Guest post: Michael Shuman defends the “buy local” premise

Last week we pointed in the Digest to an inflammatory post, titled “Don’t Buy Local,” by Richard Conniff on the New York Times blog (accessible to NYT Select members only), that falls into a category I think of as “toss a Molotov cocktail at the ‘food police.’” Every few months, someone feels they have to take a poke at — take your pick — the elitist, hypocritical, world-hunger-denying, sanctimonious, hippie-dippie, xenophobic, Luddite attitudes of those of us who prefer food that took the shortest possible route to our plates. Opting out of the industrial food system seems to really chafe some people, as if we’re swatting their Twinkies out of their mouths instead of just trying to preserve centuries-old knowledge, infrastructure, and seeds so that we will continue to have choices in the future.

Conniff was the latest, but he won’t be the last. He’s a nature writer, not usually provocative, and he succeeded in making his straw-man point — buying local food is not going to alleviate global warming. Oh well. I guess I’ll quit going to the farmers market and hit the Wal-Mart produce section instead, using all that money I’m saving to pick up some made-in-China, can’t-live-without stuff on my way out. Seriously, I find it heartening that the vast majority of the commenters on Conniff’s piece were thoughtful, cogent defenses of why patronizing local farmers and businesses is extremely important for the United States. (You can read the original post, along with all 114 comments, in this PDF.)

Michael ShumanMichael Shuman, author of the books “The Small-Mart Revolution” and “Going Local,” wrote the best rebuttal by far to Conniff’s piece that I saw, but it showed up only over at Chef Ann’s blog. The issue of comparative food miles is just a diversion that skeptics will happily keep repeating, so I wrote to Shuman asking if we could republish it. He graciously said yes. An economist and attorney, Shuman is on the board of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE).  

Don’t buy Richard Conniff!
By Michael Shuman

Richard Conniff’s thin polemic against the millions of Americans who are buying local is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s old yarns about trees polluting more than cars do. Conniff’s argument is provocative, contrarian, entertaining – and almost entirely wrong in both facts and logic.

smallmart.jpg Why buy local? Most people are doing so, not to save carbon, but to save their economies. As I lay out in my book, “The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition,” local businesses (compared to nonlocals) are more reliable generators of local wealth and provide hedges against catastrophic corporate departures, which communities become vulnerable to if they don’t prioritize the locals. The locals also attract tourists, retain the best and brightest (those who underlie Richard Florida’s “creative economy”), promote smart growth, improve social equality (see the studies of the late Tom Lyson from Cornell), and facilitate political participation. (Details are available in the free download (PDF), “A Letter to Bellingham,” at

Most importantly, compared to nonlocal businesses, local firms generate far more income, wealth, jobs, and tax revenues per unit of business – often two to four times as much. A report released in San Francisco three weeks ago showed that a 10 percent shift of retail spending from chain to local would create 1,000 jobs and $200 million more in output (more about that in this article for the Chronicle). A study from Iowa State last September found that localizing an ethanol plant, because of the multiplier impacts, more than doubled the number of jobs created in Iowa.

Just buying local food can have tremendous economic benefits. In 2006, Professor Michael Hamm, at Michigan State University, found that a modest shift to local food purchasing in Michigan could increase net farm income by $164 million (16 percent), generate 1,889 jobs in the state, and augment statewide personal income by $187 million.

Richard Conniff understands none of this. Had he actually reviewed the literature on the subject, he never could have written that “the urge to buy local is often just a disguised version of the urge to punish someone foreign.” In fact, communities across the planet are underinvesting in and underspending on highly price-competitive local enterprises, and they are tossing away precious money on expensive and unnecessary imports. That’s money that could be used for lots of other activities – including more trade. If I have to spend more on a global bank’s mortgage, rather than one from my credit union, I will no longer have thousands of my dollars that I might be able to spend importing wine from French and Italian farmers.

Conniff’s argument that buying local food hurts U.S. farmers also has no empirical basis. In fact, study after study has shown that those farmers who shift from producing global commodities to local niche products, who switch from global food chains to local distribution systems, can substantially boost their income.

