Cost and Benefit: Buying Local Produce

by Elaine Schwartz    •    May 26, 2013    •    919 Views

I saw this picture in an Upper West Side NYC blog:


Locavore Economics

Evidently horrified, one Zabar’s shopper said, “Can you believe that from all the farms in New York, ZABAR’S is selling GARLIC from CHINA!!!!!???” (Zabar’s is a gourmet supermarket.)

Locavores like that shopper believe that saving on transport costs and emissions helps the planet, patronizing small businesses supports the local economy rather than distant impersonal corporate giants, and eating healthy fresh food is good for us. In other words, locavores can have their cake and eat it too (although it usually is broccoli and local produce).

Curious about the environmental and nutritional impact of buying local, a group of researchers focused on  Santa Barbara County, California because of its fruit and vegetable production. As the following infographic illustrates, Santa Barbara County exports 99% of its crop. However, the 1% that is locally consumed, represents less than 5% of the community’s diet. More surprisingly, if their diets were entirely local, then greenhouse gas emissions would dip by less than 1% of US average annual greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, eating local has a miniscule environmental impact.

From: "Effect of Localizing Fruit and Vegetable Consumption on Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Nutrition, Santa Barbara County"

Perhaps though, eating local is really about comparative advantage. Explaining, 19th century economist David Ricardo would say we should produce whatever has the lower opportunity cost. So, if I grow a tiny quantity of garlic with land, labor and capital in New York State that instead could be producing apples much more productively, Ricardo would tell me to switch. Then trade my apples with a garlic grower (like China) who sacrifices less also.

We are in the middle of the asparagus season in New Jersey. Knowing that local produce tastes better and the farm down the road needs my support, I continue buying local. Your opinion?

Sources and Resources: Hat tip to Freakonomics and their link to the Santa Barbara paper. My Zabar’s picture was from the West Side Rag and the infogram from the Cleveland et al Santa Barbara study. For more on David Ricardo’s ideas, this econlib article is excellent.

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