The local-food movement has been gaining traction for years, and “locavore” and “100-mile diet” have become common parlance. But not everyone is jumping on the local-food bandwagon. One detractor is Charles Kenny, who recently explained his criticisms in a Foreign Policy article called “Got Cheap Milk? Why ditching your fancy, organic, locavore lifestyle is good for the world’s poor.”

Enter the cosmovoresKenny adds a new word to our food vocabulary as he answers — negatively — the question: Is buying local the best choice? He writes, “…these First-World food fetishes are positively terrible for the world’s poorest people. If you want to do the right thing, give up on locavorism and organics über alles and become a globally conscious grocery buyer. This should be the age of the ‘cosmovore’ — cosmopolitan consumers of the world’s food.”

A cosmovore, it seems, would understand that the often-cited environmental and economic arguments given by local-food supporters don’t hold up to a close inspection, in Kenny’s view. One issue is that a food produced nearby may not be the most environmentally friendly choice because transportation is not the only — or even the primary — stage of food production that consumes energy and creates waste. In one study, transportation made up only 11 percent of food’s carbon footprint; water, fertilizer usage and processing practices are likely to be far more determinative. 

As an example, it’s four times more energy efficient for Londoners to buy lamb raised in New Zealand than lamb raised in Britain, according to another study, because the environment in New Zealand allows the animals to be raised on pasture, in a low-energy-use situation. The difference in energy used during production erases the advantage in proximity for the British consumer. That point mirrors an economic argument against local foods: Insisting on local products works against the economic law of comparative advantage, which says that free trade among regions and nations allows people to produce and sell the goods for which they have a comparative advantage, benefiting all.  

There are also scale arguments that can work against local foods. In a Forbes article called “The Locavore Myth,” author James E. McWilliams describes a flaw in the way food miles are often calculated. “To choose a locally grown apple over an apple trucked in from across the country might seem easy,” he writes. “But this decision ignores economies of scale. To take an extreme example,
a shipper sending a truck with 2,000 apples over 2,000 miles would consume the same amount of fuel per apple as a local farmer who takes a pickup 50 miles to sell 50 apples at his stall at the green market. The critical measure here is not food miles but apples per gallon.”

It would be difficult for consumers to get all the information these authors suggest is necessary to really analyze which local foods are the best choice during which seasons. Besides, many consumers say they prefer the taste of local food and like having a relationship with the person who grew it — that’s all they need to make their choice. Those consumers will keep farmers’ markets humming. But the big picture is more complicated, Kenny argues. “Perhaps locally grown produce tastes better to some people,” he writes. “And perhaps it is psychologically better to have close contact with the people who grow your food. But that doesn’t make it good for the environment.”