One reason for this is that global food distribution has become remarkably inefficient. According to economist Stewart Smith from the University of Maine, every dollar spent on food today typically leaves seven cents in the hand of the farmer. More than 70 cents goes to distribution. Whenever production gets very small relative to distribution, localization – even if it means higher production costs – can cut total costs, because distribution costs are brought way down. Indeed, localization, done properly, puts more money into the pockets of farmers and consumers.

But what about saving the polar bears?

The inefficiency of global food distribution also underscores the fallacy of Conniff’s argument that buying local somehow increases greenhouse gas emissions — that New Zealand lamb “shipped to Europe [is] four times more energy-efficient than home-grown European lamb,” or that “sea freight can be surprisingly efficient, even from heavy manufactured goods.” The actual production and shipping of goods, together, are a tiny part of the overall cost, both in dollars and energy. What these arguments leave out are the costs of middle people, refrigeration, packaging, advertisers, truckers (after the sea freight), and so forth.

The Economist made quite a splash a few months back with “Voting with Your Trolley,” an article arguing, like Conniff, that local food was environmentally bad because its transportation was less efficient. That conclusion came from the work of Dr. Chris Foster at the Manchester Business School. Foster’s paper, in fact, was a summary of stale literature on the subject, most of it looking at inefficient, old local food distribution systems, and none of it taking into account the full range of carbon and other costs from today’s global food systems. [The Ethicurean also had a look at that MBS report, or at least the chicken-related nuggets.]

I wrote Dr. Foster about the basis for this conclusion. He replied, “Dear Michael: We haven’t actually done a study of local food, although some media coverage of our recent work might suggest otherwise (but then, who believes what they read in the press?).”

Apparently, Richard Conniff.

Buy local … sometimes?

Conniff is right that local food can be done in an environmentally irresponsibly way – any decent activity can be done indecently. That doesn’t mean that local food is bad for the environment. It just means that buyers should be mindful of local, plus environmental performance, plus labor performance, and so forth. Most locavores, to use Jessica Prentice’s wonderful term, are mindful about this bigger picture.

What we do know, empirically, is that local food is more likely to be environmentally benign than nonlocal food, for several reasons. The ability of consumers to know, to inspect, to improve, and even to sue local farmers makes them far more trustworthy sources of food than agribusinesses in places like China where faceless, unaccountable bureaucrats can easily lie about their environmental performance with impunity. (This trust problem calls into question the supposed environmental benefits of Chinese compact-fluorescent light bulbs.) It defies logic, moreover, to believe that food shipped 15,000 miles will leave a smaller carbon footprint than food shipped 15 miles, especially once we rebuild local food distribution systems that chains have taken apart over the past generation. Every unnecessary mile that food travels invites contamination, nutritional deterioration, spoilage, sabotage, embargoes, and financial dislocations from rising oil prices.

The emerging worldwide “buy local” movement is really about smart consumer choices. The slogan being used in the 55 networks of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) is to “Think Local First.” Note that it’s not “Buy Local,” or “Buy Local at Any Cost,” or “Buy Local or You Suck.” Thinking local first helps consumers pay attention to all the parts of a purchase – price, quality, durability, ecological impact, transaction costs, trustworthiness, and so forth. And what has become clear is that the more consumers know, the more likely they are to buy local, because what’s driving much of their nonlocal purchasing today is not smart shopping but dumb obedience to billions of dollars of big-box advertising.

2 Responsesto “Guest post: Michael Shuman defends the “buy local” premise”

  1. Joyce says:

    Thanks for providing access to such insight. The average layperson needs guidance in these areas. The digest offers us an opportunity to become more aware of what is happening globally, nationally and locally. Appreciate your efforts.

  2. Vanessa says:

    Bravo…a well thought, well researched post. I’ll link up to this if it’s ok with you. I’ve been touting buy local for a few years now and most recently on my own blog. I’ve never been able to eloquently and factually say why it was right…it just feels right. Thanks for the facts.