The Locavore’s Dilemma

Pineapple by giniger via Flickr.

Two economics professors in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University have written an interesting piece about local food, titled The Locavore’s Dilemma: Why Pineapples Shouldn’t Be Grown in North Dakota. Jayson L. Lusk is Professor and Willard Sparks Endowed Chair of Agribusiness and F. Bailey Norwood is Associate Professor.
In short, the economists argue “there is a tradeoff between providing a larger quantity of more-nutritious non-local foods and a smaller quantity of more-nutritious local foods”, particularly when it comes to school lunches. Individual consumers are free to make whatever shopping choices they wish, but, according to the authors, mandates for public spending on local food aren’t economically sounds and don’t actually provide benefits that promoters of local food say it has.
This is the most comprehensive article on the subject that I have read. Every time I thought “but what about this” the next section covered it. I’m particularly glad they mentioned taste, which in my opinion is the most sound out of all the arguments for eating local.
Of course it would be lovely if everyone, no matter their income, had access to the most delicious foods. But is that really within the reach of the US government? I think the school lunch program has bigger issues to address.
To me, if the goal is to get schools to provide healthier food to children, there are far better ways to do it. Instead of spending more money to source local foods, spend that money on whole foods where ever they can be sourced from at the lowest costs. Instead of prepackaged peanut butter and jelly and a fruit cup, how about pb&j on reasonably fresh bread and some fresh fruit? Even if not local, the cost will be higher than the prepackaged stuff, though. Let’s not boost the price even further by demanding that the fruit be from less than 100 miles away. School lunch programs don’t need the additional constraints.
Side note: Amusingly, I just had a discussion this morning about the word dilemma. It’s commonly used to mean that you have two choices, but the actual meaning is more like “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. A dilemma is a situation where a third choice is called for because neither of the options before you will result in something good. In this case, I don’t think dilemma really fits because fresh fruits and vegetables are good no matter where you get them from, but I suppose that’s just semantics. While on the topic of word choices, I also have to complain about using pineapples in North Dakota as an example. I don’t think even the silliest locavores would argue that growing foods in areas wildly out of their range is a good idea. That’s what happens when you try to write a catchy title, I suppose.
Thanks to Amanda Sollman for retweeting Chris Raines‘s tweet about this article and letting me know about it!


  1. Of course now that I posted this, I should probably add a disclaimer that I know absolutely nothing about economics at this time and these econ profs could be completely wrong, even if what they say sounds pretty good to my inexperienced ears. I hope I can rectify my lack of knowledge at least a little this semester – I’m auditing Econ 460 “Agriculture, Food, and Trade Policy” taught by ag economist Paul Gallagher at ISU.

  2. Funny, I ignored this article when it came out because the title is so stupid. But perhaps I will read it now.
    A major problem with nearly all economists I have ever met is that they think price is a good way to judge the merits of something. It is one way, but always shortsighted.
    For example, around here the sheep industry was in trouble because about 10 years ago the dollar was strong so it was cheaper to grow lambs in Australia and New Zealand and ship them to the US. Oil was still cheap too. This undermined local processors as well as producers so many went out of business.
    Now, however, the dollar is weak so imports aren’t looking so hot. Meanwhile, Australia has had all sorts of troubles and a global lamb shortage is upon us with resultant high prices. Imports can’t compete with local any more, especially with so fewer producers and processors left.
    What most economists can’t get into their skulls is that, yes, part of the local food movement is a kind of lifestyle choice, but another part is realizing that if you look ahead just a wee bit, it makes a lot of sense to be more regionally (or ‘locally’) food sufficient.
    Everyone will now say “But most people live in cities.” Yeah, yeah. And some day we will be digging up the bones from city graveyards for the phosphorus inputs. In the long run, given the laws of thermodynamics, nearly ALL food production will be local. Getting used to that ahead of time makes sense to me.

  3. Nice post; I’ll take a look at the article. I wonder, though, in how much of your country are both peanuts and grapes grown within 100 miles, to say nothing of the wheat for the bread?

  4. Price is a lousy way to judge the merits of something, except it’s better than all the other methods available to a free market.

  5. don’t think even the silliest locavores would argue that growing foods in areas wildly out of their range is a good idea.

    Tell that to British locavores who insist on eating local tomatoes rather than Spanish.

  6. And then there’s the issue of eating crops which are not native to the area, i.e., are biopirated from a foreign land. So the Middle East would have a wheat monopoly, ditto for Peru and potatoes, ditto Mexico and the Southwestern US for maize, ditto eggplant and India, ditto soybeans and China. A conscientious locavore would insist on only native foods.

