The Politics of Eating Locally

Green Tomato In this week’s C-Ville, Meg McEvoy has a long look at the local food movement. Like anybody else who’s given it a whirl, she discovers that locally-grown food is almost universally tastier than its flavorless supermarket counterparts and not hard to find. But area farmers complain that state and local laws make it difficult for them to compete against factory farms, so they’ve gotten organized and they’re doing something about it.

The topic of the importance of a strong, self-sufficient local economy and food supply is near and dear to my heart. For more on this topic, see UVa’s 2006 regional food assessment, Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” or Bill McKibben’s “Deep Economy.” Or, on the blogging front, horticulturist Tracey Gerlach blogs about her adventures with producing some of her own food at “Life in Sugar Hollow.”

19 Responses to “The Politics of Eating Locally”


  • Russ Roberts @ GMU has an interesting EconTalk podcast about the economics of buying local.

  • I was at a large gourmet dinner at a local vineyard last year, and there were a number of nouveau farmers who spoke about the joy of eating local, and how important it is that we change the way food is distributed. The recurring mantra was: “You can’t buy ingredients this good and this fresh at the suerpmarket”, which may have an element of truth to it. However, my dinner companion, who owns a small factory in a nearby rural county, pointed out to me that everyone at the table was wealthy; that the berries we had for dessert sold for $4.50 for a small carton, and that no one of average income could possibly afford the high cost of eating locally grown, high quality foods.

  • Fruits and vegetables from the farmer’s market are quite often cheaper than fruits and vegetables at the grocery store, provided that you’re eating in season. But it’s true that local farmers are at an economic disadvantage to factory farms, because factory farms are heavily subsidized by the federal government, whereas local farmers don’t get nothin’. That’s some of what’s discussed in the article in question, and a lot of what’s discussed at VICFA meetings.

  • Its interesting someone would bring up the point about locally-grown food supposedly being more costly. Allow me to present another point of view. I grew up in a rural county north of here and my family did not have much money. Much of our food came from our own vegetable garden, fresh in season, canned and frozen for the winter. And from trades or purchases with other local people for things we did not raise, like orchard fruits.
    At different times, cows for milk, hens for meat and eggs, and hogs butchered for meat in the fall. Cash went for items like staples we couldnt raise, and the occasional luxury. But we ate well.
    Today I shop at the City Market extensively,and do not attempt to buy fresh vegetables and fruit out of season. Get along quite well without fresh strawberries and tomatoes in the winter-I grew up like that.
    Maybe the key is a change in people’s food shopping and eating habits, if they are get the advantage of locally-produced food.

  • I wonder what food would cost if instead of efficient “factory farm” agriculture we relied exclusively on “boutique” farms so beloved of the painfully Rousseauesque local gentry. Indeed, I heard on the radio the other day that if acreage cultivated for agriculture in the US had expanded at the same rate as our population in the last 75 years (since the Dustbowl, that is) that America would be completely deforested.

    Where’d I hear that? Rush? Hannity? Coulter??? No, I heard it on NPR.

  • I wonder what food would cost if instead of efficient “factory farm” agriculture we relied exclusively on “boutique” farms so beloved of the painfully Rousseauesque local gentry.

    It’s awfully difficult to say. The average calorie of food requires 10 calories of oil to transport it from the place of its manufacture to the consumer’s plate. (To say nothing of the petroleum used to fertilize the plants.) But oil is, famously, extremely heavily subsidized by the federal government. If we removed those subsidies, I suspect strongly that it would no longer be viable to ship a head of lettuce clear from Chile to Virginia in the middle of January, because the price would be so outrageous that nobody would buy it.

    Indeed, I heard on the radio the other day that if acreage cultivated for agriculture in the US had expanded at the same rate as our population in the last 75 years (since the Dustbowl, that is) that America would be completely deforested.

