Latest Lefty Fad: Buy Local

The latest fad from the left involves something that sounds sensible: Buy local, sustainable produce and meat. The link is to an organization that supports this idea.

[Note: This discussion was picked up on another website: Local Preference, with some good comments.]

This is in my head for two reasons. First, I was in a conversation last night where someone was talking about it, and I could not challenge the speaker on the issue due to circumstances. Next, I read this morning that famed chef Gordon Ramsay jumped on this bandwagon, and then had to go into hiding due to embarrassing hypocrisy.

In short, the idea is (from the above link):

The concept of buying local is simply to buy food (or any good or service) produced, grown, or raised as close to your home as possible.

Sounds simple I guess. Why should we do this?

With industrialization, our food is now grown and processed in fewer and fewer locations, meaning it has to travel further to reach the average consumer’s refrigerator. Although this method of production is considered efficient and economically profitable for large agribusiness corporations, it is harmful to the environment, consumers and rural communities.

There had to be large corporations in there somewhere. Corporations, especially large ones with big adjectives like agribusiness or pharmaceutical, always seem to be the bad guy in the leftist mantra. There have to be profits in there somewhere too, because profits are bad. But let’s make it worse by calling it “economically profitable.” And of course, blame ultimately lies with industrialization. I’m surprised globalization didn’t get in there.

Before I get more into my own rant against this silliness, I’ll point to a good article that debunks it by Gillian Bowditch in the Times Online. Also there’s a research article from New Zealand about food miles. The latter brings to mind who loses if locally grown becomes common. Small countries that are distant from large populations. It’s actually much tougher on poor countries, but don’t forget about those Kiwis!

It sounds persuasive. Locally grown food only has to travel maybe 20 miles to get to your grocery store or restaurant. Some produce in the stores may come from thousands of miles away. Think of all the fossil fuels that were burned to get it here. I can do that. As the first site mentions, it may have come on freighter ships over oceans. Hmm.

So a freighter ship carrying 100,000 tons of stuff burns maybe a hundred thousand gallons of fuel on its way across the ocean (I’m totally guessing here, but I hope commenters will do their research and give more accurate numbers). So there’s one gallon of fuel for a ton of stuff. A ton of stuff is 2000 pounds. So my one pound of broccoli required all of 1/2000 of a gallon of fuel to be shipped across the ocean. Maybe I’m off by a factor of 10 – it’s still only 1/200 of a gallon. If I eat 200 pounds of broccoli a year that’s only 1 gallon of gas at the worst. Some people use that much gas driving to the grocery store. Not me though – I live about 2 miles away and drive a 4-cylinder with a stickshift. But I still go through probably 500 gallons a year driving to work and stuff.

More of the bunkum from the left:
Aside from the environmental harm that can result from processing, packaging and transporting long-distance foods, the industrial farms on which these foods are often produced are major sources of air and water pollution. Small, local farms tend to be run by farmers who live on their land and work hard to preserve it. Buying local means you can talk directly to the farmer growing your food and find out what they do and how they do it.

Actually, industrial farms tend to be more environmentally efficient than small local farms. Economies of scale work that way. It may be that some small farmers try to harm the environment less, but some of them are worse than the big corporations. Maybe I can talk to my local farmer about how he does it, but he could lie and I don’t understand his business well enough to know the difference. Oh, and by the way, all farms are local where they are.

My experience last night catches one of the problems with this notion. I was in New York City. The person I mentioned was complaining that New York City restaurants don’t use locally grown produce.

How can all the New York City restaurants get locally grown produce? Take a look at a map! There aren’t enough farms within 100 miles to supply food for a population that size. Try Tokyo and you’ll see an even bigger problem – more people and a lot less arable land. The whole country is the size of California, and something like 90% mountainous.

Oh, and I shouldn’t forget that buying local also helps those struggling local farmers. You know, the ones who own hundreds of acres of land worth millions of dollars, getting thousands of our tax dollars in subsidies, and making huge money off the current increase in prices of agricultural commodities. See, I can use big words too. :-)

1 comment to Latest Lefty Fad: Buy Local

  • Jen

    Interesting post! I’m very glad to see some discourse on this issue.

    Anyhow, I just wanted to chime in about your broccoli/freighter ship example because I don’t think that’s a very accurate depiction of the food transportation system

    Vegetables are rarely shipped in this manner due to spoilage concerns. If a head of broccoli were to endure an ocean crossing over, say, a month, it would be pretty much rotten by the time it reached its destination. Most vegetables are shipped via air, which has a much larger carbon footprint than what you describe (also they have a much smaller capacity than 100,000 tons per your example)

    On a different note, I think there’s a real problem with the word ‘local’ as well. When I say I want to ‘buy local’, it doesn’t really mean that I want something that comes from within XXX miles of my home — it really means that I want to buy something that was 1) raised in a sustainable manner, 2) uses a minimum amount of fossil fuels, and 3)is not genetically modified; ‘local’ is the wrong word as it really doesn’t encompass all of these things. Plus, it’s so easy to attack… unfortunately I can’t say I have a better suggestion

    At least for me, I grow my own food or buy it at my local farmer’s market because I think it simply tastes better than anything I can find in the grocery store.