Local Means Limited   Leave a comment

I have yet to buy into the “buy local” movement. My reasons are sane and solid. It’s November in Alaska and you can’t grow anything here. Fairbanks has a great potato crop in the summer, Delta manages some really nice barley, and there is hope we might someday be able to grow industrial hemp here, but the fact is that we have about a 4 1/2 month growing season at best. cold soils that limit what grows here even in the summer, and the rest of the time the ground is frozen and you can’t grow anything in frozen ground.

Image result for image of a farmers marketConversely, I am an advocate for local farms and especially for greenhouses that can grow food year-round because I am well-aware that a storm in the Pacific or a longshoremen strike in Seattle or the Port of Long Beach could see Alaskans fighting over that last potato.

But let’s be honest about the arguments for “buy local” and admit that they’re mostly fallacies.

When I sat down to draft the third book of Transformation Project, I was struck by how little Emmaus really could generate on its own. I gather things like crop yields and available foodstuffs from a real town in Kansas and I asked my mathy 17-year-old to check my figures. A farm town in Kansas would seem to be in a really good position for whether a food crisis brought on by a loss of transportation hubs … and it does have an advantage over other parts of the country that that import most of their food. My town has a lot of corn, a small amount of soy, a little bit of sorghum … and no means to process any of it from its harvested state into something useful. Even if I fictionalized and created a wheat harvest, they’d be hand-grinding wheat for flour.

Image result for image of november street in fairbanks alaska

Oh, my!

That works to my benefit for showing how ill-prepared Americans would be for the sort of man-caused disaster that I propose in the books, but it also made me well aware that the “buy local” movement doesn’t know much about reality.

Very few of the products that the Buy Local movement asks us to purchase “locally” are actually local. Here in Alaska, local produce is expensive produce. We only grow about 2% of our needs currently and then only in the summer months and the local farmers are very impressed with the quality of their goods, so $7 a pound tomatoes are the norm. Buying local artificially limits variety and increases cost.

And then there’s all of the rest of what goes into farming. The farming equipment isn’t produced locally. For the most part, neither is the fertilizer or the feed for farm animals, which themselves are often imported. The vehicle used to transport the goods to the farmers market wasn’t manufactured here and since the North Pole Refinery closed down, neither is the fuel. The bags that are used to store the produce aren’t made from a local source and the plastic produce boxes come from China.


The local “Local Market” employs a few people, selling mostly overpriced food that was shipped in from the Matanuska Valley (is 250 miles away “local”) or, in winter, from Seattle (is 2000 miles away “local”?), but nothing like the Fred Meyers does (it ships in from Seattle too), so I have to wonder if buying “local” might not put a lot of people out of jobs. Certainly truckers would need to find other employment.

Now, think about this —

If your town thinks it best to only purchase within its borders, then surrounding towns should logically follow suit. Inter-town trade would grind to a halt. In so doing, those towns would limit the number of people and the amount of money in the local economy – systematically making themselves poorer … or in the case of Emmaus, more likely to starve to death.

So, Emmaus has corn. Assuming they have the fuel to harvest it, how are they going to get the lye to nixolate it so that it becomes digestible. They have milk cows that require feed which they may or may not have once winter sets in. They might want some sort of oil for cooking and you can render oil from corn if you have the means to press it, but alas, there is no such machine in my subject town, so …. Then there’s the need for Vitamin C to ward off scurvy, but as far as I can tell, nobody grows anything much there that would provide that needed nutrient. There’s a nearby town that is growing sugar beets so if the Emausians want something sweet … but, no, if they’re going to adhere to the “local only” ideology … yeah …. Their options rapidly become very limited. My son believes about 10% of the town might survive the winter if they eat the organic corn, but then that means they have no seed for the following year. See the dilemma?

This system of restricting trade and advocating a level of self-sufficiency is referred to as autarky.  History is riddled with different examples of this economic asceticism. Like the recent case of North Korea, most were despotic in nature and left a great many people in poverty.

In Transformation Project, the solution was found in trade with other towns. There’s still going to be some starvation (it’s an apocalyptic after all), but with an active trade network, the survivors won’t be so apt to malnutrition.

The Buy Local movement promotes subsistence disguised as “social capital” and regression disguised as “conservatism.”  Throughout the course of human events, the most prosperous economies have always fled from these fallacious ideas, not because of any moral superiority, but because the alternative was much better.  People in early Europe wanted spices from Asia and the Middle East. The Japanese Meiji Restoration modernized the country by opening its borders to trade.

In America, as Desrochers and Shimizu point out in The Locavore’s Dilemma,

If modern-day activists were to cling to any consistent notion of “local” food, a truly “made in the USA” agricultural diet would be limited to turkeys, some farmed native fish and shellfish, sunflowers, blueberries, cranberries, Jerusalem artichokes, and some varieties of squash.

Don’t get me wrong. I like my local’s farmer’s market and wander through there weekly (in the summer) to see what my local farming friends have on offer, but I recognize that it’s really not local and that there are more efficient ways to get our food — provided an earthquake doesn’t take out the Port of Long Beach.

Posted November 29, 2016 by aurorawatcherak in economics

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