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farmers market 2 It is lovely to know the person who grows the kale you’re eating for dinner. Collecting a box of fruits and vegetables sourced from your local CSA guarantees fresh, organic meals everyday. It is romantic to revisit bygone practices like canning or fermenting your own sauerkraut. And those unique, flavorful heirloom tomatoes are a real treat.

Locavorism not only provides us with great food, but issues a double dollop of self-esteem in knowing that one is living ethically and supporting a worthy cause while enjoying artisanal products. But investing too much in all this “virtue” helps us ignore the problems in our food system that locavorism is powerless to solve.

Many people would starve if they depended on their local food supply, because most people do not live near farmers who supply all-season produce in sufficient quantities to feed everyone. Although locavorism touts its improved carbon footprint, it is not at all clear that the low-volume, short-haul shipments of local produce via truck is more energy-efficient than high-volume, long-haul transportation via train and ship that is a substantial part of industrial agricultural transportation.

At any rate, it is largely meat production that is the egregious energy user and most of the emissions involved in food are the result of production, not transportation.

Locavorism gets its cachet from real concerns  about the impact of agribusiness on food security, soil depletion, antibiotic abuse, and genetic diversity of crops, but it is more of a business niche for specialty producers supplying status food to gourmands and fans of organic food, not a solution to the problems of agribusiness.

So should we cancel our CSA accounts and return to shopping at supermarkets? I don’t think so. Locavorism is useful because culture is important for the transmission of norms. It is important that individuals pay attention in their own lives to sustainability issues if a mass movement toward sustainability is to be created. Locavorism is a symbol of that attention, not a solution, but symbols are important for generating expectations and keeping pressure on agribusiness to clean up its act.

But we should be under no illusions that we are doing more than manipulating symbols; and especially be under no illusions that private virtue can somehow substitute for public policy.