Sunday, July 8, 2012

How not to defend local food

Fresh from losing a debate with author Pierre Desrochers, loco-vore Jill Richardson has posted an article responding to several arguments she claims he makes. Tellingly, the article provides no link or mention of their interaction two weeks ago.

It's as if she wants the public to see her respond to Desrochers, but not in a venue where they can immediately hear his response.

Some of the arguments she attempts to thwart are straw men. For example, I don't know of anyone who is claiming GDP is the end-all way of measuring progress. There's also some slimy cherry picking. When trying to decide if eggs from free-range chickens are better or worse than conventional ones, she could have cited a USDA study or an experiment conducted by Mother Earth News. The two gave conflicting results, but her article ignores this and just focuses on what she wants to be true.

There's no need to dig further than her fourth point. Like so many failed DIY economists before her, she claims comparative advantage can be rejected and ignored. This is like a creationist rejecting Gregor Mendel's work on genetics as an outdated concept. She wrote:

The idea is simple. If Idaho can produce potatoes cheaper than California can, and California can produce strawberries cheaper than Idaho can, then Idaho should grow all of the potatoes and California should grow all of the strawberries, and they should trade. To some extent, this makes sense. No one is suggesting that Mexico attempt to produce its own maple syrup or that Vermont should try to grow its own pineapple. But relying on large-scale monoculture as suggested by the notion that California should supply the nation with strawberries runs into the need for toxic agrochemicals.
Richardson goes on to hype fears of toxic death from living near large-scale food production. This is more of a wandering response to economies of scale, not comparative advantage.

She understands that you shouldn't grow pineapples in Vermont - although I'm sure we'll hear suggestions like that before too long - but what about growing sheep in England when the climate of New Zealand is naturally superior for the task?

I can understand Richardson changing the subject in a live debate when asked to address comparative advantage, but this is a written article she drafted from scratch. She has nothing to say about the inconvenient issue of specialization, but instead switches gears and tells everyone they will be poisoned if they don't listen to her.

Attempting to refute David Ricardo's comparative advantage has always been a giveaway sign of foolishness. I've written about this before, but not as succinctly as Paul Krugman:
The first thing I need to do is to make clear how few people really do understand Ricardo's difficult idea - since the response of many intellectuals, challenged on this point, is to insist that of course they understand the concept, but they regard it as oversimplified or invalid in the modern world....At the shallowest level, some intellectuals reject comparative advantage simply out of a desire to be intellectually fashionable. Free trade, they are aware, has some sort of iconic status among economists; so, in a culture that always prizes the avant-garde, attacking that icon is seen as a way to seem daring and unconventional.


  1. Thanks, will post this on my book's website if you don't mind.

  2. And I have posted it on the facebook page devoted to the book!/pages/Locavores-Dilemma/312391792177858

  3. By all means Pierre, I'm glad to find like-minded folks in the world, wherever they are located.