chard,shallots,garlic, broad beans as well as flowers have been produced.
    i have never gardened in such an intensive manner and have been surprised at the result.
    this result is not obtained by chucking stuff in and forgetting it.
    the garden is less that 15 minutes bike ride away and i keep an eye on it at least 5 days a week,mostly for 10 minutes or so just to harvest one or two days supply.
    the other times,once a week on Sunday for an hour or two keeps the system going and makes sure we keep in touch with the business of the garden,other gardeners and what is going on.

    i do not do this as a social exercise,although that is an unintended benefit.

    i am doing it for the money i do not have to pay
    for food that has been picked a week ago,trucked from the other side of the country,is grown sprayed with gawd-knows-what and in ground rendered infertile by artificial fertilisers and unable to produce without artificial fertilisers.

    as an aside,the argument that commercial producers cannot produce feasible amounts without the current methods.
    small scale producers at the moment are unable to bring their produce to the general public due to large retailers not taking local produce so we have no idea what a widespread small scale production system is capable of.

  13. Under that definition many things not ordinarily thought of as tribalism would be categorized such. You’re hungry you buy a pie to eat – motivated reasoning therefore tribalism.

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