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6 Bogus Economic Arguments Used to Trash Local Food

A critique of local food proves that the models used in neoliberal economics do not accurately apply to food and agriculture.

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In addition to flavor, foods are not identical in terms of nutrition. It’s likely that supermarket eggs are standardized, all with roughly the same nutrition content. They were all produced in nearly identical conditions from genetically identical birds who were fed exactly the same feed. But when chickens can roam freely, eating grass and bugs in addition to chicken feed, their eggs become more nutritious. It would be extremely difficult to produce eggs this way on a large scale and do so profitably. But it’s easy and fun to do for homeowners with small backyard flocks.

Another factor is genetics. It’s certainly convenient to produce genetically identical food for the market, especially if you find the perfect combination of genetics to give you a high yield and great taste with disease and pest resistance. But what happens when Mother Nature throws a curveball at you and a disease comes along that your crop has no resistance to? You need new genes. Sure, scientists can keep a supply of biodiversity in a seed vault and that might provide the new genes you’re looking for. But for genes that really keep up with the current challenges of nature, you need genetic diversity grown in nature, under conditions that change over time.

When governments signed NAFTA, they assumed that corn is corn is corn, and the U.S. produces corn cheaper than Mexican peasants are able to produce it. But those Mexican peasants are the guardians of the world’s most valuable supply of corn genetics. And in that sense, they can hardly be compared to an Iowa corn farmer who buys seeds each year from DuPont or Monsanto.

3. Creative Destruction: Economist Joseph Schumpeter spoke of creative destruction, explaining how new inventions will disrupt old, established businesses. When automobiles were introduced, carmakers and their employees succeeded as horse-drawn buggy makers went out of business and their employees lost their jobs. Therefore, under this line of thinking, it makes perfect sense for Florida to grow oranges until the global market some day decides to source oranges from Brazil instead. There's no need for Florida to diversify its crops, not while Florida oranges are in demand. They can worry about switching to a more profitable crop (or perhaps, switch from farming to tourism) when the time comes, just like cassette tape makers in the 1980s did not stop making cassette tapes because some day CDs would become popular and put them out of business.

The devil here is in the details. Desroches and Shimizu specifically say that “profitable monocultures should be pursued as long as they remain viable in a particular location.” So California should provide all of the nation's almonds and strawberries, while the entire midwestern United States is blanketed in corn and soybeans. But it is nearly impossible to grow monocultures year after year in the same field without running into pest and fertility problems.

Right now some experts predict the downfall of the Cavendish banana, the variety of banana sold in U.S. supermarkets, due to a fungal disease. Enormous fields of genetically identical bananas make easy prey for pests and diseases. Accepting large scale monoculture means accepting lots of pesticide use. When one crunches the numbers, the costs might add up because revenues outweigh the extra money spent on pesticides, but the equation leaves out the impact those pesticides have on farmworkers, eaters and the environment.

4. Comparative Advantage: The idea expressed above goes hand in hand with the principle of comparative advantage. The idea is simple. If Idaho can produce potatoes cheaper than California can, and California can produce strawberries cheaper than Idaho can, then Idaho should grow all of the potatoes and California should grow all of the strawberries, and they should trade. To some extent, this makes sense. No one is suggesting that Mexico attempt to produce its own maple syrup or that Vermont should try to grow its own pineapple. But relying on large-scale monoculture as suggested by the notion that California should supply the nation with strawberries runs into the need for toxic agrochemicals.

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