  7. I get the sense that most people responding here only know of locavores from the media. If so, be careful. The media loves to set up stereotypes. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I or someone I know has been interviewed and then portrayed very inaccurately–quotes taken out of context, mood music to give people a leading feeling, factual inaccuracy, etc.
    The media tries to take things to the extreme. Accuracy and balance is NOT the goal. Sales are. Hype sells.

  8. This strikes me more as an ideological document (“liberty”
    seems to be a codeword for a certain conservative/libertarian
    mindset) rather than a piece of economics. I think the strawman in
    the subtitle (literally nobody advocates growing pineapples in
    North Dakota) gives away their essentially contemptuous approach to
    the local food concept. I do agree with them that many locavore
    prescriptions for how we ought to get our food are essentially
    arbitrary and short on serious analysis of things like
    environmental impacts and economic efficiencies. But ultimately
    they seem to fall back on blind faith in the ability of our
    existing economic systems to drive optimal outcomes. As others have
    pointed out, we can measure so many dimensions of these issues in
    units other than dollars. I’m more interested in people on either
    side of this really calculating something than in asserting either
    that local=good or that the invisible hand must be right.

  9. In the media, accuracy and balance are mutually exclusive. Take a story about a scientific advance that’s really interesting. For balance, find some whackos who claim to represent ‘public concern and outrage’. That yields hype and sales.
    ‘Balanced’ media coverage is best restricted to reporting on sports and political contests, etc, where the score on each side must accurately be represented.

  10. I completely agree that price is not the end all be all. Governments have a responsibility to support things for the good of the people even if it’s not (or even because it’s not) a rational economic decision. Consider renewable energy. The US government has all sorts of programs to help create a market for windmills and solar panels, even though those things aren’t economically viable right now. I personally think it is the government’s responsibility to foster desirable things that will be needed in the future that probably won’t happen on their own, or that would take much longer on their own.
    In the case of local foods, I understand that increasing oil costs will dramatically change agriculture. Transportation costs, fertilizer, and other inputs will all increase in price and that will change things. Still, as Jeremy points out below – in how much of the US (or the world) are peanuts, wheat, and grapes all grown within 100 miles of each other? Or more to the point, where is it possible to grow them all within 100 miles and where can this be done efficiently enough to make it worth the bother? Here in Iowa, we have amazing soils that can grow just about everything, but it’s too wet for wheat, too acidic for grapes. I don’t know about peanuts. Ok, so no pb&j.
    One could simply eat what is produced in the area but frankly no thank you. There’s a foot of snow on the ground here, so all that’s local is either canned or meat. Unless heated greenhouses sound like a good idea but I’m pretty sure that takes energy too. In the summer, there’s lots of good stuff, and I eat almost exclusively local when I can, but the growing season isn’t very long here. It’s shorter in North Dakota and shorter still in Canada.
    Anyway, I could talk about this stuff all day, but the point is – there is value in local (or at least regional) food systems besides the things that the economists talk about, and the government should encourage it. Still, mandating that food dollars for schools be spent on exclusively local foods is taking away choices from those schools and as the economists correctly (in my opinion) say, would have the schools buying less nutritious food than they could if they were allowed to choose local and non-local.
    I’d like to see a system like we have at Iowa State University be more widely used. Here, we get local foods in the school cafeterias and cafes when they are available. There aren’t actually many produce farms in the area that have enough food to supply ISU but some co-ops are forming. We get apples locally when apples are in season and there’s apples from other places when they can’t be bought in Iowa. If green peppers aren’t available for a reasonable price locally even when they are in season, then we get green peppers from where ever. The introduction of the Farm to ISU program, though, shows farmers that ISU is willing to work with them, and the school has done much to encourage local fruit and veg farming.
    All that said, I still wonder if the transportation costs really are that big of a portion of the cost of food. If it costs far more to grow something in an area that would be balanced out by the transportation crops to import it from somewhere that it can be grown more cost effectively. I think it depends on the specific crop and the specific place very much so one size fits all rules do not work.

  11. Hype sells, that’s for sure. I’m getting pretty tired of the manufactured outrage of some hack that knows nothing about ag as a “balance” for scientist or someone else who knows what they are doing.
    Anyway, I know quite a few locavores personally from the sus ag program at ISU (which I’m minoring in) and from the CSA program (which I’ve been a member of for 3 years). The stereotypes aren’t that far off for some and are wildly inaccurate for others.

