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Rational Thinking On Locavore Movement A Welcome Sight

Virginia Postrel is among the most provocative and insightful people writing today. The Wall Street Journal, on whose op-ed page the Pundit wrote a piece titled The Roots of Editorial ‘Independence,’ just gave Ms. Postrel a bi-weekly column in its new Saturday “Review” section, and she happened to devote her first iteration to the locavore movement with a piece titled No Free Locavore Lunch:

Michael Pollan, the best-selling author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and a leading advocate of buying locally grown food, recently upset many of his fans by daring to put numbers on his oft-repeated prescription to “pay more, eat less.” Eight dollars for a dozen eggs? $3.90 for a pound of peaches?

Those figures were way too specific and way, way too high to go unnoticed. The humanistic foe of industrialized eating suddenly sounded like a privileged elitist, and the local-food cause seemed insensitive to cash-strapped shoppers.

But Mr. Pollan was only being honest. Patronizing local farmers who produce in small batches tends to cost more. You may find some peak-season bargains at the farmers’ market, but there’s no such thing as a free locavore lunch. Getting fruits and vegetables only from local farms necessarily limits variety — few crops are available everywhere all the time — and it doesn’t come cheap. Economies of scale apply even to produce.

Mr. Pollan’s critics sound a lot like Jackie Mason back in the 1990s, mocking Starbucks for “charging you three dollars for 50 cents worth of coffee.” Taste is subjective. So is economic value. The right price is the one you’re willing to pay.

One reason Ms. Postrel is so good is that she combines unusual perspectives. She is comfortable with technology, with economics and with culture. In fact on her DeepGlamour blog — “at the intersection of imagination and desire” — she captures perfectly the real appeal of the locavore movement in a piece titled, From Exotic to Local: The Changing Nature of Produce Glamour:

The locavore movement draws much of its appeal not only from the tastiness of ripe, local fruits but from their contemporary exoticism. They come with a special aura of authenticity and care. They’re more glamorous than the mass-produced stuff you find in supermarket produce aisles.

Yet not so long ago, glamorous fruits were those that came from faraway climes: the California oranges pictured below at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago or, more recently, now-ubiquitous pomegranates and avocados.

Yet back in her Wall Street Journal column, Ms. Postrel points out that the modern supermarket is, as we have written, a triumph of civilization:

Like tastemakers from Anna Wintour to Steve Jobs, Mr. Pollan is just trying to persuade the public to share his sense of excellence and, with it, his willingness to pay. The real problem with his prescriptions isn’t economic elitism but produce xenophobia. The locavore ideal is a world without trade, not only beyond national borders but even from the next state: no Florida oranges in Colorado or California grapes in New Mexico, no Vidalia onions in New York or summer spinach in Georgia.

Fully realized, that ideal would eliminate one of the great culinary advances of the past half century. Unripe peaches notwithstanding, today’s supermarket produce departments are modern marvels. American grocery shoppers have choices that would have been unimaginable only a few decades ago. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the only way to get fresh spinach or leaf lettuce was to plant a garden. Avocados were an exotic treat, asparagus came in a can, and pomegranates existed only in books..

Now my neighborhood supermarket sells five types of lettuce, plus spinach, endive, escarole, radicchio, frisée, rapini, three kinds of chard, mustard greens, dandelion greens and kale. That’s not including all the cabbages — or, of course, the prewashed salads in a bag that have particularly boosted fresh-spinach purchases. In this ordinary produce department, you can buy not only avocados, asparagus and pomegranates, but everything from purple baby cauliflowers to spiky kiwano melons that look like some kind of scary deep-sea creature. Need portobello mushrooms, Japanese eggplant or organic ginger at 2 a.m.? The store is open 24/7.

This cornucopia of choice and convenience is a tribute to logistical ingenuity and gains from trade, the very progress the local-food movement is sworn to overturn. For those of us blessed with a Mediterranean climate, giving up imports means higher prices. For everyone else, it means a far more limited diet. New Yorkers sometimes complain about farmers’ markets that seem to sell only varieties of apples. Were they expecting locally grown oranges and mangoes? Coffee and spices from the plantations of East Hampton??

In general, Ms. Postrel got it right. On a guttural level, the local movement is mostly a high-end rebellion against the ubiquity of formerly exotic and gourmet produce. The produce industry should supply local product, not because of any reasons related to sustainability, food miles, food safety or other matters… the produce industry should supply local for the same reason the dress industry supplies mini-skirts one year and maxi-skirts the next — it is a matter of consumer demand.

Once upon a time, a carriage trade store had Chilean grapes in winter and nobody else did. Now Wal-Mart sells them all winter so nobody can pick up prestige by having the grapes. So, instead, they want some heirloom lettuce that only the rarified can afford, and they would like to buy it at places — like a Farmer’s Market — that requires more leisure time to shop or that requires one have a staff to send.

