Does Buying Local Matter?

A reader asked me to comment on this video critiquing Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's challenge to Ontario consumers to spend ten more dollars a week on local, Ontario produced food.  My first comment is that people who speak like affectless zombies probably should stick to the written word, rather than making videos, but that's more of an aesthetic critique.  Beyond that, however, there is the tiny germ (if you can find it under the same old economist free market babble) of a real question - how much impact does switching our dollars into local foods and products actually have?

Most of the video is worthless, and an obvious kind of worthless, complete with the usual free market economist references to North Korea (I bet you didn't know that buying apples and maple syrup could turn you into North Korea!), which is the economist version of playing the Nazi card, and worthy of just as much attention.

Now I'm not going to argue the numbers with Moffat.  While Ontario is roughly adjacent to NY, it isn't my particular stomping grounds and I don't actually care enough to find out if McGuinty's numbers about jobs and dollars are correct.  Moreover, I would take it as a given that they aren't - politician claims about jobs created are always exaggerated.  But Moffat didn't have to make a video to make that point - and pretty much everyone knows that jobs claims are overstated every single time any politician ever mentions jobs.  So let's address the real issue - does buying local make an economic difference locally?

Moffat, of course, radically overstates his position too - we leap immediately to the end of all trade if buyers shift those ten bucks on over - that's it, we'll never buy anything from anywhere else again!  But sorting through the empty rhetoric to that germ of content, Moffat also dismisses without any real argument any claim that spending dollars locally actually makes a difference - after all, he claims that Canadian dollars spent in foreign markets go straight back to Canada as foreign buyers purchase Canadian goods.

In some measures he has a case.  The vast majority of imported food in Canada comes from the US (57%) and 55% of Canadian food exports go right back to the US.  So he is right that some of those trade dollars go right back to the purchase of Canadian products for export.  So if all you think about here are abstract numbers, there is little difference.  What you actually take a look at what consumers buy, however, there's more difference than you might think.

You see when people think "local food" for the most part, they aren't thinking about Ontario's largest crops - raw grains and oilseeds.  While some more serious local food eaters do focus on grains, most local food purchases are meat, dairy, eggs, fruits and vegetables or products like honey and maple syrup.  So the focus on trade here is a little disingenuous - you aren't comparing apples to apples.  With the exception of some meat, most of Ontario's agricultural exports are grains and seeds - and the average consumer isn't going to say "Oh, honey, let's pick up a few bushels of local rapeseed for the home oil press tonight" - what we are talking about is shifting dollars away from imported processed foods to locally produced less processed foods.

More importantly than the largely irrelevant trade issue, or the claims of "overpaying" (McGuire suggesting shifting 10 dollars, not adding 10 dollars in your total food budget as Moffat disingenuously implies) is the fact that the money goes from large multinational food producers to smaller farmers.  52% of Ontario farmers are smaller farmers, grossing less than 100K per year (remember, that's GROSS, net is always way, way less in agriculture).  Those small farmers are disproportionately clustered in horticultural products (ie, vegetables and fruit), eggs, grassfed meat, dairy and sweeteners - ie, the things people think of when they "buy local food."

While it is true that the employees of large multinational corporations do spend some of their dollars on Canadian products, mostly energy, let's just reason this one out.  Hmmm...Hormel packer in India or Tenneseee vs. small Ontario farmer...which one do we think spends more money on Canadian, that's a tough one.  Or maybe not so much.  You simply up the odds that the money will reverbate through the local economy when you spend it locally.

Moreover, there are other issues to consider.  Between 1997 and 2007, Ontario lost 15% of its farms, 20% of its agricultural population and saw tens of thousands of farmland lost to agriculture.  Implying that residents have no interest in preserving Ontario's agriculture and small farm culture - indeed have no interest in anything except markets, is one of the reasons economics gets labelled "autistic" - that is, unable to get outside its own narrow worldview.

Outside the narrow worldview of free market essentialism, most of us want use our dollars to reinforce our basic values - the Ontario people want to live in is one that has farms and farmland.  The Ontario people may inherit in an area of climate change MUST have a viable agriculture, as food insecurity takes root.

But, of course, do we really want to take the risk that buying those local apples will turn us into North Korea?





