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Does buying local matter?

A reader asked me to comment on this video critiquing Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s challenge to Ontario consumers to spend ten more dollars a week on local, Ontario produced food. My first comment is that people who speak like affectless zombies probably should stick to the written word, rather than making videos, but that’s more of an aesthetic critique. Beyond that, however, there is the tiny germ (if you can find it under the same old economist free market babble) of a real question – how much impact does switching our dollars into local foods and products actually have?

Most of the video is worthless, and an obvious kind of worthless, complete with the usual free market economist references to North Korea (I bet you didn’t know that buying apples and maple syrup could turn you into North Korea!), which is the economist version of playing the Nazi card, and worthy of just as much attention.

Now I’m not going to argue the numbers with Moffat. While Ontario is roughly adjacent to NY, it isn’t my particular stomping grounds and I don’t actually care enough to find out if McGuinty’s numbers about jobs and dollars are correct. Moreover, I would take it as a given that they aren’t – politician claims about jobs created are always exaggerated. But Moffat didn’t have to make a video to make that point – and pretty much everyone knows that jobs claims are overstated every single time any politician ever mentions jobs. So let’s address the real issue – does buying local make an economic difference locally?

Moffat, of course, radically overstates his position too – we leap immediately to the end of all trade if buyers shift those ten bucks on over – that’s it, we’ll never buy anything from anywhere else again! But sorting through the empty rhetoric to that germ of content, Moffat also dismisses without any real argument any claim that spending dollars locally actually makes a difference – after all, he claims that Canadian dollars spent in foreign markets go straight back to Canada as foreign buyers purchase Canadian goods.

In some measures he has a case. The vast majority of imported food in Canada comes from the US (57%) and 55% of Canadian food exports go right back to the US. So he is right that some of those trade dollars go right back to the purchase of Canadian products for export. So if all you think about here are abstract numbers, there is little difference. What you actually take a look at what consumers buy, however, there’s more difference than you might think.

You see when people think “local food” for the most part, they aren’t thinking about Ontario’s largest crops – raw grains and oilseeds. While some more serious local food eaters do focus on grains, most local food purchases are meat, dairy, eggs, fruits and vegetables or products like honey and maple syrup. So the focus on trade here is a little disingenuous – you aren’t comparing apples to apples. With the exception of some meat, most of Ontario’s agricultural exports are grains and seeds – and the average consumer isn’t going to say “Oh, honey, let’s pick up a few bushels of local rapeseed for the home oil press tonight” – what we are talking about is shifting dollars away from imported processed foods to locally produced less processed foods.

More importantly than the largely irrelevant trade issue, or the claims of “overpaying” (McGuire suggesting shifting 10 dollars, not adding 10 dollars in your total food budget as Moffat disingenuously implies) is the fact that the money goes from large multinational food producers to smaller farmers. 52% of Ontario farmers are smaller farmers, grossing less than 100K per year (remember, that’s GROSS, net is always way, way less in agriculture). Those small farmers are disproportionately clustered in horticultural products (ie, vegetables and fruit), eggs, grassfed meat, dairy and sweeteners – ie, the things people think of when they “buy local food.”

While it is true that the employees of large multinational corporations do spend some of their dollars on Canadian products, mostly energy, let’s just reason this one out. Hmmm…Hormel packer in India or Tenneseee vs. small Ontario farmer…which one do we think spends more money on Canadian products…hmmm…wow, that’s a tough one. Or maybe not so much. You simply up the odds that the money will reverbate through the local economy when you spend it locally.

Moreover, there are other issues to consider. Between 1997 and 2007, Ontario lost 15% of its farms, 20% of its agricultural population and saw tens of thousands of farmland lost to agriculture. Implying that residents have no interest in preserving Ontario’s agriculture and small farm culture – indeed have no interest in anything except markets, is one of the reasons economics gets labelled “autistic” – that is, unable to get outside its own narrow worldview.

Outside the narrow worldview of free market essentialism, most of us want use our dollars to reinforce our basic values – the Ontario people want to live in is one that has farms and farmland. The Ontario people may inherit in an area of climate change MUST have a viable agriculture, as food insecurity takes root.

But, of course, do we really want to take the risk that buying those local apples will turn us into North Korea?

Sharon

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