Rethinking Local

Recently, I’ve run into some interesting articles going against the “buy local” mantra, mostly via @cblatts. In particular, I read an article on the book industry and one on food – and while neither were groundbreaking, they did make me stop and think about what really helps the community – whether that community is where I live or a more abstract community like authors or farmers. This is stuff I’m not well-versed in and I definitely have some reading to do, but this is just a small part of me trying to clarify my opinion – and I’m taking you along for the ride.

The first piece I read was this Slate article explaining that Amazon was better than local bookstores. The author spends most of his time explaining why Amazon is better for the customer and for “literary culture”  because it can afford to lower prices, effectively allowing people to buy and read more books. I do a share of shopping on Amazon, but I also love book stores. I always enjoyed wandering the aisles in Borders and I got coupons for 30-50% off an item, which brought the prices down enough to be comparable. I love the stuffy, crowded atmosphere of Old Town Books in Tempe, and there’s even a cat that lives there. But I’m not delusional about the role bookstores play in the industry – or the role Amazon plays. I think the article is right in pointing to Amazon not as the killer of literary culture but its savior.

The second piece I read was a short note from Ben Casnocha about buying food locally versus globally. Buying local (and organic) is definitely become a trend for the suburban hipsters among us. I visit the ASU Farmers Market every once in a while for some good tamales, but I’ve never gone full-local for my produce. But what I never thought of was what buying local does to the global – the farm workers in poorer countries that aren’t benefiting from the trend. Casnocha later put up quotes from Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist:

This is what it would take to feed nine billion people in 2050: at least a doubling of agricultural production driven by huge increase in fertiliser use in Africa, the adoption of drop irrigation in Asia and America, the spread of double cropping to many tropical countries, the use of GM crops all across the world to improve yields and reduce pollution, a further shift from feeding cattle with grain to feeding them with soybeans, a continuing relative expansion of fish, chicken and pig farming at the expense of beef and sheep (chickens and fish convert grain into meat three times as efficiently as cattle; pigs are in between)

As people continue to buy into the whole organic lifestyle, it inevitably bleeds into more than just your neighborhood farmer’s market. But that quote is (in my opinion) an important thing to remember – rural farmers in developing countries have been selling organic and local for years because they have to. The best way for them to increase their revenue is by increasing their inventory or by expanding their customer base. When you barely make enough to cover expenses and survive, it’s difficult to invest. When not abused, things like pesticides and international barges can help tremendously. While many suburbanites with the time and money continue to choose to buy local, it’s important to remember that not everything that’s good for your community can (nor should) be extrapolated to the global level.

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