Eat Local Foods for Aesthetic Reasons

farmers marketI’m all in favor eating local foods when possible, but I continue to be unimpressed with arguments that we could replace our industrial food supply with locally-grown products. The authors of this new study argue:

“If you drew a 100-mile circle around each city in the U.S. and then you looked at the capacity of the existing farmland, you’d find that 90 percent of the people could be fed within those circles,” says Elliott Campbell, an associate professor of environmental engineering at U.C. Merced who co-authored the study.

Even if we take this study at face value it seems flawed. I don’t have access to the original paper but if comments by other scientists are to be believed, the conclusion isn’t warranted by the evidence:

“They’re estimating how many calories silage and hay can be produced within a given radius of the cities,” Sexton says. “That’s fine if Americans are just consuming calories, but Americans consume food products.”

In other words, the study didn’t measure how many tomatoes, oranges, or cucumbers could be grown in a 100-mile radius of cities—it measures calories from cattle feed. While that might be a useful study for academic purposes it has no relation to real-world food consumption. The conclusion is just misleading. It should be palpably obvious that most regions in the country cannot grow food all year round and many foods cannot be stored over long periods. A winter diet of potatoes and beets might be virtuous but it will neither be tasty nor nutritious.

Moreover, there are many efficiencies that are gained by having regions specialize in what they grow best according to Steve Sexton with the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University :

The case for specialization is perhaps nowhere stronger than in agriculture, where the costs of production depend on natural resource endowments, such as temperature, rainfall, and sunlight, as well as soil quality, pest infestations, and land costs. Different crops demand different conditions and vary in their resilience to shocks.

There is a good case to be made for locavorism—when compared to industrial agriculture local food tastes better, it is usually more healthy, and there are good community-based reasons for supporting your local farmer. In other words, the argument is primarily an aesthetic argument—local foods give more pleasure.

So we should support locavorism where possible without rigidly insisting that our food supply be entirely local.

3 comments

  1. Dwight–

    “and there are good community-based reasons for supporting your local farmer” is not an aesthetic reason to eat locally. It is a moral reason and an ecological reason. The two can no longer be separated in the discussion.

    Pope Francis is not my arbiter of morality, but it is refreshing to see his position. Science without morality, without a broad based consideration of the delicate balance of mankind and nature, can be more destructive than helpful, especially when driven by greed.

    Monocultures override the climate and terroir of a given environment, and that is exactly why they are destructive. The disturb the natural dynamics of a location and have consequences beyond their immediate efficacy.

    The study you cited does seem flawed, and needs to be rebutted. But there is still little rationale other than profits for transporting flavorless tomatoes to markets a thousand or two thousand miles away. That has nothing to do with aesthetics.

    We would do well to incorporate the American Indian wisdom that we are merely stewards of the earth for generations to come.

  2. Hi Jim,

    I suppose “support your local farmer” is a moral reason depending on how you parse the distinction between moral and aesthetic. The enjoyment one gets from knowing where your food comes from is at least in part aesthetic. But I agree with your point about the dangers of monocultures. Whether locavorism is a solution to that is another question. I’m not an expert on food transportation issues but from what I’ve read it is not obvious that from the standpoint of energy consumption localism is always the best option. The accounting is complex.

    The ecological issues are serious but I think we should not underestimate aesthetics as a motivation to help solve them. Pleasure is a powerful motivator.

  3. Esta aplicación cuenta con tres niveles de complejidad, desde el más sencillo hasta el más complejo,
    que de seguro será un reto para los dos jugadores.

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