6 Bogus Economic Arguments Used to Trash Local Food
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A physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded on an island, with nothing to eat. A can of soup washes ashore. The physicist says, “Let's smash the can open with a rock.” The chemist says, “Let's build a fire and heat the can first.” The economist says, “Let's assume that we have a can-opener...”
Economists all know this joke, which “ comes from the stereotype that many economic models require unrealistic or absurd assumptions in order to obtain results.” And yet, how many heed its warning?
A new book, The Locavore's Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet by Pierre Desroches and Hiroku Shimizu, uses arguments from neoliberal economics to explain why those who advocate eating local food are wrong. Often, their arguments require assumptions as silly as the one in the joke. For example, in making the case that the world moved from a diet of local food to a global food system for a good reason (and therefore we should not return to eating local), they assume that modern locavores will face the same technological limitations as our ancestors, who were also locavores. But aside from the numerous strawman arguments found throughout the book, there are several points where economics are properly applied to food and agriculture and – the authors charge – prove that local food is a bad idea.
But perhaps the opposite is true instead; that the models used in neoliberal economics do not accurately apply here. Here are six economic principles that do not fit when it comes to food and agriculture:
1. Assume the Players are Rational: In economics, one assumes all of the players are rational. When it comes to food, we are far from it. For example, frozen dinners had been introduced to supermarkets unsuccessfully before the TV dinner came along. The TV dinner succeeded because Americans were excited about TVs. When the Pepsi Challenge showed that Americans prefer the flavor of Pepsi to Coke, Coca-Cola took the bait and introduced New Coke, which tested better than Coke and Pepsi in taste tests. Turned out, consumers don't drink Coke because of the flavor. They drink it because it's “American” and “fun.” Coke learned its lesson, and its slogans have reflected it ever since (“Open happiness”).
2. Standardization of Food: Much of economic theory rests on the assumption that the goods in question are commodities. Our food is standardized so that it can be treated as a commodity. One Granny Smith apple is the same as any other Granny Smith apple, no matter where it’s from or how it was produced. But many foods are not so interchangeable, and indeed, when they are standardized, they often become standardly bad.
Take the strawberry. There’s nothing like the flavor of a fresh-picked, juicy strawberry. But if you pay $3.99 a pint for strawberries in your supermarket in January, the berries you buy will hardly even give a hint of flavor. They’ll be big and red, but who cares if the berry is perfectly red if it doesn’t deliver on strawberry flavor?
The market can deliver on the idea of year-round strawberries, but it cannot deliver on the delectable flavor one associates with those berries. Truly ripe strawberries are highly perishable, so they can’t be too ripe when picked. And strawberry flavor deteriorates when the berry goes in the fridge, but there’s no way to transport perishable berries across the country without refrigeration. Even in California, where nature provides fresh, local berries for about half the year, the flavor changes throughout the season. Early season berries aren’t very sweet or flavorful, unfortunately. It takes until May or June to get perfect, sweet, juicy strawberries. That goodness is fleeting and ephemeral, and it only comes once a year.