Loco-Vores

bugsSteven Budiansky, the self-described Liberal Curmudgeon, thinks there’s something wrong with the locavore movement, and says so in the New York Times. But he misses the point just as badly as the locavores themselves.

The locavores, in case you don’t follow this kind of thing, are an environmentalist sect who make a moral issue out of where your food is grown — preferring that which is local to that which comes from afar. For example, as Budiansky puts it, “it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in California because of the energy spent to truck it across the country”.

Ah, says Budiansky, but let’s look deeper — the alternative to that California tomato might be one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in the Hudson Valley, and at a higher energy cost. This leads him off on a merry chase through what he calls a series of math lessons, adding up the energy costs of growing and transporting food in different locations. The implicit recommendation seems to be that when you’re choosing a tomato, you should care about all the energy costs.

Well, yes. You should. You should care about all those costs. And here are some other things you should care about: How many grapes were sacrificed by growing that California tomato in a place where there might have been a vineyard? How many morning commutes are increased, and by how much, because that New York greenhouse displaces a conveniently located housing development? What useful tasks could those California workers perform if they weren’t busy growing tomatoes? What about the New York workers? What alternative uses were there for the fertilizers and the farming equipment — or better yet, the resources that went into producing those fertilizers and farming equipment — in each location?

Budiansky ignores all that to focus strictly on energy consumpion. But the quality of our lives depends on a lot more than energy consumption, so Budiansky’s narrow-minded computations are strictly loco.

How, then, could one ever hope to do the right computation? How can we possibly gather enough information to compare the opportunity costs of land, fertlizers, equipment, workers, transportation and energy costs (among many others) and reach a conclusion about which tomato imposes the fewest costs on our neighbors?

Well, it turns out there’s actually a way to do that. You do it by looking at a single number that does an excellent job of reflecting all those costs. That number is known as the price of the tomato. When more New York land is needed for a housing development or a vineyard or a sports complex, the price of New York land goes up and the price of New York tomatos follows. When California workers are needed to build an aquarium or put out a forest fire, the price of California labor goes up, and the price of California tomatos follows.

Markets are not perfect, so the price of a tomato does not, with 100% accuracy, reflect the social cost of acquiring that tomato. But in most circumstances it comes damn close, and in virtually all circumstances it comes a lot closer than Budiansky’s sort of crabbed accounting.

The other quite marvelous thing about the price is that it gives you a reason to care about all those costs. Not directly, of course — few tomato consumers stop to think about the grapes that were sacrificed for their pleasure — but indirectly, and that’s just as good. The more valuable those grapes, the more you’ll pay for your tomato, and the more likely you are to pause and ask yourself whether this particular tomato is really necessary.

There’s only one downside to using prices as the primary indicator of social cost — everyone already accounts for them. This robs the locavores of an opportunity to flaunt their moral superiority, and Steven Budiansky of an opportunity to flaunt his math skills. Meanwhile, the rest of us go right on solving the right problem the right way.

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52 Responses to “Loco-Vores”


  1. 1 1 Henry

    To be fair, Budiansky’s article does not appear to claim that energy consumption is of paramount concern. Rather, given their set of values, locovores fail to optimise. This is a more powerful argument than disputing their values – however much you may disagree with them – because the locovores can then treat this debate as the determinant of the truth of their original argument, when even if they win the greater values debate this argument was wrong to begin with.

    For example, if someone says “There are 864 trees in this forest. If 100 more are chopped down, there will only be 664 left.” If you think there are actually more trees, you may dispute that part of their statement. However, if it turns out there were are actually 864 trees, or counting the trees is too cumbersome, this person may take that win or tie to mean that their argument has yet to have been refuted. But it could have been had you simply jumped straight to pointing out their obvious arithmetic error.

    Now, when I say “more powerful argument”, I am meaning specifically to refute the locovore’s claims. If you have a grand intention of promoting more rational policy analysis, kudos to you. However, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a niche for authors to point out absences of consistency.

  2. 2 2 David Sloan

    Prices also reflect the effects of government subsidies. If your moral sense differs sufficiently from the (implied) moral sense of the government, would it be reasonable to consider other factors than price?

  3. 3 3 Harold

    Following on from David Sloan above, the paticular subsidy that the locavores are most concerned about is the environmental cost not being paid by the producers. If there was a carbon tax (or properly set up cap-and-trade system) that forced the producers to pay the full environmental costs of the energy they use, then price would reflect this. As it is, the damage is not paid for by the producers.

    The locavores consider that the environmental damage from fossil fuels is one of the major problems facing the world, and thus prioiritise reducing energy use. They cannnot use price, so must of necessity use some other measure. Budiansky seems to be pointing oput that distance alone is not a good proxy for energy use.

  4. 4 4 thedifferentphil

    I am not a locavore and agree that prices largely reflect opportunity cost, with some remaining distortions from externalities. But complicating the whole locavore issue is the fact that it is intermingled with a gourmet food movement. Produce from local farmers markets is often -but not always- much better than mass distribution food at the grocery store. Restaurants that make heavy use of local foods are doing more (expensive) hand preparation work that (typically) makes the food better. In many cases, the movement has created a critical mass of buyers that has made it economically feasible for local growers to pick food when ripe and distribute it locally. I seriously doubt that less energy is expended per local tomato, but the unintended consequence has been a market for tomatoes that actually have flavor. Putting prices, energy, misguided calculations aside, it is impossible to argue that the quality of available local produce has not increased in the last decade.

  5. 5 5 Douglas Bennett

    Harold-

    Excellent point, but even in that csae the locavores’ analysis is still misguided. Do they take into account the existing taxes on oil producers and refineries? On gasoline? On deisel? What about the difference in goverment interference between the trucking and the rail industry? Do they consider the difference between a newer truck running on ultra-low sulfur diesel as compared to pre-2007 models? What about the sewage waste from the tomato farmers as compared to the waste that would have been generated from the next best use of that land? Do they take into account where the raw materials for the crates are shipped from?

    The point is that price takes most of these considerations into account, and it does it well. Given their priorities, locavores would first have to consider existing fuel taxes and differences in vehicles and shipping methods before even beginning to improve on price as an indicator of how much energy went into a tomato. Furthermore, most of the other things mentioned here and above also have energy costs of their own, so even if energy/pollution is your sole driving force, it’s still necessary to take all other potential uses of the involved resources into account.

