3 February 2017

Local food is a recipe for starvation


In Vanuatu, they’re taking that hippie mantra of only eating locally seriously. “A group of South Pacific islands,” reports the Guardian, “are banning foreign junk food imports in favour of an all-local, organic diet as a way to combat future health problems.”

To which we must contrast the desperate straits facing us here in the UK, where the great European vegetable crisis of 2017 has led supermarkets to ration lettuce.

Tesco, the UK’s largest retailer, posted signs on its salad sections which state: “Due to continued weather problems in Spain, there is a shortage on iceberg lettuce. To protect the availability for all our customers, we are limiting bulk purchases to three per person. We apologise for any inconvenience.”

First World problems indeed. Fortunately, there is supply being airlifted in from the US – a rather expensive thing to do, but needs must.

For many people in the West, the fact that we import so much food is a moral, ethical and geopolitical outrage. Think of the air miles! Think of the carbon emissions! Think of the danger if ever we get blockaded!

It’s a romantic notion, to be sure. Buying our food in local markets and chatting to the people who grow it. Using glasshouses and south-facing walls to grow our own grapes – which, as Adam Smith pointed out, you can theoretically do even in Scotland.

Of course, a local diet would mean that at this time of year, our plates would be heavy with turnips, just as those of Vanuata will soon be heaving with taro. Months of turnips, in fact.

As an option – for those who can afford it – I’ve got nothing against local food for local people. But as an actual mode of general organisation, we’ve stopped doing it and for very good reason: people used to starve.

Up into the 17th century, Britain used to suffer famine – the real swollen-bellies, children-dropping-dead type. What stopped it was the spread of an efficient transport system. It’s notable that the places where famines persisted even into the 18th century – the more remote parts of Cumbria and Northumberland – were the places that got hooked up to the transport network last. The cure for hunger was being able to bring in food from elsewhere.

Even today, it’s entirely normal for crops to fail – which is what’s happening in Spain right now. But because we get our food from all manner of places, the result of the rain in Spain is mild inconvenience. And just consider the effect in Spain itself if it relied solely on local production for the daily calories of the population.

Food security isn’t created by growing food here. It’s created by having many sources of supply, spread across different locations and thus subject to different weather patterns. It makes sense to get our wine from Bordeaux, rather than growing it in Scotland. But it makes equal sense to have Australia, New Zealand, Chile and all the rest for variety and security.

The current system also, as these news stories makes obvious, gain access to lettuce in the middle of winter – what the food writer Joanna Blythman calls “permanent global summertime” (though she doesn’t much like it).

That’s something that wasn’t possible, or at least normal, even in the childhoods of many reading this. Eating locally means eating seasonally – which has its merits, certainly, not least that sense of anticipation as the strawberries come into season. But given that we all do buy lettuce, courgettes etc in winter, it’s also equally obvious that we prefer not having to subsist on turnips.

Economists are keen on the idea of revealed preference. To determine what people prefer, don’t believe what people say to those wielding clipboards: look at what they actually do. Once you do that, it is clear that we prefer those temples of a varied diet, the supermarkets – with their choices, their fancy foreign muck and yes, even their food miles.

The reason we do so is as Cormac O’Grada has pointed out in his history of famine. In normal times, the global trade in food provides us with variety. And in extremis, that trade stops us starving.

All of which is what makes the local food movement such a puzzle. Why are people trying to insist on the very form of food production that we’ve just spent the last 10,000 years trying to escape?

Tim Worstall is senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute