Thursday, July 16, 2009

Special interests want you to buy local food

The Howard County Economic Development Authority is pushing locally grown food. The main reasons they give for purchasing locally grown food is that it tastes better, it is better for the environment and it is good for our local economy.

The first reason may be legitimate (it's a matter of personal taste) but the other two reasons are bullshit. I've already blogged about the questionable environmental benefits of locally grown food. The alleged economic benefits are fallacy as well. "Buying local" is another way of saying "self-sufficiency" which is another way of saying "really poor". Trade makes us rich, and it makes the most sense to trade a good that you have a comparative advantage in producing. That may or may not be agricultural goods for any particular producer.

The HCEDA also tells us that locally grown food is healthier, because it is eaten sooner and therefore retains more nutrients. I don't know if this claim is true or not, but I am skeptical to put it mildly.

Fun fact of the day: according to the Howard County Farm Bureau, Howard County produces $200 million a year in agricultural output. That number actually struck me as surprisingly high. However, in a population of 270,000 people (assuming each person consumes $50 a week in agricultural goods), we annually consume about $700 million in agricultural products. Our local farms can supply us with about 3 months worth of food in a year. Yay?


Doug S said...

I agree that locally grown food IS much tastier. You can tell from looking at tomatoes if it was home/small farm grown or not.

As for the healthier, my father explained it (he is a proponent of home grown/bioponics) that fruits and vegetables grown in (lets say) South America have to be picked earlier due to the travel time. While they ripen in color during transport, they stop adding nutrients and good-stuff because they've been cut from the vine. Where locally grown, some of the bounty that you eat was cut the same day or very recently. It's had time to mature on the vine and thus has more nutrients and other "good stuff".

That all said - it's all hearsay for me; I've never researched the specifics myself. Personally, like I said - I think it tastes better AND I like knowing where it came from. (Not that either of them make it "better".)

How's that for non-committal either way?

Freemarket said...

Better taste is a great reason to buy local food, and I am not challenging that.

You may be correct about vine ripened food, although like you I would want to see the research to support that. The ag marketing person at the HCEDA claims that local food is more nutritious because it is eaten sooner after harvest. That's not the same thing as vine ripened.

Anonymous said...

The fact is-- if facts are what you really want--our food comes from countries that do not have controls on carcinogenic plant applications. If it's grown in your backyard, there's a much higher probability that you have control over chemicals ingested.

It's healthy all around. Our bodies were built to eat protein in the cold months and carbs from fruit and veges in the warm months. Instead, we're obese beyond prior imaginings due to the unnatural demand for a year round gluttony of choices.

Bob O said...

Well said, F.M.

BTW ANON, I'm 6'2" tall and weigh 198 pounds, and I eat whatever I want from where ever I want when ever I want. I just exercise each day.

I think the HCEDA is shining you on.

Nina said...

It's a complex issue, though I don't think you can say that the envvironmental and local economic benefits are bullshit - this isn't an open and shut issue, and is an incredibly complex issue. A blanket assertion that all local food is better for the environment and helps the local economy is of course not accurate (just like almost all blanket statements), but certainly local food is not an environmental or economic panacea. Food self-sufficiency in Howard County is not likely feasible as well. In addition, the time period over which the economic and environmental effect of locally produced food is measured will greatly change the analysis.

I tried writing about this issue last year. I like local, in season produce, but I recognize that it is a consumer choice. I buy a CSA share annually - but that's roughly $24 a week for vegetables. Now, some weeks that's a massive deal, and some weeks it's a $24 salad. This year has been wet and cool and therefore disappointing so far - if I couldn't afford the uncertainty, it would not be a wise financial decision. But I can, and it's worth it to me.

The environmental aspects cut both ways -- and it is very, very hard to price model transportation costs because not all transportation costs are born by the individual shipper, but some are diffusely spread. Short routes with small loads using passanger cars and light trucks may be less economically and energy efficient than shipping by rail or seaship, or even heavy truck over large distances. There's also the differences between diffuse and centralized distribution networks at play.

From the consumer standpoint, there is also the issue of trips and time. Right now my CSA pickup is at MOM's, and since I do most of my shopping there or at Trader Joe's and Costco, and commute via 95 (and the rest of my household also comes home via 175), adding the trip isn't significantly costly in monetary or environmental terms. Now, last year's farm pickup was incredibly costly since it was significantly out of the way.

Buying from local farmers, CSA shares, and local milk delivery are consumer choices I make - mostly because I like what I get, but also because I want to encourage that local market with my dollars, because I think they produce cool things and I like the businesses and the people.

I do think you're missing one issue -- supporting local food, or any product one really likes, helps create, maintain, and expand the market for that product, resulting in accessibility of that product. Many, including me, are willing to pay a premium for encouraging future access to that product.

Bob O said...

I think that each individual consumer has to make their own choices. That will determine what is the most economically feasible alternative.

Now we just need individuals who make rational choices out of enlightened self interest.

Okay, I'll do my part.