  6. 6 6 Super-Fly

    He might not have the complete answer, but I think he still makes a good point. Energy is also the thing the loco-vores talk about the most. I always saw the whole local foods thing as a comparative advantage problem. If it’s significantly cheaper to ship a tomato across the country, doesn’t that suggest it’s far easier to grow a tomato in California? The large-scale farmers have a better and more energy efficient way of growing them. That’s why it’s cheaper. Sadly, though, the California tomato doesn’t give you the unwarranted self-importance that the mealy, waxy New York tomato does.

    To drive the point home, I’d be interested to see how many people are in the Alaskan chapter of this fledgling movement.

  7. 7 7 Leah Bloom

    You and Budiansky both make interesting points, and as a self-proclaimed locavore, you’ve made me think harder about some of my practices. Most notably, I’ve long tried to preserve local foods so that I can have a varied local diet of year-round. But canning and freezing both take energy, and I will have to think harder now about whether I’d rather have the superior taste of my locally grown and home-preserved foods (and all that comes with supporting the local economy and local farmers), or the potentially lower energy cost of getting my variety from all over the world when New England can only feed me root vegetables.

    Both you and Budiansky ignore several factors that are important to locavores, or at least this one. Other commenters here have already mentioned the way in which government subsidies artificially adjust the price of food (locavores most often point to corn and dairy as examples of this), masking the “real” cost of agriculture; and the fact that locally grown produce simply tastes better, because it can be picked, sold, and consumed all at the peak of ripeness, and because it can be grown for flavor rather than stability during transport. Here are some of the other reasons I advocate, and prefer to eat, local food:

    1) It’s better for the environment. Not necessarily in terms of “food miles,” whatever that means, but in a variety of other ways. For example, locally grown food is often sold loose, where the same product in the grocery store, imported from across the country or the ocean, comes in packaging that then gets thrown away. Likewise, much locally grown food is raised without, or with limited use of chemicals, so there is less environmental contamination, and you ingest fewer chemicals.

    2) It’s better for the economy. When you buy local, a large
    percentage of the money stays in your community. The farmer can
    afford to have the local mechanic fix his truck, the mechanic can
    afford to hire a local accountant to do his taxes, and the accountant
    can afford dinner out at a local restaurant. The wait staff makes
    decent tips, and the restaurant can afford to buy more fresh, local
    food to serve. Money also trickles into the local infrastructure -
    improvements to the public park, funding for academic enrichment, and
    so on. Everyone wins.

    3) It’s better for food safety. Industrial food supplies are more
    susceptible than ever to disruption. Consider all of the recalls
    spurred by e. coli-contaminated vegetables, or the hundreds of thousands of eggs recently recalled due to potential salmonella contamination, and how many people have gotten sick from them — nothing compared to how many could become ill if the problem were not caught early. Much of this contamination takes place at central processing facilities, where vast quantities of food are exposed. Locally grown food is generally grown on a small enough scale that no such processing is required. And because local farms are geographically dispersed, they are not susceptible to attack in the same way as industrially processed food.

    4) It’s better for your body and your conscience. Farmers who grow and sell locally tend to run very transparent operations, because their customers are their neighbors. Not only do they have the opportunity to develop relationships with the people who buy their food, but they also know that their customers could drop in or pass by at any time. When you can see with your own eyes how your food is being raised, you’re much more likely to get a clear, honest answer about what pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, fertilizers, and other chemicals are being used on it, as well as how animals raised for food, eggs, milk, and other consumables (honey, wool, etc.) are treated. (Crowding, pasture access, beak-clipping/tail-docking, and feed contents are all concerns). With better information, you can make better buying decisions, choosing the healthiest products, and the ones that best conform to your moral standards. This introduces competition, giving more farmers an incentive to use humane and sustainable agricultural practices. In addition, freshly harvested food retains its nutritional value, much of which is lost within hours or days after picking, so you get more vitamins and nutrients from it than food that has taken a long time to get to your table.

    Price alone simply cannot account for all of these factors, and I remain convinced that my local eggs are worth $5/dozen, and my local meat $7/lb. In fact, I’m convinced that I’m getting a pretty good deal.

  8. 8 8 Seth

    It should be clear to everyone. We should all have identical preferences and those preferences need to be determined by smart folks like Budiansky.

    “If there was a carbon tax (or properly set up cap-and-trade system) that forced the producers to pay the full environmental costs of the energy they use, then price would reflect this.” – Harold

    With locavores, I think it comes down to this. They don’t believe the environmental cost is appropriately reflected in the price.

    It seems like there are only two ways to respond to this. Either convince them that prices do reflect the environmental cost or convince them that the environmental costs is not well known.

    On the second approach, I think their estimate of environmental cost would be too high because they would factor in all the negatives (which are not very certain) and ignore the positives (which are also not very certain). I think it’s plausible, that while the environmental costs are not certain, the pluses and minuses may be close to a wash.

  9. 9 9 Silas Barta

    @Steve_Landsburg: I don’t think locavores disagree with the analysis you give; rather, they think (or would think upon sufficient familiarity with the terminology) that that market prices differ *significantly more* from what they would cost if producers had to bear full energy costs, compared to other cases.

    They may be ultimately wrong in believing so, but there are good reasons to believe that environmental costs are not close to being reflected in these e.g. shipping costs. By simply acting as if markets reflect these costs well enough, and locavores are just ignorant of economics, you are not truly engaging your opponents, and are not advancing the debate.

  10. 10 10 Harold

    Douglas Bennet: Yes, even if you wish to place the highest priority on energy use, it is very difficult to do so. The “food miles” approach is an attempt to arrive at some sort of rough gauge, but it fails. If “all else is equal”, the distance travelled should be a good indicator of energy use. However, if all else is equal, then price would serve the same function. There is a middle zone where price does not indicate energy use because of the hidden subsidy, but this small and impossible to pick out from the noise.

    There is one area where tranport energy is more likely to be significant, that is flying. Budiansky uses trains and trucks as examples to show the small contribution transport makes. The air industry is even more subsidised by paying much lower tax on its fuel compared to land transport, and possibly does more damage because the emmissions are high in the atmosphere. The costs are also high, but the even greater subsidy makes the “middle zone” where price does not reflect energy use larger – it may be large enough to be useful.

