Friday, June 15, 2007

Let's Be Provincial!

Recently, Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) outlined his Food and Farm Bill of Rights. While I don't have an issue with some of the things (although probably for different reasons that the Congressman), point #6 seemed just plain odd:

Americans have a right to local supplies of fresh food: Too many Americans do not have the option of buying affordable, locally-grown fresh food. We deserve a food and farm policy that includes programs that deliver healthy food to all communities, regardless of location, class, or economic standing.

This just seems crazy, for many reasons. Having food produced in small pockets all over the country just wouldn't be efficient. The weather varies mightily from region to region, so certain crops just aren't feasible outside of certain regions (for instance, there are 5.5 million barrels of cranberries produced in the United States, of which 4.4 million barrels -- 80% of the total -- comes from just two states, Wisconsin and Massachusetts). Besides climate, there's variation in soil, variation in population densities, variations in freight rail lines, and so on. And pray tell, Congressman, but would everyone have a guarantee to local lobsters under your plan too?

A major issue, if not the major issue, is land cost. Land in Manhattan, Kansas is going to be a lot cheaper than in Manhattan, New York City. It just doesn't make sense for someone to grow bulk crops in Westchester County, NY or in Fairfield County, CT. Too many people want to live near New York City, and are therefore willing to pay significant amounts for small parcels of property. There is no way that farmers in these areas could compete with farmers in Kansas, as these NYC area farmers would have significantly higher mortgage payments.

In order to ensure that every single area of the counry, or even every major metropolitan area, had significant local food production would require a massive bureaucracy. And if not enough food were being produced according to the bureaucrats, then certain active measures would have to be taken. Bigger subsidies for the local farmers, massive zoning regulations, or something similar. This would result in massive distortions in the economy, and for little to no purpose in the end.

Right now, if enough locals really demanded that their food was local and not from far away, they could influence the market. At the grocery store, they could look for locally grown food and pay more for it. After enough people did this, more local farms may spring up. But in some cases, the extra payment would have to be considerable, since land is in very limited supply in some regions.

Back in the 1700s and 1800s, almost everything was local, because transportion costs were expensive. Now that transportation and logistics are so cheap, we can have our food come from far away. This of course means that we can eat fresh fruits and vegetables all year round, instead of just when they happen to be "in season".

This locally grown thing obviously hasn't been thought out very much. We are a dynamic country because goods can be shipped across the country with relative ease, not because we only consume locally-produced food and products. The Congressman may want to open up an economics textbook and study the chapter on Comparative Advantage.