Buying Local is Not Sustainable

As Johan Norberg explains, the lower cost of transportation is offset by higher cost of production. Obviously, the market knows this. In fact, even if what you care about is carbon dioxide emissions, local production can still be more resource intensive.

I spend much more time making this point in Specialization and Trade.

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18 Responses to Buying Local is Not Sustainable

  1. Massimo Heitor says:

    Local food production is generally a premium priced luxury. It has a higher cost with a larger environmental foot print. But it is more pleasurable. I don’t see why luxury food is any less sustainable than any other luxury.

  2. Ben Kennedy says:

    Buying local after not buying local may not be sustainable

    However, buying local while staying local in the first place definitely could be

    • Andrew' says:

      I think the truth in your statement is that economist could explain the costs while refraining from taking a side.

      But locavores presumably think they are doing more than eating luxuriously. They should not think what is not true, but I’m not sure their main factor is transpo costs.

      • Ben Kennedy says:

        I just watched the video, so my first comment is irrelevant. “Sustainable” here means environmentally sustainable, not PSST-style trade pattern sustainable

  3. Lord says:

    It is best to look at this through the lens of .. market specialization. Instead of yes or no, the question is for what is local production sustainable and for what is it not. Even today, most dairy is produced relatively nearby, while produce needing different climates or grains are not.

    • Andrew' says:

      Grains are tailor-made for industrial farming. I would feel silly growing my own grains.

      • JK Brown says:

        Grains were tailor-made for paying food rent. What king wants a thousand pounds of tomatoes in August and he’d be broke by October.

  4. collin says:

    Buying Local is Not Sustainable: Maybe not everything is some kind long range plan or this stuff is simply an advertising gimmick.

    But really isn’t ‘Buying Locally’ not just the environment? (The CO emissions here is fairly small) It is about:

    1) Making the food sound and taste better. So what if local growers can earn more and consumers are willing to pay more!
    2) It better supports Local Growers and Communities, you know, that thing libertarian pretend to care about!

    • Andrew' says:

      2) I know you are trying to be condescending, but we don’t even pretend to care about those.

    • Andrew' says:

      But seriously, I would juxtapose this issue with that of GMOs, not because of their overlap but their similarities in principle.

      Some libertarians support GMOs and some oppose. I’m in the cautious camp. I think that the issue is the second-order effects. GMO corporations aren’t interested in the benefits espoused by the supporters. They care about things like making our own food even harder in order to cement their business moats.

      However, the locavore people keep talking silly nonsense. They don’t talk about things the way you just did.

  5. collin says:

    C’mon libertarians always support local governments, churches and communities but most of the global economy has weakened these institutions the last several decades. So when I hear conservatives suggest these solutions I tend to ignore them.

    On the other hand, on local grown produce is mostly an advertising ploy and the buyers are do some a little self-important about it. The buyers LOVE talking about how they bought the produce that they are cooking. I am part of some autism groups, there some real militant wackos out there about this stuff.

    • Andrew' says:

      No, liberals view it as if you aren’t opposing them then you are supporting them.

    • Andrew' says:

      I watch a lot of permaculture videos and am down with that philosophy.

      But to watch a guy grab a handful of fertile soil and almost soil his pants makes my eyes roll.

  6. Slocum says:

    It’s sustainable in the sense that people seem willing to pay the necessary premium to sustain the business. What it isn’t , though, is greener. It doesn’t have a smaller ‘carbon footprint’. But like the organic produce that provides no health or environmental benefits, it’ll probably stick around.

  7. JK Brown says:

    I locally grow tomatoes and cucumbers. Those degrade from the garden to the kitchen. Best eaten right off the vine.

    • Massimo Heitor says:

      Of course it tastes better, and it is probably less cost efficient and far less time efficient for typical people living in industrialized nations. Economically, it is a luxury that you pay more for the enjoyment of.

      • Andrew' says:

        That is a little too far. My model is that eventually all land amenable to mechanized farming will be taken up with plants amenable to mechanized cultuvation. The only cracks and crevices left will be those that can only be manually farmed.

        I don’t know that it is less efficient to toss some seeds on my lawn than watching another 2.5 Men rerun. Or that it is less efficient to utilize my zone zero than to buy tomatoes farmed labor intensively by immigrants. It certainly doesn’t seem like a luxury.

  8. Kelly says:

    I remember learning this in college and since then I’ve thought a lot about it in the context of the all the politics surrounding bringing businesses to certain struggling cities.

    It’s basically across the board “worse” for society (more expensive, less efficient, less green) to have a bunch of kinds of industry located in each town. Of course the benefits are having people in the town employed in those businesses, and perhaps having a little more a stability through diversification, which are big benefits for the town, if not for society as a whole.

    The key questions are, how much are the people in the town willing to pay to keep industries local, and how much is society willing to pay by encouraging this rather than encouraging, say, everyone moving to cities?

    People pay a lot of lip service to keeping industry local, both locally and nationally, but not many people seem willing to pay the price.

    I’ve lived in little towns where the industry has left and is replaced with Walmart and antique stores, so it seems from what I’ve seen that those people aren’t willing to pay a premium to employ people locally. But they also lament the sad state of their town…

    The places I’ve lived where people seem willing to pay the price are big cities where a) the only people paying are people with a lot of money and b) a lot of the local businesses, being in a big city, achieve some scale (and in a lot of cases, sell their products nationally because they’re a lot bigger than their buy local ads would have you believe.)

    Obviously I don’t have any idea what the right answer is, but in my experience, most people don’t even understand the tradeoffs.

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