Monday, November 23, 2009

Take that Ricardo: Blizzard-grown beets

I try to keep my criticism of the "buy local" movement to it's soul-crushing ignorance of economics, and away from the environmental arguments. It's not because I respect the view. I do not. It's just that other people have already done a great job of quashing any intellectual defense those claims held.

My usual response is to just pose the following scenario: would it be better for the environment to grow orange trees greenhouses in a New England winter, instead of trucking them in from Florida?

That always makes them pause to apply some real math, because clearly the issue is more complicated than just the mileage of the rutabaga. So imagine my surprise when the Portland Press Herald reports that a number of Maine businesses will be growing crops in greenhouses during the cold, dark winter months.

The trouble with the environmental arguments is that they assume that the production methods of different sized farms have roughly the same environmental impact, and that the dragon to slay is the fuel used to transport food across the world.

Shortening the supply chain, however, is a lot more complicated than the activists realize. It's unfortunate that they haven't done any real research on the total impact from using wasteful small operations with a ton of overhead and transporting the food by using a fleet of small pickup trucks instead of efficient large boats and 18-wheelers.

I wonder if there's an upward limit to what kind of ridiculous claims the buy local activists can get away with before someone in the press catches on. I'm not expecting them to learn comparative advantage or anything serious, but when a movement that uses a lot of environmental claims to get people to buy its goods sells so many that they build propane-heated greenhouses to keep the operation running year round, it's obvious the green they care about is decorated with dead presidents.

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