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There's also the issue of shifting that $10 out of a local farmer's pocket (who pays local taxes, uses the local utilities, sends his kids to local swim lessons, etc.), and puts it into the pocket of some nebulous "elsewhere" pocket via international trade agreements (i.e., not someone likely to be purchasing swimming lessons locally any time soon). That is, the money might, technically, stay in the *country*, but it sure doesn't stay in your community, and very likely doesn't stay anywhere likely to improve the quality of life of anyone you know or care about.

Sharon, well-written.

I'm not a locavore type, and I'm just as happy to support a peasant farmer in Columbia as a local one. They're both deserving of my support, and it'd be xenophobic to imply that one is necessarily better than the other.

But as you note, supporting local foods also means supporting local *values*. Do I care how the tax money is spent, or about the labor and environmental policies behind my food? If so, then I can "vote" with my dollars. And for that reason, I'm less likely to buy Chinese products than European ones.

By Windchasers (not verified) on 05 Oct 2012 #permalink

Well, the thing is that if it costs more to buy local, stimulating the local economy might not actually be worth it to the buyer, even if that is what happens. Indeed, stimulating the economy may lead to increases in some prices such as food, as labor prices increase when unemployment rates go down, and agriculture, for example, is pretty local labor intensive.

If you work for a multinational company, you may not be better off with a stronger local economy. If you work for a company that sells to locals and you are at less than full capacity and could use more customers then maybe you would benefit from local stimulus.

This Windchasers person sounds kind of schizophrenic to me, claiming that a foreigner and a local are both equally deserving of support and that to think otherwise would be "xenophobic", but then suddenly it's OK to prefer to support the locals instead of the foreigners, because of the local "values" that the local person has and the foreigner doesn't.

Oh well, at least Windchasers managed to rationalize something that probably sounded to him/her like an "intelligent" and "enlightened" etc. reason to do and think what he/she decided to do and think.

The whole "buy local" thing is a moderately respectable way for the proven murdering lying Nazis, who make up the Green movement to express their racist hatred for anybody who lives in other countries (or indeed other states, towns or neighbourhoods).

By Neil Craig (not verified) on 06 Oct 2012 #permalink

On the overpaying issue, the fact that I am "shifting" ten dollars in my budget from non-local foods to local foods rather than adding ten dollars doesn't mean that I'm not overpaying. It just means that you will have to eat less overall to make up for buying the overpriced produce.

Are local goods overpriced or are Big Ag foods underpriced? The big boys have more funds for marketing, lobbying, etc., plus getting most of the gov't subsidies for farming, don't they? If they weren't getting help, I expect their prices would be a little higher...

By Heather G (not verified) on 08 Oct 2012 #permalink

There are a variety of food quality and food content issues at play in local versus big Ag sources. Regardless of those issues I prefer to support local producers even if it costs a bit more simply because I think the 2,000 mile salad is soon going to be a thing of the past. Supporting local growers now means they're more likely to be in business when I need them - when the 2,000 mile salad conveyor belt stops.

Regardless of the values of farmers near or far, when you buy food from far away, some of the money is going to an oil company-and they certainly don't need it.

By Sandra Wilson (not verified) on 10 Oct 2012 #permalink

I know you have made this same point before, and today you bring a slightly different version of your conclusion. The illustration of the impact on retaining farming resources vs. international trade balances is very important.

It is almost like advocating taking local food security from the formal economy back to an informal economic function.

But I would like to see this conclusion and example restated in a succinct form, aimed at catching the attention and informing those not already on board with the whole conversation about local food security.


No one has actually demonstrated that buying local IS more expensive in any objective sense, and I'd challenge you to do so. Studies of local organic produce have demonstrated that in-season, prices are often pretty much the same if you are buying what is currently available. Moreover, people pay for quality in both markets - so you'd have to demonstrate that the quality was equal or lesser. Feel free to do so. But just saying it is so doesn't make it so.

By definition if tou are limiting your choices more than somebody who is willing to buy anything, you have fewer choices and must sometimes choose something more expensive than what you really want. I suspect rice grown in New York would be considerably more expensive than that grown in China.

By Neil Craig (not verified) on 12 Oct 2012 #permalink