I am currently in the middle of The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet, by my long-time friends Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu. It’s a wonderful book, so far anyway, that offers a really good critical assessment of the locavore movement using both good economics and a sound understanding of agriculture and geography. (Pierre is an economic geographer, so this should not be a surprise.) While reading it yesterday, waiting for the two of them to join me for coffee, I noticed that Hiroko had written a solo-authored epilogue. Those few pages nicely capture the whole spirit of the book.
After discussing the severe hunger her Japanese parents suffered during World War II, she writes:
[O]ne of the main lessons to be learned from my native country’s experience over the last century and a half is that pushes toward autarkic food policies can only result in disaster. As we wrote in the book – and as many other people have said before us – if goods don’t cross borders, armies eventually will. My parents’ generation is living proof that what militaristic people thought they could only achieve by force can be accomplished much more effectively and successfully through free trade and peace. …
As…Steven Pinker observes…we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence. This blessed state of affairs, though, was a long time coming and was only made possible through the worldwide exchange of products, resources, ideas, and culture. Despite our current economic woes, we have almost vanquished famine. Most of us living longer, healthier, safer, and more enjoyable lives than previous generations. It seems incumbent upon us to put forward some constructive proposals to improve the global food supply chain rather than turn back the clock to some imagined era of pastoral bliss that most people escaped from when given the opportunity….
It is my hope that “Buy Local” will soon be replaced by the more desirable slogan “Buy Global – The Planet is Our Garden.”
I could not agree more.
And I will add one more observation. Many parts of the US right now are suffering from severe to extraordinary drought, especially in the heartland. But notice: there’s no famine. No one is starving. No one is going to be any more hungry as a result. For that, we can thank globalization and the end of the local economy.
Were the residents of Indiana limited to a 100 mile diet, they would be in deep trouble right now as crops and animals are suffering. It is precisely their ability to tap into a nationwide and global trading network that softens the blow of drought and allows the surpluses in other places around the world stave off famine there. My local paper today had a story about Washington state farmer, who have had plenty of rain, being thrilled with the opportunity to ship their grain and other produce to the drought-stricken parts of the US. And let’s not forget that it is through the market and the price system that they are aware of the need to do so. The higher prices they can command for their grain more than compensate for the shipping costs. This is what markets do and globalized ones create more possibilities for filling the gaps that nature creates.
The globalization of the food supply, and the related economies of scale and reductions in cost, are like a giant insurance program for humanity. The more that every part of the world taps into that network by opening themselves to trade, and the more we in the US help by ending our agricultural subsidies and import quotas, the more people who really will have a “secure food supply.”
The goal of food security is a noble one, but the lessons of history and economics are clear: the best food security comes not from putting all of your eggs, grain, and cattle in one local basket, but by diversifying your options through the globalization of trade. The best protection we have against the whims of nature is the sophisticated flexibility of the market, and the larger the better. That global trade has largely ended famines is, almost by itself, reason to dismiss the more extreme forms of locavorism. It is more so a reason to celebrate the way in which the market serves the most important of human needs peacefully and humanely.