    Our food choices here in the West are rarely based on price alone – most people have sufficient money to discriminate on that vague attribute “quality”. We don’t just buy “own brand” basic lines, but pay more for perceived better quality. thedifferentpupil hits this one – part of the better “quality” we may be prepared to pay for is a more flavorsome tomato and also maintain our local environment by supporting local farmers. If we can pat ourselves on the back with an environmental benefit as well, then yeah! Even though we are almost certainly deluding ourselves.

    I think all these attempts at individual action to reduce CO2 emissions are doomed to failure. It is too hard to pick these things apart. Life-cycle analysis is notoriously difficult, and depedent on initial assumptions. Noneltheless, it is possible to do much, much better. If we used a measure such as money needed to save 1 tonne of CO2, then consumers could more readily make choices, should they so wish. How best to spend those dollars for the biggest CO2 reduction? My guess is that buying local produce will cost $100′s to $1000′s to save a tonne of CO2. Given that the carbon price of trading in the EU is under $15 per tonne, this is an indication that this is not a good way to reduce carbon. McKinsey recently estimated the cost to save 1 tonne of CO2 for a variety of things (https://solutions.mckinsey.com/ClimateDesk/default.aspx). Some examples (from there and elsewhere): boiler (furnace) scrappage in the UK, about $1000 / tonne. Clunkers for cash – about $1000 / tonne. Coal CCS (retrofit) $40 / tonne. Photovoltaics, $20 / tonne. Nuclear power stations, $10 / tonne. Insulation (retrofit), gain of $30 / tonne. LED lightbulbs, a gain of $100 / tonne (but unfortunalely you have to live in a blue glow). Even if these figures are a bit innacurate, they show that buy local is going to cost much more than buying LED’s to save the same amount of carbon. With this information, consumers can choose to do the best option – buy that Californian lettuce if it is cheaper, and spend the savings on LED’s or insulation.

  11. 11 11 tom jones

    The price is a great indicator but it ignores some important things.

    If global warming costs are not priced into the current price then the market price is not accurate.

    If transporting a tomato from California to New York will cause the earth to warm so that we will have to reduce economic activity in the future then that cost needs to be added to the current price.

    It is far better for power plants in the midwest to dump acid rain in the east than to pay for cleaner power plants. It took a regulation to clean those power plants. Wouldn’t it have been better to impose a tax to reduce the harmful emissions? Greg Mankiw thinks so.

  12. 12 12 Neil

    Great post! And the example also illustrates the importance of having the “right” prices in an economy. When prices are “wrong” either because of naturally occurring market failures or from poorly chosen taxes and subsidies, the informational failure cascades, along with calls for ever greater government interventions in the economy. That is why economists should support a hefty tax on hydrocarbon energy use because it is a price that is so out of whack.

  13. 13 13 Dave

    Love these type of posts far more than the pure high concept maths ones….

  14. 14 14 Steve Landsburg

    Leah Bloom:

    With better information, you can make better buying decisions, choosing the healthiest products, and the ones that best conform to your moral standards.

    But this is the whole point. You don’t have that information, and you can’t get it by driving by the food stand. What are the alternative uses for the land on which your tomatos are grown, and what are the available substitutes for those alternative uses? What are the alternative uses for the farmer’s time, and the farmer’s equipment, and the resources that go into producing that equipment? These considerations, in the aggregate, typically dwarf the small number of considerations you’re choosing to focus on. And the only feasible indicator of all those costs is the tomato’s price.

  15. 15 15 Steve Landsburg

    Seth: It seems like there are only two ways to respond to this. Either convince them that prices do reflect the environmental cost or convince them that the environmental costs is not well known.

    There is another alternative, which is to try to make them see that these environmental costs are a small part of a very big picture.

  16. 16 16 Rowan

    @Leah_Bloom:

    1) I don’t understand how “grown with minimal use of chemicals” correlates with “local”. Surely different areas vary in their overall use of chemicals (and greenhouses, and other factors). Why is buying a local organically-grown vegetable better than buying a Californian organically-grown vegetable?

    2) Why is giving money to someone nearby better than giving money to someone far away? Why is it better that someone a few miles away from me can pay their mechanic and go out to dinner, rather than someone who lives in California, Canada, or Chile? I think I might understand this more if the area we both live in was more economically-depressed than the one we were sending our food-dollars to, but in many cases, it’s the reverse. Why does hoarding our wealth in our local area “better for the economy”?

  17. 17 17 Harold

    Rowan: This has come up before, but the fact is we “care” more about the folk close to us. But even apart from this, there is direct self interest. If the mechanic that fixes the farmers car is close to home, and spends the money at our local retaurant, then it is much more likely that that restaurant will still be there when I want to go out for a meal.

  18. 18 18 Cos

    I think you missed the general point quite spectacularly in your post, and several commenters have pointed out pieces of it already, but I’ll state it generally: The point is that price is grossly distorted by factors that conflict with people’s values, so they’re attempting to balance out those factors in order to reinforce their values, and are willing to spend more, and hoping that if enough people do so, it will be a partial counterbalance to those factors. In other words, the whole point here is that people are trying to counter what they consider to be serious deficiencies in the prices of food, which means “but prices actually answer all of these concerns” is a spectacularly imperceptive answer. You’re not addressing the core issue at all, you’re pretending that it doesn’t exist in the first place, and giving as a solution the very problem they’re trying to attack.

    I think you should acknowledge this, before moving on to the rest of the debate.

    Now, in response to some of the comments, you wrote:

    “There is another alternative, which is to try to make them see that these environmental costs are a small part of a very big picture.”

    … and you’re right. I think that’d be the ideal solution. If we stop subsidizing oil and other “dirty” energy with special advantages over other economic activity, if we stop subsidizing the growing of corn and soy, and if we have a cap and trade system or carbon tax* – if we have all of those things, then food prices might properly reflect the factors that locavores and similarly-opinioned people care about, and they could re-evaluate their buying strategy. Maybe prices would do a good enough job under those circumstances. But, that’s not what we have now. I personally choose to direct more of my energy towards political efforts to make those things happen, and less of my energy towards choosing which food to buy, but it’s not a mutually exclusive pair of alternatives, and people can do some of both.

