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Is the locavore food movement bad for the environment and the economy?

A local farm.
A local farm.
michaelischool/Flickr (cc by-nc-nd)

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Local food production has been promoted by many as a veritable panacea for a variety of ills that plague our economy and our environment. Carbon emissions from trucks traversing the country to bring food from the fields to your fridge contribute to global warming.

The burgeoning farmers markets in major urban areas are thought to be an economic boon to regions hard hit by unemployment and a rare opportunity for smaller farms to gain back a bit of market share from the huge industrial farms.

All of this has got to be good, right? Freakonomics blogger Steve Sexton doesn’t think so.

In his blog he argues that the current methods of food production are still better for the economy and the environment because they take advantage of the geography and resources of particular regions. This notion is called comparative advantage. Each region has certain resources that make it better suited to growing and producing food in the most efficient way. Sexton holds tight to this notion claiming that to produce all the food we eat locally would create a myriad of smaller growing environments that would require more land, more chemicals, more water and more energy than we are now using.

Tom Philpott writes for Mother Jones and runs a small farm and grassroots project in North Carolina. In his recent response to Sexton’s blog, Philpott takes on the blogger’s defense of the food status quo saying the doctrine of comparative advantage is a myth. Regions, he says, don’t rely on local resources. They get them from afar. Using California agriculture as a case in point, Philpott cites its reliance on imported water and government subsidies to survive. What are the pros and cons of the locavore movement?


Steve Sexton, Freakonomics blogger who wrote "The Inefficiency of Local Food"

Tom Philpott, Food and Ag blogger, Mother Jones Magazine; also co-founder of Maverick Farms, a small organic farm in North Carolina.