At Crooked Timber this morning, John Quiggin draws our attention to a debate about producing and consuming “local food,” a debate in part driven by an ecological concern with “food miles.” One side of this debate is captured in the abstract from the article by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroku Shimizu (here associated with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University):
“As modern food production and distribution becomes ever more complex and globalized, a ‘buy local’ food movement has arisen. This movement argues that locally produced food is not only fresher and better tasting, but it is also better for the environment: Because locally produced food does not travel far to reach your table, the production and transport of the food expend less energy overall. The local food movement has even coined a term, ‘food miles,’ to denote the distance food has traveled from production to consumption and uses the food miles concept as a major way to determine the environmental impact of a food.
This Policy Primer examines the origins and validity of the food miles concept. The evidence presented suggests that food miles are, at best, a marketing fad that frequently and severely distorts the environmental impacts of agricultural production. At worst, food miles constitute a dangerous distraction from the very real and serious issues that affect energy consumption and the environmental impact of modern food production and the affordability of food.
The course of the debate over food miles is nonetheless instructive for policy makers. It highlights the need to remain focused on the issues that are important—in this case, the greenhouse gas emissions of highly subsidized first-world agriculture, the trade imbalances that prevent both developed and developing countries from realizing the mutual benefits of freer trade, biofuel subsidies, and thirdworld poverty. With the population of the planet growing rapidly, numerous food policy issues other than food miles should preoccupy policy makers.”
Desrochers and Shimizu have expanded their argument into a book, The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Food Diet (New York: PublicAffairs, 2012).
At AlterNet, Jill Richardson does not address their specific argument head-on, but prefers instead to attack the putative inability of neo-classical economic assumptions and models to properly address the relevant issues she believes are raised in any such debate. At Crooked Timber, Quiggin himself highlights some surprising ideological inconsistencies in the argument, at least insofar as we entertain certain expectations regarding the parameters of this debate, given the political and economic orientations of the respective parties. As for the debate itself, I think Desrochers and Shimizu have the better argument on the specifics, while Richardson appropriately raises several of the more important variables necessary for addressing health and justice issues generally with regard to the production and consumption of food, both here and abroad. In some respects, this is a perfect example of a debate in which the parties are, to a considerable extent, speaking around and past one another.
For my part, I put together the following list of titles I believe are useful—indeed, fundamental—for thinking about the subject matter of this discussion, which should be conducted within the framework of an environmentally* sensitive concern with global distributive justice:
- Bardhan, Pranab, Samuel Bowles and Michael Wallerstein, eds. Globalization and Egalitarian Distributive Justice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press/New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006)
- Barry, Christian and Thomas W. Pogge, eds. Global Institutions and Responsibilities: Achieving Global Justice (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005)
- Brock, Gillian. Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Account (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)
- Clapp, Jennifer and Peter Dauvergne. Paths to a Green World: The Political Economy of the Global Environment (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005)
- Dasgupta, Partha. Human Well-Being and the Natural Environment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
- Drèze, Jean and Amartya Sen. Hunger and Public Action (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989)
- Drèze, Jean, Amartya Sen, and Athar Hussain, eds. The Political Economy of Hunger (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)
- Gottleib, Robert and Anupama Joshi. Food Justice (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010)
- Jasanoff, Sheila and Marybeth Long Martello, eds. Earthly Politics: Local and Global Environmental Governance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004)
- Light, Andrew and Avner de-Shalit, eds. Moral and Political Reasoning in Environmental Practice (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003)
- Miller, Richard W. Globalizing Justice: The Ethics of Poverty and Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)
- O’Brien, Mary. Making Better Environmental Decisions: An Alternative to Risk Assessment (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, in association with the Environmental Research Association, 2000)
- Patel, Raj. Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, Melville House Publishing, 2007)
- Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981)
* “Environmentally” rather than simply “ecologically” because the former term includes yet transcends what falls within the rubric of the sciences of ecology.
See too this April 2008 post from Ratio Juris: “The Ecological and Political Economy of Hunger.”