    The Green Revolution (as it’s known) has been accomplished almost entirely by turning oil into food. For example, between 1910 and 1983, U.S. corn yields per acre grew 346%, while energy consumption to produce that corn increased 810% in the same period (Grist Magazine, quoted in Bill McKibben’s “Deep Economy.”)

    A half a gallon of oil is required to make a single bushel of factory-farmed corn — 35% to run the farm machinery, 7% for field irrigation, and the remainder for manufacturing pesticides, dry the grain, and other tasks. (That’s also from McKibben.)

    When you eat factory farmed food, you’re eating the output of petroleum, petroleum that we maintain a supply of through our adventures in the middle east, such as Bush’s war in Iraq. So I support the troops by eating locally grown food.

  • It seems like there is also an emergency response dimension to local food as well. For example, if there were a national emergency where transportation and/or oil were effected, communities with enough local food would be in good shape whereas more urban areas without enough locally grown food would be in big trouble.

    I don’t know if it’s that important or really studied that closely, but I always had a feeling that living in a smaller community with a large local (and diverse, not just corn) food production was a really good thing.

    From the above discussions, I’m not sure I’d make such a big difference between locally owned small semi-automated operations (small factories) and locally owned mostly non automated producers. Certainly one is more labor intensive than another, and that means the automated one is more effected by energy costs, etc. But it seems like the combination is good. I would think it’s when you really scale up in size that you get into the issues of subsidies and energy cost issues.

  • When you eat factory farmed food, you’re eating the output of petroleum, petroleum that we maintain a supply of through our adventures in the middle east, such as Bush’s war in Iraq. So I support the troops by eating locally grown food.

    Why did you have to trot that out? :(

    I know you’re not inferring that people who eat factory farmed food don’t support the troops, or at least, I sure hope so.

    I know you’re going to reply with “Of course not, this is just my contribution etc etc.” but the way it’s worded, you had to have known people would interpret it differently. I’m sure there’s tons of things that you do or consume in your day to day life that involve petroleum of some sort, so .. the others support the troops a little bit less, or you a little more? It’s ok to consume *some* oil and help the terrorists a little bit, but not too much (by buying at the supermarket or riding in SUVs)?

    If you really want to support the troops, there’s a lot better ways to do it than buying food from the City Market.

  • It just seems a lot more complicated than the “buy local” crowd makes it out to be. The idea that the same folks who sell their wares at City Market could, in the nationwide aggregate, feed the country – let alone produce the abundance that allows the US to feed a substantial portion of the rest of the world – is absurd on its face.

    I agree that locally grown food is often better than the bagged stuff shipped in from God-knows-where. I’m just against anything more intrusive than minor tinkering with a system that manages to meet most people’s needs at modicum of cost.

  • It may also be important to note that we grow more food currently than we actually use. Farm subsidies cause us to over produce, and a vast amount is wasted or given away to other countries. If farmers can get more money from growing less crops in an organic fashion then there’s less need for massive subsidies and overproduction. Europe has a working model of locally produced produce, and neither their environment nor their economy has collapsed because of it.

    Also, Organic need not mean just chucking your crops in the ground and expecting them to grow. Personally, I’ve found some “organic” pesticides like Neem to be superior to their chemical counterparts which can burn crops or mean you have to wait to harvest. The same might be said of some organic fetilizers too. The organic fertilizers can often contain a wider range of nutrients than conventional fertilizers.

    For myself, I use organic techniques when they are the most effective, and also conventional techniques when necessary. Ultimately the greatest impact of organic farming might just be in reforming conventional ways of doing agriculture and making it more effective. Keep in mind, the dust bowl was an economic disaster as well as an environmental disaster. Sustainable need not always be contrary to profit.

