Acton Institute Powerblog

Glocalization and Locavore Legalism

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I’ve been meaning to write something on the “locavore” phenomenon, but nothing has quite coalesced yet. But in the meantime, in last Fridays’s NYT, Stephen Budiansky does a good job exploding the do-gooderism of the locavore legalists. Here’s a key paragraph:

The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies — and then pay the relatively tiny energy cost to get them to market, as we do with every other commodity in the economy. Sometimes that means growing vegetables in your backyard. Sometimes that means buying vegetables grown in California or Costa Rica.

I’ve never liked the idea that its somehow immoral for me or my family to consume mangoes, even though they don’t grow all that well here in Michigan.

And as Budiansky points out, the only way to grow them locally would be to invest large amounts of capital and energy in artificially transforming the climate (via a greenhouse, for instance).

This is to say nothing of the virtue of interconnectedness that comes about when, for instance, I buy mangoes that originate in India, China, or Mexico and someone else buys cherries grown here in Michigan.

There’s something in the Bible about “doing unto others.” If you want other people to buy stuff from you, visit your town, and so on, you ought to be eager to reciprocate.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Robert Joustra

    I have a similar piece brewing on my whiteboard, tentatively titled “Why I’m not a locavist: In defense of international trade.” I even have a stack of books on food policy and food systems that I’ve ordered to get more read up on this. Do you have a list of recommendations?

  • John Hunt

    I agree with the “Mango” scenario you present, however, wouldn’t you agree that preference should be given to cherries grown in Michigan over cherries grown, say, in China?

    We have lost nearly all our manufacturing base to oversees manufacturers. Don’t you think it is admirable to protect our nations food supply and farmers – and save energy? When we lose our food supply, do you think our “service economy will attract foreign consumers to come over here to cut their hair or shop in our malls. Don’t you understand that we must produce SOMETHING so we can generate income to live?

    Are you so married to the free market that you will help the globalists completely ruin the economy in the USA – for everyone except the Wall Street bankers and port cities, that is? I think you better give this issue a little more thought and consider the implications of a country that produces nothing because some globalists want to redistribute wealth from the USA to least-cost labor markets.

    I believe, an industrial base, energy independence, and agriculture (and an independent, immutable constitution)are vital to our national security. If you do not agree, I would question whether you are one of the “new thinkers” who believe the concept of the nation state is obsolete.

    I believe that, sometimes, you “think tank” guys have a little too much academia in your blood.

  • As with John, I can agree with some sentiments in the article but I don’t think the implications have been fully recognised.

    Doubtless there are advantages to a smaller world and a globalised economy, but there is no such thing as a free lunch. Indeed, there is a steep bill to be paid in terms of the economic and political power that such a world concentrates at an ever higher level. The multi-nationals, the lobbying crowd and their fellow-travellers in the IMF are its chief beneficiaries. Regional identity, independent ownership and anything that called can remotely be termed ‘small’ – these are most definitely the losers.

    Now I am not arguing against global trade; it is a matter of balance as much as anything. But surely you can recognise the dangers of conceding limitless power to Leviathan just because it can give us what we want, when we want it? It is all too easy to sell our freedom for a mess of pottage. There are very real consequences for political stability in a globalised, integrated world when everyone lies at the mercy of impersonal institutions over which they have no control, however benign they seem in the good times. Furthermore, in the fully integrated world envisaged by the utopian advocates of economism, there is nothing to stop a crisis in an apparent backwater escalating into a general crisis everywhere.

  • Great post.

    Re: other commenters: We produce plenty of other things on which can generate income. The outcome would be dire if we were to run with the argument that we need farming in this or that State in order to have an economy. We have consistently outsourced many industries, and when we have done so, we have created new ones to compensate. But no worries, if Americans are afraid of having a mobile and adaptable economy (which can sometimes be painful *in the moment*), I’m sure that Chine, India, and the rest of the developing world will be glad to assume such risks for us (to our peril).

    For those who want a “safe” solution where no one loses their jobs and oranges can grow in everyone’s backyard, I say such a solution cannot be sustained — not in today’s world.

    As for the comment about “conceding limitless power to the Leviathan,” I think it is somewhat ironic. I understand that we have large-scale manipulation in American ag policy (among plenty of other policies), but the goal is to get rid of that, is it not? To assume the protectionist stance being taken, you MUST concede power to the Leviathan, because you are arguing our social welfare requires it. To claim opposition to the Leviathan while simultaneously supporting trade barriers is particularly puzzling.

  • Robert, I’ve really just been collecting a few scattered links as I’ve gone along. I have had in mind to write something, as I said, making the moral case for globalization and articulating the threats of what I call the “new tribalism.”

    Here are a few, including a link to a section of a book from a Cato scholar that makes “A Moral Case for Trade”:

    And something connecting the World Cup, South Africa, and the Accra Confession:

  • Thanks for the thoughts Joseph; my argument is that international trade is already in an advanced state of gigantism and that this is not the result of trade per se, but the concentration of it in the hands of mainly western multi-nationals which can and do seek to bend other countries, regions and peoples to their will. It can not be stressed too highly enough that these are not naturally developing organic entities. They are the synthetic offspring of the state; they suckle on the privileges of incorporation that states around the world choose to give them through limited liability laws, rights to issue bond and shares etc.

    Too often the prophets of globalisation blithely assume that the disruption caused by outsourcing and relocation is an irresistible and welcome sign of progress. This comes from a default assumption that human wellbeing and the profits of artifically inflated big business are one and the same. Quite the contrary. Indeed it is high time for those who rail against big government to live up to their ideals and get serious about how that very same state begets bigness elsewhere.

    Regarding your other points about replacing failing industries with new ones, all I can say is that we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket. It is better to have a diverse economy at a smaller scale than to subordinate everything to making what is identified as the country’s ‘niche’ product in the world. Speaking from a British perspective, over the last 25 years the view was parroted relentlessly in politics, business and media that banking was the yellow brick road to the radiant tomorrow. Those left behind were greated with a hysterical scream that “this is progress you Luddite! Read it and weep”. The result was that the entire country passed under the sway of the City of London, with baleful consequences when the reckoning finally came.

  • Mit W

    If locavorism did become part of the legal system, would people have to present their residence papers to farmers market police to buy such and such a food item, to make sure the particular buyer lives close enough to the origin of the particular food item? Would it become a felony to buy or sell, “contrafood”, out of season? Would canine units be used to sniff out nonlocal food consumption in random searches? Even checking the breath of citizens?

    Would all tropical fruit be illegal above the Mason-Dixon line? Would all seafood be illegal more than 100 miles inland?

  • Good points, Mit. I was surprised to find blueberries in my local (Michigan) supermarket yesterday. They were from Chile. Today, in the office here, we had a fruit tray — grapes, two kinds of melon, pineapple. Does this trade not also benefit farmers and farm workers in places like Chile and southern U.S. states? And what about the folks working in the produce department at the local supermarket?

  • Mit W

    “Does this trade not also benefit farmers and farm workers in places like Chile and southern U.S. states? ”

    Some locavores seems to insist that we should develop personal relationships with farmers as that would build community. That might be incrementally true, but so would any relationship with anyone else in the community. I.e. if i want so much community for myself, can’t i just join a book club or a group that shares my interests?