While correct, he has slain a straw man of a locavore, who apparently seeks no other changes to the food system. Most good food advocates, however, seek much more than localization, including priorities such as organic production, a decrease in the consumption of processed food, and prudent dietary choices guided by seasonality and the sorts of food native to one’s climate. These arguments and more are made in three thorough refutations of Sexton’s arguments posted by Jill Richardson from Alernet, Tom Philpott at Mother Jones, and Anne Lappe at CivilEats. Once one corrects the analysis for this more coherent set of priorities, the results would look very different.
But questions of sound food policy are not a game, especially when obesity is our greatest public health challenge, topsoil depletion resulting from conventional agricultural practices threaten long-term global food security, and rising carbon emissions portend calamitous changes to the world as we now know it. The magnitude of these concerns makes it hard to see this sort of contrarianism as cute, even if it is occasionally entertaining.
Lest you think that I am being unfair to Freakonomics and its contributors, this is not the first time they have taken a crack at kneecapping local food. In 2008, Dubner used the anecdote of his failed attempt to make his own ice cream to cast local food as a feel-good indulgence. In truth, his argument amounts to little more than an indictment of extreme do-it-yourself tendencies from an efficiency perspective. I’m unaware of any food activists who argue that we should grow everything that we eat ourselves, or that it would be cheaper to do so; Dubner is merely battling straw men.
Dubner even goes so far as to suggest that because taste is subjective, advocates of localization are out of bounds to claim that locally grown produce tastes better. Never mind the sort of scientific analysis done by producers such as Farmscape that use Brix testing to measure the quality of their produce against that offered in retail supermarkets. Rather than comparing homegrown produce with similar crops sold at the store, Dubner cites his preference for Big Macs over asparagus. I would call this an apples to oranges comparison, but that metaphor seems a bit spot on. Moreover, is there anyone who seriously believes that a sun-ripened brandywine tomato from the backyard tastes worse than the translucent pink mush served atop hamburgers at McDonalds?
Interpreted more broadly, Dubner’s argument could be read as an endorsement of “bigger is better” as an economic principle. After all, bigger scale means greater efficiency. That’s a tough argument to swallow in the wake of a financial crisis where the size of the nation’s largest banks held the government and the American people alike hostage, and even harder to swallow as the debt crisis in Europe threatens to do the same all over again. More to the point, ask a family farmer how they feel about consolidation within agriculture as land prices have risen, margins on crops have fallen, and the specter of lawsuits related to patent-protected seeds looms.
And it’s not just the fellows at Freakonomics who are lobbing grenades from the sidelines. Earlier this year, Harvard Economics Professor Edward Glaeser waded in to the local food debate. His argument: if we simply bring the farm to the city, the resulting cities will be substantially less dense and carbon emissions will rise. His logic is sound but for the fact that it stems from the ludicrous premise that urban agriculture is an attempt to replicate farms within cities. Even a brief survey of urban ag would reveal that there are numerous innovative models consistent with prudent urban planning that curtail carbon emissions, including rooftop greenhouses, vertical hydroponics and ventures, such as ours at Farmscape, that re-purpose under-utilized landscapes for food production.
Like we saw with the Freakonomics fellows, Glaeser has devastated a silly straw man position while failing to advance the discussion on how we can and should construct a more sustainable food system. Instead, many readers of his Boston Globe op-ed leave with the sweeping conclusion that local food has no place in a serious discussion of sustainable cities.
Economics should not be used to beat down those bent on bettering our food system, it should be used thoughtfully to guide their efforts. Food policy discussion is in serious need of nuance when I still read questions on Quora asking if “local” or “organic” food is better. We need smart people who can use the analytical toolkit of economics to help devise an answer to complex questions such as these. Unfortunately, too many discussions devolve into debates of whether local food is good or bad. That may generate clicks, but it sure doesn’t advance the public policy discourse on food.
There are some academics who have accepted the challenge of evaluating the morass of variables necessary to determine prudent food policy. For example, Professor Ryan Galt at UC Davis, is taking on a study where he examines cradle-to-cradle environmental impacts of traditional and innovative production and distribution methods. The result of his study will be nuanced data that can guide reform efforts thoughtfully. He isn’t likely to get as much attention as the contrarian economists, but he will have contributed significantly more to the world for his efforts.
We are confronting momentous challenges right now related to food production – from climate change to serious concerns about food security stemming from topsoil depletion and population growth – and we need the best minds to help solve them. I urge economists, including Sexton, Dubner and Glaeser, to dedicate serious mind-power todeveloping sophisticated models that appreciate the complexity of food production and distribution while generating results that do more than just sell books or generate clicks. Gentlemen, leave behind the obfuscation and join us in finding real solutions.