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.