    *I know you argue that a carbon tax is superior to cap and trade, but for the purposes of this paragraph, either of them could be good enough regardless of which is better.

  19. 19 19 The_Orlonater

    Leah Bloom,

    1) Your description of “keeping the ‘local’ economy growing” is nothing but revamped 21st century mercantilism. A major point of an economy is to destroy jobs, not sustain them. Secondly, our wealth comes from what each of us best specializes in. If we spend less money for foreign goods, we have more money and time for other things to specialize in. Keeping higher-priced “local” labor employed over less expensive “foreign” labor over the sake of keeping the former employed is a foolish decision. Thirdly, to use a reductio ad absurdum, your example can be applied to neighborhoods, blocks, households, and the individual person. After all, it will keep them “employed.”

    2) Industrial food and modern bio-technology have moved peopled from desperate starvation to having higher crop yields,and a satiated hunger for their families and communities. Secondly, “organic” food is the food that is most responsible for e.coli infections.

  20. 20 20 Super-Fly

    @Leah

    So, in response to a few of your points:

    About the money “staying in my economy”, Prof. Landsburg has addressed this issue time and time again. The New York farmer may lose business (if he chooses not to match the prices of the California farmer) but his loss is *at most* equal to the California farmer’s gain because the New York farmer can always do something else with his time. Next, if I spend $1 on a California tomato instead of $2 on a New York tomato, I have an extra dollar that I can spend (on a mechanic, for example). Also, more people (who wouldn’t buy a $2 tomato) can now get a tomato. It’s undeniably good for Californians and New Yorkers. Plus, I don’t know the New York farmer. Why would I care about him more than a California farmer? Like I said, Prof. Landsburg has given more detailed examples elsewhere on this blog.

    Next, I realize that everyone is afraid of scary chemicals. But without those chemicals, people would starve. We have more food than ever now thanks to improved farming techniques and pesticides. To quote Penn Jilette, we should be dancing about how much food we have. Synthetic pesticides are safer than ever too. The local organic farmer in the straw hat still uses pesticides, they’re just not synthetic. There’s no such thing as pesticide-free farming.

    Also, in regards to food safety, we occasionally hear about an e.coli contamination or something, but think about how rare those occurrences are (compared to how much food is produced). One thing we need to appreciate is how ridiculously safe our food actually is. Stories about Salmonella-riddled Omega-Death eggs sell alot of papers (in reality, about 1/10,000 eggs is contaminated with salmonella and cooking said eggs kills it).

  21. 21 21 Tracy W

    Leah Bloom -

    on your point 1, did you read Steven Landsburg’s post? We don’t know if it’s better for the environment. What’s the alternative use of the land that your local farmers use, and how valuable is that compared to what farmers elsewhere would use? How much energy do local farmers use to grow that crop, versus how much further away? How much water do they need to shift around for irrigation? You appear to be only focusing on what you can immediately see (eg packaging that gets thrown away), but not what you don’t immediately see.

    As for the “much locally grown food is raised without, or with limited use of chemicals, so there is less environmental contamination, and you ingest fewer chemicals,” everything material is made up 100% of chemicals. So all locally-grown food is raised with chemicals. If you want to ingest fewer chemicals, then eat less.

    Point 2, it’s only better for your economy if your area is the only one that buys locally. If you buy locally, and everyone else buys locally then while more of your money stays in your community, less money comes in from further away. If your farmer can only sell to people who buy locally, then he has less money left over to pay the local mechanic, and so perhaps the mechanic can’t afford to pay the accountant. If people don’t come into your locality, then the local restaurant has less of a clientale, so it might shut down altogether, putting the wait staff out of work. If no one from outside your region buys from your farmer, then there’s less money for the local infrastructure.

    Basically, if one area buys local, while selling everything internationally as well, when they can be better off. But if everyone buys local, then no one is better off, and the losses from gains of scale add up.

    Point 3, you’ve got it the wrong way around. Buying locally makes food safety worse. What happens if there’s a flood or a drought in your area, and your local farmers’ crops are nearly wiped out? Nowadays there’s a lot of infrastructure capacity to bring goods in, so in a rich country, produce gets redirected quickly and cheaply from those farmers who happen to have a local surplus, to cover those areas who have a local shortage. But if everyone is buying locally then there’s less reason to invest in that infrastructure, so prices are going to really shoot up. And it’s entirely possible for an area to have droughts that last multiple years.

    Point 4, do you realise that a lot of farmers are very poor people? Perhaps you only care about people close to you, but my own personal circle of caring is wider.

    In fact, I’m convinced that I’m getting a pretty good deal.

    And somehow I suspect absolutely none of the arguments I’ve made will change your mind.

    Harold – same prob. If you buy locally and everyone else who buys currently from your area keeps doing so, then you might be better off (depends how expensive your local goods are and what environmental damage you’re doing). But if everyone buys lcoally, then the amount of money coming into your area falls. Buying locally for economic reasons doesn’t scale.

  22. 22 22 Seth

    First, I’m embarrassed about my bad grammar.

    “There is another alternative, which is to try to make them see that these environmental costs are a small part of a very big picture.”

    Second, true.

    “I personally choose to direct more of my energy towards political efforts to make those things happen, and less of my energy towards choosing which food to buy”-Cos

    In other words, you want to put other peoples’ money where your mouth is.

  23. 23 23 Rowan

    @Harold: If the mechanic that fixes the farmers car is close to home, and spends the money at our local retaurant, then it is much more likely that that restaurant will still be there when I want to go out for a meal.

    I guess I have a different perspective on this because if my income were limited to sources within, say, 500 miles of me, I’d be deeply screwed (as, I suspect, would many people). I buy vegetables from Mexico. Some of that money gets spent in Mexican chains. A Mexican chain buys software from my firm to help them build their website. My firm uses that money to pay me a salary to teach some nice people in India how to implement that site. I buy dinner, which while prepared locally (maybe), is constituted from ingredients from around the world. The Mexicans and Indians do the same.

    In short, I don’t see how buying vegetables from Mexico threatens my local restaurant industry (or any of the other local industries). In fact, if we were all limited to getting all our income from within 500 miles, and all restaurants were limited to getting all their ingredients from within 500 miles, I’m betting there would be a lot *fewer* restaurants.

