Freakonomist Gets Local Food Wrong Again

apples on the erie canal image

New York State used to be extremely productive

A few months ago Stephen Dubner trashed local food, primarily on the basis of the carbon footprint, since things like flavor are "subjective" and not therefore important. He also wrote that "the economies of scale and division of labor inherent in modern industrial agriculture would still render the greatest efficiencies in resource investment." We disagreed.

Now he has brought in a ringer, historian James McWilliams, to back him up. It's time to throw Phoenix under the bus

McWilliams starts with the Phoenix defense: "Unless one can envision the government in a place like the United States telling citizens and corporations that they cannot settle in a particular region because the resources do not conform to a locavore vision, we're back to the thorny reality that some places simply cannot justify, on environmental grounds, a localized food system.

Ever been to Phoenix?"

The problem with Phoenix is that until air conditioning, cheap fossil fuels and electricity made it possible to live there in summer and truck in food, it wasn't very big. Just because this gross misallocation of resources exists doesn't make it a justification. We won't need the government telling citizens that they shouldn't live in a place like that; as the temperature rises, the cost of electricity for AC becomes unaffordable and the cost of trucking in food and keeping it cool rivals that of shopping for vegetables in Alaska, people will move- at some point they are going to follow the water and the food.

Rebuilding New York State's Agriculture

McWilliams then writes that New York State is "naturally equipped to grow a wide variety of fruits, including pears, cherries, strawberries, and some peaches." but doesn't. If citizens were to eat locally, they "would have to give up tropical fruits altogether; rarely indulge in a pear, peach, or basket of strawberries; and gorge on grapes and apples — most of them in processed form (either as juice, in a can, or as concentrate)."

Why? because it would require "a rebuilding of the processing industry." Whereas the global economy's infrastructure allows the importation of fresh produce all year round, consumers — again, given the extremely unlikely prospect that they would tolerate a radically reduced menu of options — would have to accept only processed fruit and vegetables in the off season."

Where have you guys been for the last year? All kinds of people are tolerating a radically reduced menu of options right now, canning and bottling right now for winter, enjoying the explosions of flavor that come from tomatoes right now with every expectation that in six months they will be figuring out twenty ways of dealing with turnip.

New York State used to feed itself; then cheap transportation made it more economical to ship meat from Chicago and then vegetables from California. But transport costs have doubled in the last two years and could double again in the next two years, and suddenly farming in New York State may look like a very good business. ::New York Times

More on Local Food
Freakonomists on the Merits of Local Food
It's so Hip to be Green: What will the next trend be?Oddly Shaped Vegetables Allowed in Europe
Strawberry Fields Forever: 5 Reasons Why Preserving Your Own Food Is Green

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