  12. You are I pretty much agree on all this. 🙂
    Re. transportation costs. Transportation energy from farm to processor and then again to the retail level is around 20% of the energy input for the whole US food system. Regarding relative $ cost, I don’t have those numbers in my head.
    However, I do know that during 2007-2008 (most recent commodity spike) some CA growers bought land and began operations in New York. This was because freight became too expensive. Then oil went down to $35 per barrel. Now it is back up again. Fun for business planning!
    From now on I’d expect high volatility of commodities, especially energy and high embedded energy products. And unless the world spirals into a deflationary hell in which we all end up eating shoe leather (ca. 10% probability), the long-term trend will be higher real prices.

  13. Are you implying that people within any given group may not be caricaturishly homogenous?
    That’s hardly fair at all, makes building strawmen so much more difficult.
    Next you’ll be suggesting that all proponents of GMOs aren’t in the pay of Monsanto, I know I’m n… oh wait.

  14. I read the article, finally. It is not as bad as the title suggests. However, the authors imply that local food advocates know nothing about economic theory, such as Ricardo’s comparative advantage. And that the multiplier effect is baloney.
    Might be interesting to look at the work of folks like Michael Shuman as a counter point to this article. E.g.,
    I do like the point at the end about social trust. This is something highly eroded but needs rebuilding. Part of the local food movement is about finding ways to trust food again. It is difficult for large, faceless entities to rebuild trust once lost. The human brain evolved in the context of close social networks. It is amazing the global economy exists at its current scale at all given what sociologists call Dunbar’s Number!

  15. I think we agree that there are some very good things about locally sourced foods. But do those good things mean that schools should be mandated to source part or all of the food served for school lunches locally? I also have a problem with the whole “the free market always has the answer” mentality of too many economists but I think there are nonetheless some valid points in the article to consider.
    Let’s be clear and look at what the article was talking about. It was in response to efforts like the Eat Local Foods Act (HR 5806) proposed by U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine). This bill didn’t make it to a vote last year, but this bill in combination with other government initiatives to promote eating local I do think it makes sense to consider whether the government should mandate local foods or if it is better to find other ways to encourage it.
    The summary of the bill:

    Amends the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act to direct the Secretary of Agriculture to provide grants to states, by the beginning of each school year (beginning with the 2012-2013 school year), for use in providing school food authorities with local food credits that represent up to 10% of the total value of the commodity assistance (or cash payments in lieu thereof) that the authority would be eligible to receive for the school year. Subtracts the value of the food credit from the amount of commodity assistance (or cash payments in lieu thereof) that a school food authority would otherwise receive. Requires school food authorities to use their credits to purchase locally or regionally produced agricultural food products to serve in the school lunch program.

    How much food would the school get for their 10% from the commodity assistance program vs local foods? There have to be better ways to encourage healthy foods than causing the schools to be able to buy less food! How about changing the nutrition guidelines for schools to be healthy whole foods including plenty of fruits and veggies instead of whatever they get in the commodity program (like those gross pb&j crackers I mentioned in the post).
    And here it is!
    USDA Unveils Critical Upgrades to Nutritional Standards for School Meals. Proposed Changes Will Improve the Health and Wellbeing of Children Nationwide and Help Address Childhood Obesity Crisis
    Now, how much will this change in menus cost? A lot, I’m guessing. Will that 6 cents per meal increase cover it? How much more would it be if they had to buy local?

  16. To the tune of Gilligan’s Island.
    Come listen to a story of a community that wanted only locally grown.
    They thought that’ll be the way to go, eat only what they’ve sown.
    They drew up an ordinance, to buy nothing from afar.
    They pledged that nothing would come in by train, ship or car. (Train, ship or car !)
    No lemons!, No Limes, No pineapple! Not a single citrus fruit!
    No papayas and no mangoes, and bananas were out to boot !
    No maple syrup or fluffy rice cakes, they were three hours away by car !
    No cod, nor scrod,nor crab nor shrimp, all shores were just too far !
    They sowed their fields with assorted grains of wheat, barley and rye.
    But, too late they realized, their land was just too dry !
    And the cows they kept ate what little what was left. And within the ensuing drought,
    their utters were left quite bereft, and their calves all died out. (Their calves all died out!)
    The children cried, the elderly moaned for days when they were fed.
    But now they only dreamed of that, when they tossed in bed !

  17. That’s kinda funny :). About citrus and bananas, I always wonder what people would make of it if you used genetic engineering to, hypothetically, get the best traits from a commercial banana with the hardiness of Musa basjoo, or produce that Holy Grail of orange breeding, a sweet edible citrange. Would people choose GMO & local or non-GMO & non-local? That would be an interesting one to watch.

  18. “Actually, one paper demonstrated that people would rather buy a local, genetically engineered apple than a conventional long-distance apple:

    Soon they’ll be engineering shows like, “This old Apple” 🙂

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