Monday, April 13, 2009

Should we grow more food in Amherst?

Image by SCWebster via flickr.

April 14, 2009
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 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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Plant a victory garden, Gavin. For such an environmentalist, I don't know what you don't understand about the grow local movement. It's not just transportation and esthetics, it is also about security of control over the food chain in the event of a national emergency. Do you want to be fed environmentally engineered foods, grown with chemical pesticides, that get shipped 1000 miles? Look at the salmonella problems and recalls. What would happen to the price of food if there is a trucker strike? I think it just makes good sense to promote permaculture and self dependence. That's my 2 cents.

-Chris Baxter

Gavin Andresen said...

We belonged to Simple Gifts Farm last year (and yes, we grow our own vegetables, too, although the groundhogs ate most of them last year). We'd belong again this year, but we'll be in Australia for most of the growing season.

Like I said, I LIKE local farms. I SUPPORT local farms. I just suspect that belonging to Simple Gifts is either economically or environmentally better than buying food at the grocery store.

RE: environmentally engineered foods: Umm, we already eat environmentally engineered foods. Have you seen what corn looked like before humans started selectively breeding it?

RE: food safety: A while ago I looked for data on whether locally grown food (e.g. chickens) is generally safer than non-locally grown, but the only factoid I could find was that food packed up at your grocery store was more likely to be contaminated than food packed at a big meat-packing plant.

RE: what if there's a trucker's strike?

I'll be OK, we live right next to the train tracks.

RE: what if there's a national emergency?

You know, I haven't built a bomb shelter just in case there's a nuclear war, either. And it seems to me that worrying about some major crisis that would disrupt food distribution leads to all sorts of bad policies. Like, for example:

"The United States learned a hard lesson in World War II when dependence on foreign sugar forced the U.S. government to ration sugar supplies." -- From the American Sugar Alliance website

Horrors! We didn't eat as much sugar as we wanted during WWII! Over sixty years later we're still subsidizing rich sugar farmers...

Anonymous said...

In a national emergency locally grown food is not going to be of much help. Fresh produce is only good for a few days. Longer term disruptions require stockpiles of dry and canned goods.

Also, in a true emergency you are going to need to guard your victory garden 24/7.

Gavin Andresen said...

From all I've read, in the most recent few true emergencies that we've had in this country (9/11, the New Orleans levee breaks and the huge New York power outages from a few years back), people pulled together and helped each other.

I think the idea that we'll degenerate into a bunch of gun-toting, motorcycle-riding Mad Max warriors if there is a "true emergency" is bullshit. If there is a true emergency, I'll be happy to share my victory garden with my neighbors, and I bet the vast majority of my neighbors would do the same. Most people are mostly good most of the time.

... and a correction to my previous comment: "I suspect that belonging to Simple Gifts is NEITHER economically nor environmentally better"

Anonymous said...

The head of the IMF says that the world may be heading into a great depression:

In the last Great Depression, 7 million Americans starved to death, at a time when over 80% of the population lived on farms. I think it is a good idea to promote growing more food in the area.

Genetically modified corn through traditional cross-breeding is different than monsanto splicing genes into corn to create a plant toxic to caterpillars. Many people think that the problems honey bees and bats are having are related to genetically modified foods.

Yes, in a time of need, neighbors will help each other out. No, we will not live like Mad Max. I personally don't think we are headed for another depression, but I do believe strongly in permacultural practices.

Why don't you think belonging to simple gifts in not ecologically better? Are you serious? I know cost wise, it is not a great savings, but it absolutely is better for the environment in many ways. Less run-off, less erosion, less transportation, less chemicals, they use bio-diesel to heat the greenhouse, plow with oxen, etc, etc.

- Chris Baxter

Gavin Andresen said...

Americans spend a much smaller percentage of our income on food today than in the 1930's -- even if GDP and incomes fell by 50%, we'd still be wealthy enough nobody should starve.

RE: genetic engineering: how is splicing in genes fundamentally different from cross-breeding? They're both ways of messing with an organism's genome; genetic engineering is just a whole lot more precise.

And why do I suspect (I don't know) that Simple Gifts isn't more environmentally friendly than Big Iowa Farm: well, partly because of the number of cars I see there (we're about 50% guilty-- about half the pickups we managed to ride bikes). I bet we underestimate how much extra driving we do to go pick up food.

And partly because specialization is generally more efficient; if you're a carrot farmer, you get really good at growing carrots, and figure out how to grow as many carrots as possible with the least amount of land, water, fertilizer, manpower, etc. And using less is better for the environment.

All that said: we SHOULD get rid of the stupid subsidies that help big farms (and, therefore, hurt small farms). And I totally support local farms as a great way to socialize with your neighbors and feel good about talking to the person who grew your food.