    My “local area” is the planet Earth. I will dutifully avoid buying vegetables from Mars.

  24. 24 24 lmoxy

    Very interesting and well-reasoned, I agree. Except for the fact that some of the things we do that lower cost actually have terrible social consequences (Alar on apples, anyone? Uninsured, illegal migrant workers?). So the price, while it may reflect the efficiency of production, does not at all reflect all the costs of producing an item.

    In short, I think it’s all but impossible to do the RIGHT thing, because nothing is as simple as an either-or choice. It’s all connected in ways we cannot begin to fathom.

  25. 25 25 Harold

    Super-Fly: very good points. I suppose the only way that spending more on my local economy will improve the local economy (at least in the short term) is if the alternatives I can spend it on are all non-local. I must think some more.

  26. 26 26 Leah Bloom

    @Steven, you say “You don’t have that information, and you can’t get it by driving by the food stand.” What makes you think that I don’t have or can’t get the information you suggest would be necessary to make a more informed choice? If my farmer is my neighbor, I absolutely *can* drive by the food stand, and ask (and likely get an answer to) many of your questions. In fact, this is one of the essential reasons to support local farming, because not just the hows, but the whys are so transparent. Questions they can’t answer are the same ones anyone would have difficulty answering, and I’d rather make choices on the basis of incomplete data than no data at all.

    @Rowan – For whatever reason, I have found far more small-scale local growers who use IPM, are spray-free, and/or otherwise limit their use of chemicals than large-scale operations anywhere. I posit that one reason for this is that known growers (which in this case = local, since consumers know them due to proximity) are more directly accountable to their known (also read “local”) customers than anonymous growers are to anonymous customers. Consumers can clearly see how growers local to them operate, making it simple to vote for one’s values with one’s wallet. One locavore value is low or no chemical use. Knowing this, farmers who identify themselves as a local resource for consumers tend to grow accordingly.

    In terms of chemicals used to grow the food, you are right that organic is organic, though I do still question the resources required to put local vs. non-local organic foods on one’s table. However, it’s inaccurate to assume that organic and low-chemical or chemical-free are the same. In fact, many local growers use organic methods but cannot afford official organic certification. I am often able to get local produce grown even more sustainably than certified organics, perhaps for the reason I suggest above.

    As for why it’s better for money to stay local, I do not mean to suggest that my community or its members are more deserving of money than any others. But we’ve got to start somewhere, and it is often easiest and, because the results are right in front of us and have a direct impact on us, most rewarding, to start at home. Once our own houses are in order, it’s that much easier to expand our reach.

    @Super-Fly – I don’t dispute that mechanical, chemical, and other modern advancements in agriculture have allowed us to feed more people than ever before. I do, however, question the costs and benefits of this ability, on both a personal and a global level. According to a study out of Stanford and published in _Science_, even with these agricultural advances, “rising temperatures will create food shortages for half the world’s population by 2100″ (http://bit.ly/bhImW5). If the methods used to increase food production are also contributing to global warming (and science indicates that they are), maybe they’re not such great methods after all. I wouldn’t be surprised if methane from cow manure has a greater impact on the climate than the production of chemical fertilizers, but in neither case am I prepared to dance about the amount of food we can raise.

    Finally, there is absolutely such a thing as pesticide-free farming. It is not possible to achieve a reasonable yield of all crops in all locations or under all circumstances without pesticides, but I have picked and bought produce grown without any pesticides at all from local orchards and farms.

  27. 27 27 Steve Landsburg

    Cos: Let’s recap.

    I say the price of a tomato is a pretty good indicator of the social cost of acquiring that tomato, and therefore if you care about such things, the price should be your primary guide.

    You (and the locavores) say, ah, but a “pretty good indicator” is not a *perfect* indicator. So I should adjust for the fact that the price fails to account for, say, unpriced environmental damage due to transportation, etc.

    I think this is a poor response if you’re defending Budiansky, and a poor response if you’re defending the locavores, but for different reasons:

    1) If you’re talking about Budiansky, most of what he discusses *is* reflected in the tomato price.

    2) If you’re talking about the locavores—okay, they want to correct for this particular imperfection in the information value of the price. Why this one, and not others? Why does no locavore every say: “Well, taxes are relatively high in California, so the price of California tomatos overstates the social cost of producing them, so we should lean more toward buying California tomatos.”? Once you start correcting for imperfections in prices, there are a lot of corrections to make, and there’s no particular reason to think that on balance they’d point you toward the local tomato.

    Fortunately, the imperfections are usually small and we can’t go too far wrong by relying on prices. But IF we’re going to take on the (probably impossible) task of correcting for those imperfections, why focus on a completely arbitrary subset, as the locavores do?

  28. 28 28 Steve Landsburg

    Leah:

    @Steven, you say “You don’t have that information, and you can’t get it by driving by the food stand.” What makes you think that I don’t have or can’t get the information you suggest would be necessary to make a more informed choice? If my farmer is my neighbor, I absolutely *can* drive by the food stand, and ask (and likely get an answer to) many of your questions. In fact, this is one of the essential reasons to support local farming, because not just the hows, but the whys are so transparent. Questions they can’t answer are the same ones anyone would have difficulty answering, and I’d rather make choices on the basis of incomplete data than no data at all.

    You have, I think, not a shred of an iota of glimmer of an inkling of an idea of how much information we’re talking about. That farmland has at least 10,000 alternative uses, and each of those 10,000 alternative uses has 10,000 substitutes. To imagine that the farmer can tell you which of those alternative uses is most valuable, and what it’s value would be, and all the associated gains and losses is to imagine that he’s got a handle (just for starters) on the following questions: Just how much commuting time *would* be saved if we put up a housing development here instead of a farm? Just what sorts of resources would go into building those houses? And into building the equipment for building those houses? And how many of the people who might live there are going to end up commuting longer as opposed to finding different jobs? And what sort of resources will go into training them for those jobs?

    I’m not sure whether you’re failing to grasp the immensity of the information problem (which makes it absolutely impossible to solve without prices) or whether you’re failing to grasp the remarkable accuracy with which prices *do* reflect all that information. No farmer knows one quadzillionth of what the market knows.

