An argument against the perceived benefits of locavore behavior
Stephen J. Dubner wonders, do we really need a few billion locavores? And with that wonder he skewers the notion that the local food movement can really enhance the economic, environmental and social health of our planet as much as some Michael Pollan adherents might hope. His piece starts out with this anecdote:
We made some ice cream at home last weekend. Someone had given one of the kids an ice cream maker a while ago and we finally got around to using it. We decided to make orange sherbet. It took a pretty long time and it didn’t taste very good but the worst part was how expensive it was. We spent about $12 on heavy cream, half-and-half, orange juice, and food coloring — the only ingredient we already had was sugar — to make a quart of ice cream. For the same price, we could have bought at least a gallon (four times the amount) of much better orange sherbet. In the end, we wound up throwing away about three-quarters of what we made. Which means we spent $12, not counting labor or electricity or capital costs (somebody bought the machine, even if we didn’t) for roughly three scoops of lousy ice cream.
As we’ve written before, it is a curious fact of modern life that one person’s labor is another’s leisure. Every day there are millions of people who cook and sew and farm for a living — and there are millions more who cook (probably in nicer kitchens) and sew (or knit or crochet) and farm (or garden) because they love to do so. Is this sensible? If people are satisfying their preferences, who cares if it costs them $20 to produce a single cherry tomato (or $12 for a few scoops of ice cream)?
I am both a Pollan fan and a Freakonomics fan. We need both Pollan’s aspirational hope — as expressed most recently in his April 20 NYTimes Magazine, Why Bother?, which urged us all to start vegetable gardens in our backyards as a means to both battle climate change and combat consumerism — and the gritty statistical reality Dubner provides:
…specialization (which Michael Pollan mostly dislikes, and which has been around for a long, long time) is ruthlessly efficient. Which means less transportation, lower prices — and, in most cases, far more variety, which in my book means more deliciousness and more nutrition. The same store where I blew $12 on ice cream ingredients will happily sell me ice cream in many flavors, dietetic options, and price points.
Dubner spoke more on the topic yesterday on The Takeaway, available for download here. Having read both of Pollan’s most recent books, I agree completely with his critique of nutritionism — that reducing food to its component parts takes away some of its vital essence — and I have to think that even Dubner would believe there’s a middle ground between the locavores and an industrial food system that has produced the kind of horrific waste lagoons exposed in this December 2006 Rolling Stone story.
While industrialization of the food system has brought about the specialization Dubner praises, deadly tomatoes from Connecticut to California underscore that it’s long past time for food reform. There is clearly room for real and needed improvement. Michael Pollan has done a good job of making us more aware of the harmful commoditization of food. Dubner’s contribution to the debate is to keep it real.