Locavorism Hatin’ from an MIT PhD.

Arnold Kling, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and a member of the Financial Markets Working Group at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University , gives his two cents on locavorism:

Ed Glaeser writes about another one of my pet peeves, locavorism. I always tell locavores that they should go further and only buy clothes made from local materials. Only use computers made from local materials. In fact, they should only consume goods that we can make ourselves using materials we can find on their own property.

I’m not exactly sure what article Kling was reading, but the Glaeser piece is more about population density and greenhouse gas emissions than it is about the economic efficiency of the current model versus one that locavore advocates wish were in place.

Now I have my own issues with locavorism, don’t get me wrong. Most of them have to do with the ability for the great majority of us to do without rather than demand access to one product or another. For example, here in the great state of Washington, there’s precious little practical reason to have bananas in December, yet not only do we get these non-locally grown products in the winter months, we get them year round. At some point, if locavorism is to be taken to its extreme, the need for bananas in December will have to be addressed in some manner.

This brings up two more points however:

1) The reason why we have bananas in December (and any multitude of other products in their off-season) is a simple one – there’s a demand for it. And when there’s demand, the marketplace will find a way to address that demand.
2) The great majority of locavorists (I think I just made up that word) aren’t advocating for a 100-mile diet 365 days a year. Most are more than willing to account for marketplace demands for one product or another. From what I’ve read and heard, most are simply willing to spend their money supporting their community (defined as either city, county, state, or region), rather than some corporate entity found thousands of miles away.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t environmental arguments to be made in the defense of locavorism. There most certainly are. But the underlying theme I keep hearing is that there’s more value in spending money in the community that there is spending it elsewhere.

Let me point to an info-graphic that I referred to back last November:

What this is saying is that there is an increase of investment in local community to the tune of 25% versus spending on imported articles. That’s a huge difference, and one which should make local governments take notice. Of course the Arnold Kling’s of the world would argue that there’s no such thing as regional self-sufficiency any more, and the the global marketplace is what allows us to get our computers, clothes, and yes, even bananas in winter.

There’s a reason why locavorism has started in (and has primarily focused on) food: With minimal investment anyone can get into the food industry. At its minimum, one only needs a garden or a kitchen, and some interaction with the local governments. That 50 year old woman canning pickles in her kitchen using cucumbers from her garden to sell at the farmers market is as much a part of the local food movement as the farm supplying local restaurants with organic vegetables. The bar for entering the computer or textile industries is far higher.

Ultimately, the question comes down to this – While there may be short term benefits for spending $1.50 on a jar of pickles from Vlasic versus the $1.80 jar from Marge at the farmers market, in the long term, I should get a 25% return to the community when buying from Marge. That’s a no-brainer for me.

There are other nuances to this discussion to be made, for certain. But the point of this post is to demonstrate that dismissing locavorism out of hand seems careless. There are aspects of this philosophy which go beyond those of environment. For me, ultimately, it’s to recognize one’s civic responsibility to ensure the economic stability (and growth) of where they live. Everything beyond that point is merely locally-produced icing on the cake.