One of the most popular trends among urban hipsters and self-styled foodies is “locavorism.” Locavores are food consumers who buy “locally” — or at least within a certain local area which they've termed a “foodshed.” This self-imposed eating restriction is driven primarily by the romance of local farmers markets, but its supporters have thought up a variety of benefits to their food fetish. Eating locally supposedly helps local economies, saves the environment, and is healthier.
These are all myths, as economists Jayson L. Lusk and F. Bailey Norwood explain, taking foodsheds to the woodshed:
A major flaw in the case for buying local is that it is at odds with the principle of comparative advantage. This principle, which economists have understood for almost 200 years, is one of the main reasons that the vast majority of economists believe in free trade. Free trade, whether across city, state, or national boundaries, causes people to produce the goods or services for which they have a comparative advantage and, thus, makes virtually everyone wealthier. Princeton University economist Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel Prize in economics for his contributions to the economics of international trade, called comparative advantage "Ricardo's Difficult Idea" because so many non-economists deny it and are unwilling to understand it. But if people understood comparative advantage, much of the impetus for buying local foods would disappear.
When the tomatoes are ripe and the price is right, we, the two authors, enjoy local food. In fact, we grow vegetables in our own backyards. But, according to some bestselling authors, daytime talk show hosts, celebrity chefs, and the U.S. government, we aren't growing and buying enough. These groups have offered a host of economic arguments to promote the sale of local food—arguments that are fundamentally wrong.
As Lusk and Norwood argue, shoppers who buy local generally spend more, which eliminates money that could have been spent on other goods in the community. This makes locavorism “the very definition of wealth destruction.”
Click through to read the rest of their argument, including their breakdown of why locally bought food isn't environmentally friendly. As we've pointed out in the past, a 2006 study found that shipping lamb from New Zealand to England actually produced two to four times less emissions than serving the Brits lamb grown in Jolly Old England.
So why spend more money on the same food with no environmental benefit? As author James McWilliams writes, “Food is becoming for a lot of people a religion. They want to pick the one way to go about finding culinary salvation.”
Locavores, along with countless other types of food consumers, assume that something must be fundamentally wrong when food is abundant. But with one billion people going hungry in the world, they should be thankful they have so many convenient options — including the occasional trip to the local farmers market.