I have a number of reservations with the ‘eat local’ movement – and I don’t mean in restaurants:
1) De gustibus non disputandum est. Local food does not necessarily mean lower carbon emissions. If we are after lower carbon (and we should be), let’s pursue this goal directly. Let’s be transparent in tracking and pricing carbon across all sectors instead of acting on the misplaced and dangerous faith that local can serve as a proxy for lower. Let’s pay the carbon premium on, say, imported pineapples so as to encourage less carbon-intensive transportation routes, and enjoy our pineapples guilt free.
2) Caveat emptor. Local food can of course be bad for people and the environment: local farming practice may do more damage to the environment in the form of pesticides or water use than alternate farming practices farther afield. Just as the lifecycle environmental impact of one ethanol source can be quite different from another, the same is true for food production. Local food in parts of China might be full of toxins, no matter how proximate. Pilot dolphins might very well be ‘local’ to the Japanese whaling city of Taiji against their better judgement, but Taiji school kids still shouldn’t eat those dolphins for lunch, because their meat has dangerously high concentrations of mercury (among other arguments for not eating dolphins).
3) Qui bono? How convenient for protectionists, and how damaging to development! Japan has a 600% tariff on rice imports: its rice farmers don’t need any more help to discourage Japanese imports of rice from China, Thailand and Vietnam – even though the removal of formal and informal barries to rice imports in Japan would greatly enrich farmers in those countries. The same logic applies elsewhere: in many parts of the world, notably Africa, agricultural exports represent the fastest path to development – but Africans run up against import barriers in the EU and elsewhere. So what would the ‘buy local’ idealists envision for farming-based communities in Africa?
4) Reductio ad absurdum. Why restrict the ‘buy local’ injunction to food? Why not also encourage people to buy local electronic products, automotive parts, clothing, housing materials and vacations? It makes no sense to single out food while ignoring all other forms of consumption that entail emissions through transport. If the point is indeed to reduce carbon, a zero footprint commitment makes much more sense than a fetish for geographic distance, because substantial emissions can be generated without ever leaving home. If the point is to reduce consumption and waste altogether, the buy local movement is a mere poseur when compared to freegans who sustain themselves by dumpster diving. Sure, it might appear at first blush that there is no contradiction between buy local activists and freegans, but they are in fact motivated by inconsistent impulses: the former want to help local farmers grow their business within the marketplace, while the latter aim at nothing less than a wholesale rejection of modern consumer life. And of course freegans won’t throw away vegetables from the local dumpster just because they were imported before they were discarded.