Image by SCWebster via flickr.
April 14, 2009I recently finished reading "The Myth of the Rational Voter," in which Bryan Caplan argues that there are certain subjects where people are "rationally irrational" -- we vote based on our own preferences (which is rational), but the result of each of us voting selfishly results in a Tragedy of the Commons, with the world ending up worse overall.
First Floor Meeting Room, Town Hall
The Agricultural Commission will host an open discussion from 7:00 – 8:00 PM on “How can we grow more food in Amherst?” Farmers, gardeners, educators, food providers, consumers, and anyone else who is concerned about increasing our food self-sufficiency in Amherst is invited.
I know this will be a very unpopular idea, but I think the whole Buy Local / Food Self-Sufficiency movement is rationally irrational.
Don't get me wrong-- I like farms. I like silos and barns. I like racing tractors on my bicycle in the summertime. We absolutely, positively lose something every time a farmer goes out of business.
And that's exactly why I'm suspicious of efforts to get more food grown in Amherst. It's easy to see what we lose when a farmer goes out of business, but there are good reasons most of our food is grown in Iowa or California or Mexico or Argentina. I lived in California, and it's a lot easier to grow things there. Especially in February.
There are bad reasons, too-- farm subsidies, highway subsidies, water subsidies, import quotas and duties, minimum wage laws, etc. We should get rid of those bad reasons.
Maybe we should buy only food grown within 100 miles of where we live, because transporting food across the country generates lots of CO2 and increases global warming.
Maybe. Then again, maybe growing corn in Iowa uses less CO2 than growing corn in Massachusetts because the farms are bigger and more efficient. I have no idea if that's true or not, but assume for the sake of argument that it is true.
Even if it was much better for the environment to grow food far away, I think there would still be a strong "Grow Local" movement. I don't think Grow Local is really about saving the environment; if we really wanted to save the environment, then encouraging everybody to move into apartments built near workplaces someplace where it doesn't get so cold in the winter would probably be the way to go.
I don't think it's really about saving the local economy, either. If I pay $1 less for a head of lettuce grown in Mexico than I do for one grown in Hadley then that's $1 I can spend on some local business-- maybe I'll buy a little extra Hadley maple syrup. Producing maple syrup here makes sense; we've got the right climate for it.
It would be dumb for folks in Florida to decide that they're not Maple Syrup Self Sufficient-- that they need to figure out how to make maple syrup from oranges so they don't waste money importing it from Vermont and Massachusetts.
Just as it would be dumb for folks in Massachusetts to try to become Orange Juice Self Sufficient. Trade is a good thing!
Deep down, I think the Grow Local movement is really about aesthetics. Farms are pretty, and seeing cows and tractors as we drive to the mall gives us the warm fuzzies. Maybe it all works out-- maybe the economic and environmental rationalizations for local farms balances out all the bad policies that support Big Farming.
But I think the world would be a better place if we were more rational about the benefits and costs of what we eat, where we live, and how we behave.