However, we were not so inclined to simply accept the comparison of local advocates to Steve Jobs or Anna Wintour. Steve Jobs is overtly a salesman, selling his products and his message is received in that light. Although Anna Wintour, as editor-in-chief at Vogue, may sincerely believe her style preferences are superior, she defends them as a matter of taste. She doesn’t make substantive claims such as if you wear silk you are less likely to get cancer.

Yet local food advocates rarely defend their advocacy as a matter of fashion. If you tell them you are going to sell local for the same reason you used to sell “pet rocks” — because that is where the market is — they are not happy. They make statements of fact, statements subject to verification. They want to believe, desperately, that there are substantive reasons for their own preference for local.

In general, local food advocates assert that locally grown produce is more flavorful and more sustainable. Some also claim it is safer.

Whatever particular circumstances exist — Ms. Postrel waxes nostalgic at the South Carolina peaches of her youth where they were purchased in “baskets from roadside stands” — there is precious little evidence that, in general, any of this is true in the actual real world of commercial procurement.

The evidence that produce purchased 150 miles away tastes better than produce purchased 200 miles away is non-existent. Whatever one’s criteria for sustainability, it is far too complicated to just say closer is more sustainable. For example, a large commercial growing area may be distant but also produces enough to fill up highly efficient tractor trailers, whereas produce from a local farm may travel less distance but the truck may be half empty. The supposed food safety of local is mostly a statistical quirk. The food supply is so generally safe that unless one produces it in very large quantities, it is very difficult to trace an illness back to a producer.

Ms. Postrel closed her Wall Street Journal piece with a pleasant thought:

The local-food movement’s ideological parochialism would be dangerous if it were somehow enacted into law. But as persuasion, it tends to focus on the positive: the delights of local peaches and fresh cider, not the imagined evils of Chilean blueberries and prepeeled baby carrots.

Yet our experience is that many local advocates, if not precisely wanting a law, certainly want to use the power of public money such as the school lunch program and state university procurement policies to see that their ideology is executed. We strongly suspect that if they succeed, they will not stop with public institutions. We had an e-mail exchange with Ms. Postrel and she used some of that on her blog in a post entitled Was I Too Complacent About Locavore Coercion?

In response to my WSJ column, Jim Prevor, the founder and editor-in-chief of PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, the online Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, and all-round perishable-food-business guru, emails:

[Y]our off-hand comment at the end that the local-food movement would be dangerous if it were somehow enacted into law is not such a distant hypothetical as that remark implied.

For example, at public universities all across the country there are increasing restrictions on food procurement. Although these policies are not “laws” they allow ideologues to impose real costs on the students, on their parents and on the public — without anyone voting for these policies. Recently we’ve run a series on food procurement at UC Davis:

Everyone Is In Favor of Better Flavor But Is ‘Local’ A Solution Or An Ideology?

Tom Reardon of Michigan State University Speaks Out: Wither Local?

Dissecting the Meaning of Local, Sustainable and Flavorful

The national school lunch program and related programs use the power of the purse — potential loss of federal funds — to get schools to adopt an anti-trade procurement policy. Some of this is explicit, the law contains a “buy-American” provision. There are exemptions, so a school can buy Chilean grapes when no US grapes are available, but competition is forbidden. The buy-local issue is more complex. The law is actually contradictory with some provisions requiring schools to seek out the low-bidder and other provisions urging them to buy local. The Obama administration has leaned toward the second provision in its discussions with state officials and school districts. We ran a related piece here: ‘Buy American’ and ‘Buy Local’ Requirements Confusing School Foodservice Buyers…Chilean Fresh Fruit Association Speaks Out

There are also special nutritional funds that are available only if you buy in politically approved places, such as a Farmer’s Market. Here is a link to a government description of a special program that adds on WIC funds — but only for purchases from Farmer’s Markets with the explicit goal of encouraging the purchase of local produce: WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program

Beyond these public policy issues, we run a series of focus groups and mall intercepts and other studies that interact with consumers from the UK to North America and on to Australia/New Zealand. You would be shocked at what people expect. A seemingly intelligent woman walked out of a farm stand in Massachusetts. The stand stood on a small farm but probably 90% of the sales of the farm stand were purchased off the local wholesale market. Yet when we asked shoppers why they liked shopping there, more than one pulled out their pineapple and pointed to the advantages of a good Massachusetts grown pineapple!

Ms. Postrel goes on and links to an excellent video, summing up by pointing out “that consumer preferences need not be ‘rational’.”

We first encountered Ms. Postrel when she was editor of Reason magazine, a libertarian publication. On her point that consumers are not obligated to be rational, the former editor of Reason magazine is being most rational.

But the answer you get depends on the question you ask. If the question is… how can we affluent Americans have some foodie fun… perhaps the answer is to go pay $3.90 a pound for peaches and enjoy.

If the question is how are we going to feed 10 billion people, then we need to seriously look at the actual productivity of different modes of production and distribution. We need to focus on what most people in the world have to focus on all the time: affordable nutrition.

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