  29. 29 29 Ken

    Leah Bloom,

    1) “It’s better for the environment”. Baloney. Intensive farming and GM foods are far better for the environment that otherwise. Intensive farming allows you to get more yield out of the same amount of ground, which means that less if any wilderness needs to be converted to farmland. This means a smaller footprint is needed to grow the same amount of food. GM foods allow you to not use any chemicals or less anyway because the modications made to the plants will allow these plants to produce them themselves. All this reduces the amount of pollution caused by using pesticides.

    2) “It’s better for the economy”. Baloney. See Steven’s post. It doesn’t even make sense to say that “a large percentage fo the money stays”. The reality is that if I sell you tomatoes for $10, I have added $10 of tomatoes to your “local economy” no matter what I do with the $10 you handed to me in payment.

    3) “It’s better for food safety”. Baloney. Are you really trying to say that California growers are somehow less cautious than New York growers? All the food safety examples you throw up have nothing to do with WHERE the food is produced.

    4) “It’s better for your body and your conscience”. Baloney. Good tomotoes are grown all over the world. I live in MD. There is nothing inherently better about the farmers in MD that will yield healthier food than food produced else where. As for being better for your conscience, is it really better to pay $1 for a locally grown tomato (that locally grown tomato will be grown by an American and Americans are filthy rich) than to pay $.75 on a tomato grown in India? Indian farmers are far worse off than American farmers by any measure and you would prefer to pay more for American food than Indian food, thus depriving a far poorer person revenue in favor of one who is extravagantly rich by comparison. Nice conscience you got!

    “Price alone simply cannot account for all of these factors”. As a matter of fact it can. Try learning a little economics.

    Regards,
    Ken

  30. 30 30 Colin

    Leah Bloom:

    You certainly are popular in these comments. I just want to point something out about your #1 up there. I’ll just quote from a post over on the freakonomics blog:

    According to the Cucumber Growers’ Association, just 1.5 grams of plastic wrap extends a cuke’s shelf life from 3 to 14 days, all the while protecting it from “dirty hands.” Another study found that apples packed in a shrink wrapped tray cut down on fruit damage (and discard) by 27 percent. Similar numbers have been found for potatoes and grapes. Again, while it seems too simple a point to reiterate, it’s often forgotten: the longer food lasts the better chances there are of someone consuming it.

    [...]

    [W]hen it comes to food waste, not all materials are created equal. Concerned consumers look at wrapped produce and frown upon the packaging, because it’s the packaging that’s most likely destined for a landfill. But if you take the packaging away and focus on the naked food itself, you have to realize that the food will be rotting a lot sooner than if it weren’t packaged and, as a result, will be heading to the same place as the packaging: the landfill. Decaying food emits methane, a greenhouse gas that’s more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Packaging — unless it’s biodegradable — does not. If the landfill is connected to a methane digester, which in all likelihood it isn’t, you can turn the methane into energy. Otherwise, it makes more sense to send the wrapping (rather than the food) into the environmentally incorrect grave.

  31. 31 31 Colin

    While I’m in the business of quoting blogs, we may as well also look at what Matt Ridley has to say about organic farming:

    The quantity of cereals harvested in the world has trebled in 40 years [correction: nearly trebled in 50 years!], but the acreage planted to cereals has hardly changed at all.

    That remarkable achievement is mostly down to the fact that most farmers now get extra nitrogen straight from the air, via ammonium factories, rather than from plants, dung and dead fish — the `organic’ way.

    If the world was fed with organic food, it follows, we would need to cultivate or otherwise exploit far, far more land to get the plants, dung and dead fish to produce the same amount of food. As I submit to being preached at by organic farmers about their virtue, this fact keeps creeping into my head. Wholly organic farming means no rainforests or it means hunger and high food prices.

  32. 32 32 Rowan

    @Leah: Once our own houses are in order, it’s that much easier to expand our reach.

    I guess this is where our perspectives differ. I think our “houses” here in New England are in pretty damn amazing shape, compared to the “houses” in many other regions of the world. As globalization continues, it’s probably true that our local standard of living will go down, because we’ve been living like kings in this part of the world on the backs of the hungry and sick masses. I don’t see any moral virtue in preserving that state of affairs.

    North Americans (and Europeans, I suppose) are going to have some serious adjusting to do over the next few decades as the world gradually catches on that people in other parts of the world can do almost everything we do here just as well — for less — and therefore stops paying “people like us” a premium to do it just because we’re “people like us”.

  33. 33 33 rapscallion

    I agree that mandating local food consumption is probably not a good idea and that Budiansky’s calculations are silly.

    However, the logical problem with these defenses of the free market is that government regulations and services are also the outcome of market activity, and hence by the same logic are also efficient. How can you have enough knowledge to say that mandating local food production is not the most efficient outcome? People have a great deal of freedom in where they want to live and which politicians to vote for. If they vote for locavore policies, perhaps it’s because they have information that you don’t. Government policies reflect people’s best efforts at coordinating solutions to innumerable public tradeoffs. As individuals, we have little knowledge of most of these costs and tradeoffs, just as we have little knowledge of most of the costs and tradeoffs that go into setting “free market” prices. Logically, we are no more justified in saying that government-regulated price changes are incorrect than we are in saying that market prices are incorrect. They are both the outcome of market activity, of rational agents doing the best they can.

    The concept of economic efficiency, properly understood, implies nothing whatsoever about good public policy.

  34. 34 34 Tom

    Mr. Landsburg – Excellently written. The marginal costs of subsitution are impossible to effectively calculate except by the market as a whole.

    The ironic point to all of this is that environmentalists tend to encourage organic farming which takes more land to produce a lower yield per acre of farmland. This means more people must be farmers. Yet those same environmentalists also encourage policies that provide positive incentives to live in urban areas (gas taxes, carbon taxes, etc). This hits rural residents and specfically small business owners there (read: farmers) to a far greater extent.

    So in the end, environmentalists inadvertently provide incentives to grow products which they are morally opposed to.

  35. 35 35 Ben Hughes

    Many of you are replying arguing that the cost of things such as gasoline do not reflect the true environmental cost. Fair enough, but isn’t this a reason to support economists in advocating carbon tax and other efficient ways of correcting for negative externalities? It seems that such efforts would be far more productive than dictating morality from numbers derived from, as Lamberg puts it, “crabbed accounting”.

    I also wanted to comment on Leah Bloom’s post #2 which is total bunk despite being repeated by folks ad nauseum because it did does “feel good” to believe. He never stops to think that perhaps other towns buying your town’s “exports” could possibly lead to greater living standards through specialization and exchange. Examine his reasoning – which which is a roundabout way of supporting protectionism – in a context other than “town” such as “country” or even individually and this becomes clear.

  36. 36 36 Leah Bloom

    @Steven – The market, no matter what it is capable of reflecting, is neither sentient nor conscience-laden. Low prices seem to me to address efficiency, not morality. And one major reason for eating local, for me, is that it allows me to ensure that my farmer treats the earth and its creatures in a way that accords with my morals. In fact, I rather think that the higher price of some local foods (and for that matter, of organic, sustainably raised foods across the board) reflects morality and other complex values considered in generating said food.

    @Ken and Colin – While it is possible these days to find a study that supports nearly any view one wishes to take, I will point out that there are numerous studies that show neither a drop in yield nor a need for increased land under cultivation using organic vs. conventional farming techniques. For example, this one: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=1091304

    “The principal objections to the proposition that organic agriculture can contribute significantly to the global food supply are low yields and insufficient quantities of organically acceptable fertilizers. We evaluated the universality of both claims. For the first claim, we compared yields of organic versus conventional or low-intensive food production for a global dataset of 293 examples and estimated the average yield ratio (organic:non-organic) of different food categories for the developed and the developing world. For most food categories, the average yield ratio was slightly 1.0 for studies in the developing world. With the average yield ratios, we modeled the global food supply that could be grown organically on the current agricultural land base. Model estimates indicate that organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base. We also evaluated the amount of nitrogen potentially available from fixation by leguminous cover crops used as fertilizer. Data from temperate and tropical agroecosystems suggest that leguminous cover crops could fix enough nitrogen to replace the amount of synthetic fertilizer currently in use. These results indicate that organic agriculture has the potential to contribute quite substantially to the global food supply, while reducing the detrimental environmental impacts of conventional agriculture.”

  37. 37 37 Steve Landsburg

    Leah: You’re of course entitled to your morals, even if they dictate near-total indifference to the effects of your lifestyle on your fellow creatures. I do think it’s a good thing, though, to make more people aware that that’s what locavorism is about.

  38. 38 38 Leah Bloom

    Steven: It fails to surprise me that a conservative libertarian and a liberal socialist (for lack of more accurate labels) can’t agree here. If, however, you do in fact believe that locavorism is about pursuing one’s morals to the exclusion of their effects on one’s fellow creatures, I can only conclude that you are not simply coming from a different place, but missing the point altogether.

  39. 39 39 Cos

    “You (and the locavores) say, ah, but a “pretty good indicator” is not a *perfect* indicator. ”

    Not at all. I’m not speaking for myself in particular, but people who do what you describe (locavores and others) are doing so out of a belief that the price is GROSSLY distorted – that the missing pieces they want to correct for are very very large and make the price a really bad indicator.

    “okay, they want to correct for this particular imperfection in the information value of the price. Why this one, and not others?”

    Two answers:

    1. They’re correcting for this one because this is the one they really care about. That’s their motivation. Your argument isn’t, as far as I can tell, that they shouldn’t care about what they care about; you’re trying to argue that given that they care about this, what they do still doesn’t make sense. If that’s the case, posing the question “why is it that they care about this” is beside the point. If, on the other hand, you really are trying to say “hey, that thing the locavores care so much about, it’s really not any more important that lots of other things they could care about”, then all your economic arguments are beside he point.

    2. They may believe that this is the most distorted aspect of the price, and that most other factors that matter are more or less (even if imperfectly) already reflected in the price. If you want to explain why you think they’re wrong about that, you’ll have to write a different post, because you didn’t address it at all here. You just minimize it by assertion, without data.

  40. 40 40 Ken

    Leah Bloom,

    “While it is possible these days to find a study that supports nearly any view one wishes to take…” Not quality ones. I can just make shit up too and call it a study and I can fundamentally misrepresent statistics. If Norman Borlag hadn’t invented the green revolution, we wouldn’t have ~6,000,000,000 on the planet. The green revolution is a direct result of intensive farming and GM plants. World population exploded during the middle twentieth century. We were able to sustain this population growth with minimal increases farmland required to support the population.

    Regards,
    Ken

  41. 41 41 Neil

    I think a libertarian would have to agree that locavores have every right to buy whatever food they want. Lets just not base public policies on their ideas. And I agree with locavores on another thing–lets get rid of the vast agricultural subsidies that tend to disproportionately benefit large scale agribusiness.

  42. 42 42 ben

    Leah, since it cannot be true that the most land-efficient national or global producer of fruit or vegetable X is in everyone’s locality, then it must be true by definition that locavorism reduces average land intensity and thus increases the total crop area required to produce any given amount.

    Anyway, consumers, being free, are able to consider more than just the price and take their own values into account, that much is obvious, so your point is trivial. Plainly, one preferences matter. If the locavore movement’s sole point were to let consumers know that its ok to take one’s personal values on local production into account when making purchase, nobody could complain (or learn much that’s new). But that isn’t the point of locavores. Instead the point is to argue that your values trump others by convincing the state to use its coercive power to “convince” others that your way is in fact better. Not only would that recipe very arbitrarily and substantially lower material prosperity, it would produce a great deal of harm to the environment by shifting production to inefficient producers i.e. the one’s who need more land, more water, more fertiliser, more labour and more capital to produce a given crop. No thanks.

  43. 43 43 Russell Nelson

    Leah Bloom, you’re missing the point. You’re trying to make your morals add up, by adding 1 plus 2 to get 3. But the market adds 1.01237581168068016 plus 2.0876241883193201 to get 3.1 — without argument a more moral quantity.

    You’re trying to work around something which is far far better at achieving your goal than your work-around. Figure out how to incorporate your moral goals into the prices of things. The beauty of the price system is that it creates a common denominator by which all things can be compared. When you try to go around it and introduce other denominators, like energy, you not only fail to actually account for all the energy, which is Budiansky’s point, but you fail to compare between denominators, which is Landsburg’s.

    This who do not understand economics are condemned to reinvent it, badly.