  • Falstaff–a modicum of cost to whom, defined how? I don’t know this issue inside and out, but I’m guessing that many people would argue that the hidden costs of the current system are killing us–hidden costs meaning the environmental costs exacted by factory farming, the cost of the oil/petroleum required to make it seem “efficient” to ship a head of lettuce grown in California to Maine in the middle of winter, the costs that stem from relying so heavily on illegal immigrants to pick all the produce, the cost of the farm subsidies (our tax $$ going to pay farmers NOT to grow a certain amount in order to prop up prices, etc.), and so on. It might seem wondrously economical and efficient to buy cherries at $2.99/pound at Giant, but that low price is artificially low — we’re paying in a lot of other, less obvious ways.

    In related news, I heard a story on NPR (I think) about how a coalition of interests (health, poverty, and environmental groups) is squaring off against the traditional agriculture interests to change the way agriculture gets subsidized. The main thing I remember from the story: the government subsidizes production of things like wheat, dairy, corn syrup so much, and things like fruit/vegetables so relatively little, that it trickles down to health issues like obesity school lunches (which use the subsidized items heavily). So we get the preponderance of really cheap, really not good for you food and the relative scarcity of cheap vegetables and fruits.

  • I’m with you on the farm subsidies. Every year the Farm Bill costs more and more. But one can also view these subsidies as a national security matter. Don’t laugh. I mean if we’re willing to prop up the domestic steel industry b/c we acknowledge that future crises may require a domestic capacity to make steel, couldn’t the same thing be said of agriculture? Of course Mexico and other places can produce a lot of ag. products cheaper than we can, but is it wise to outsource the nation’s food production capacity? Viewed this way, farm subsidies are more akin to insurance premiums – albeit pretty big ones.

  • I think the issue being raised currently has to do with *what* are we subsidizing, rather than whether we are subsidizing. As I understand it, our ag policy encourages a heavy reliance on corn-based items (sweeteners, etc.), wheat, dairy, but not so much on healthier things. It’s like our ag policy hasn’t kept pace with current nutritional wisdom — it seems aligned with the old “four food groups” rather than with the new food pyramid.

    And there’s no reason (that I can think of) why government support can’t be shifted to helping out/encouraging small farmers, in the spirit of eating locally, rather than what they currently do, which (I believe) is subsidize the massive factory farms. I’m not in favor of pulling all support from our food production nexus — but we certainly could rethink what foods and what methods of production we support.

  • Why did you have to trot that out? :(

    I know you’re not inferring that people who eat factory farmed food don’t support the troops, or at least, I sure hope so.

    Of course not. If it is good to do X, it does not logically follow that it is bad not to do X. And, really, when one considers all of the things that one can do to “support the troops” (enlist, run fundraisers to provide armor, provide service to the maimed, etc.), buying local food would seem to be nothing to attempt to hang over the heads of others. Even in terms of the things that an individual can do to reduce reliance on foreign oil, I suspect that we can all do a great deal more than supporting local food producers.

  • Of course not. If it is good to do X, it does not logically follow that it is bad not to do X.

    Of course.. I must have been reading too many political flame-wars on FARK recently.

  • I had to stop reading Fark about a year ago, in part because the political flame wars made me crazy. Those are enough to put anybody on edge. :)

  • I still read, but I’ve ceased participating. I’ve basically had enough of political arguments over the internet. This site obviously falls under a different scope entirely.

  • George Will has a column in today’s WaPo about farm subsidies. In touches on some of the points others have here, particularly how heavily subsidized corn, wheat, rice and a handful of other commodities are.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/11/AR2007071101995.html?hpid=opinionsbox1

  • Sen. Lugar makes a lot of excellent points there (many of which make up the thesis of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Deep Economy”), none of which I see any reason to argue with. Our system of subsidization of farming is broken. I strongly agree that subsidization is important to the extent to which it’s necessary to ensure that we can produce enough of the right crops to provide the raw materials and foods necessary to keep America self-sufficient and secure. Better still, of course, to continue functioning as a breadbasket of the western hemisphere, ensuring that we have the economic ties to other nations that help keep us all on an even keel in our relations.

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