  44. 44 44 Russell Nelson

    Neil, it’s not just the subsidies that favor big businesses. It’s ALL regulation. If you have to comply with one law, it’s going to cost you $X. To comply with ten laws, $10X. The only way you can afford to comply with the law is to get big or get out.

  45. 45 45 Milton Recht

    1. It is not just carbon that is an environmental concern. Agriculture in the US and the world, which is a separate category from livestock raising, is one of the biggest users of clean water, particularly on a consumptive basis. Depending on data sources, agriculture consumption of water is somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of total clean water use. Large scale growers are much more water use efficient than small producers. US household use is 2 to 9 percent depending on data sources. (Industry uses a lot of water, but it can use non-drinkable water and it also recycles or returns the water to its source. For example, a water-powered turbine uses the force of the water but does not consume the water and returns it to its source.)

    2. There are as far as I know no truth in labeling laws for local grown produce sold at farmer’s markets or to restaurants. NYS Department of Agriculture has a farm search function, http://www.agmkt.state.ny.us/FandMSearch.html .

    Just by chance, I did a search, picked a farm within 150 miles of NYC, and looked at its website. The site mentioned that the farm uses its skill to select high quality produce grown on the farm for resale in its produce market and that it also uses the same selection skill to buy and resell high quality produce that it did not grow.

    So a local produce farm market, or a town’s farmers market, might have local farmers selling their wares. It might also have non-local grown produce also mixed in by these local farmers.

    3. Some do gooder environmentalism is a means for creating a prestige brand, a signal and a luxury good. It is never about the reality of the science or the math of the stated environmental concept.

    Practicing and calling oneself a locavore is about the signal and image one sends about his/herself to others. People do not buy Rolex watches because they are more accurate than Timex watches. It is about the signaling and group identification.

    The same is true for locavores, recyclers, hybrid users, etc. Nissan put out a hybrid car that was indistinguishable from its non-hybrid car. The car would not sell and needed to be redesigned to make it clear to others that it was a hybrid. Recycling requires in many towns, putting it out in separate, visibly identifiable bin or bag. People comply to show their neighbors of their environmental concern. When signaling was not available, many of these same people threw out their plastic Poland Spring, Aqua Fina, etc. plastic water bottles in non-recycling containers while away from home instead of taking them home to recycle.

  46. 46 46 Tracy W

    Leah Bloom: But we’ve got to start somewhere, and it is often easiest and, because the results are right in front of us and have a direct impact on us, most rewarding, to start at home.

    Then why are you advocating that other people go locavorce? Surely you should be trying to persuade:
    1. Your local groups to go locavore
    2. Everyone else in the world to buy from your locality.

    That would be the best for your little corner of the world. To spend your time on an internationally-available blog advocating locavorism is, to the extent you convince anyone, self-defeating in terms of your economic objective.

  47. 47 47 Trevor H

    Steve – my reading of Budiansky is far more charitable than yours. Indeed, I don’t see a contradiction between his piece and yours. He gives some examples why a simplistic energy input calculation is inadequate, but doesn’t claim to be exhaustive or that an exhaustive calculation is possible. He doesn’t cap off his analysis with the fact that the market price is indeed the best approximation to costs – direct & opportunity as well as externalities. So you’ve got a valid criticism there.

  48. 48 48 Rand E. Gerald

    Another thing the locovore movement seems to conveniently ignore is that some areas are intrinsically superior for growing specific agricultural products. This may be due to climate, soil conditions, labor supply, length of growing season, etc.

    Years ago, I recall that it was not possible to get “seasonal” fruits all year around. Now, with rapid, readily available transportation, the concept of a “seasonal” fruit has gone the way of the buggy whip.

  49. 49 49 David Wallin

    “If, however, you [SL] do in fact believe that locavorism is about pursuing one’s morals to the exclusion of their effects on one’s fellow creatures, I can only conclude that you are not simply coming from a different place, but missing the point altogether.” I would be shocked to meet a locavorist who is not motivated by lofty goals and has an extremely high concern about fellow creatures. I’ve never met a pro-minimum-wager who didn’t have extreme concern, love, and affection for the working poor. That doesn’t change the evidence that shows the pro-minimum-wager hurts the poor with minimum wage laws and increases. Having “desirable” goals doesn’t make your actions to achieve them effective. Luddites probably have “good” motives too…

  50. 50 50 Steve Landsburg

    David Wallin: I disagree with you for reasons that probably merit a separate blog post, maybe in a week or so.

  51. 51 51 Spikeygrrl

    What’s wrong with being a locovore when it’s not an issue of cult-like politics but rather one of both quality and price?

    As a military wife and habitual from-scratch cook, I do most of my grocery shopping at DeCA (“the commissary”), because most items there meet national standards of quality at a 30-40% cost saving over civilian markets. However, I buy my seafood at local supermarkets even though it’s slightly more costly, because it’s usually FRESH right here on the Pacific Coast, whereas DeCA fish is invariably pre-frozen. I also buy most of my produce at local farmers’ markets: it’s not only even cheaper than DeCA but almost immeasurably more flavorful. (DeCA CLAIMS to source its produce regionally…so why does it always taste so FLAT?!)

    My point: locovorism is not a dirty word, so long as it’s practiced as simple consumer preference rather than counter-consumer religion.

  52. 52 52 Steve Landsburg

    Spikeygrrl:

    What’s wrong with being a locovore when it’s not an issue of cult-like politics but rather one of both quality and price?

    Absolutely nothing of course, and your point is extremely well taken.

  1. 1 Social Responsibility and Market Signals
  2. 2 Loconomics « Cheap Talk
  3. 3 LocoVore Followup: A Blast From the Past at Steven Landsburg | The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics, and Physics
  4. 4 Free market > a bunch of smart intellectuals sitting around a table :The Thinker
  5. 5 Putting Tomatoes on the "Bathroom Scale" | Auto Insurance
  6. 6 The Power of Price | Clar Reposts Things Online
  7. 7 Consommer des fruits hors-saison, est-absurde ? « Rationalité Limitée
  8. 8 links for 2010-08-26 – Kevin Burke
  9. 9 links for 2010-08-26 | links.kburke.org
  10. 10 Bookmarks for August 26th from 14:23 to 22:30 | links.kburke.org
  11. 11 Geheimtipp für Locavore |
  12. 12 Weekend Roundup at Steven Landsburg | The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics, and Physics
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