Recently a column appeared in my local Vancouver Sun newspaper about the trend of eating locally grown food. The author began by describing some municipal initiatives to encourage growing local food and then arrived at the thesis of his article: "The eat-locally, grow-your-own phenomenon isn't about access to affordable food, it's about smashing the capitalist system."
At first, I thought it was some kind of joke. But the author went on to describe basic theories from Economics 101 like "comparative advantage" to show how nations that specialize in what they make most efficiently and then trade with other nations that also specialize in what they make most efficiently, end up with more stuff than if they each made those same things on their own.
His point relating to local food was that most of us don't grow our own food because it's cheaper (or maybe he means easier, since theoretically you could grow food for close to free) to buy it from someone who can do it more efficiently than you. Thus, he concludes, "Buy local campaigns are attempts to disrupt international trade."
If this sounds nuts, that's because it is. I'm sure the nice elderly lady down the street isn't thinking, "Screw the Chinese!" as she harvests fresh, tasty snap peas from her community garden, there's a bigger issue here: Our current economic system by and large completely ignores important facets of life that are worth a great deal, but have never been assigned a monetary value.
Consider this sentence from the column: "The tomato you grow yourself may seem to taste better than store-bought but it won't be cheaper." Note the word "seem", as though the tomato doesn't actually taste better, it only seems to — presumably because of the satisfaction you received from growing it. But even if that is the case, then you still enjoyed growing the tomato in the first place — and isn't that worth something? Why is it okay to put a dollar value on our labour, but not our pleasure?
And this is the problem. Only things that you can actually buy have a monetary value. So the value of a tomato is only what someone will pay for it. Not in the satisfaction of watching it grow, or the feel of the earth between your fingers when you plant it, or the warmth of the juice from the summer-ripened fruit when you bite down on it. None of these things have value because you can't buy them.
Another thing that isn't valued in our economic system is nature. More specifically, natural services like cleaning our air and water and providing a stable climate. Things grown halfway around the world and flown to our doorsteps get a lot more expensive if you actually include the cost of the damage this does to our atmosphere. So we cannot know the real price of our food unless we do full-cost accounting, which considers all of these factors that traditional economics considers "externalities." Even then, we still haven't factored in the value of community, of spending time outdoors with friends and family, and so on, that you might get from growing your own food. What are these things worth?
Needless to say, the article had me pretty depressed. Is this how people think? But then an amazing thing happened. I picked up the newspaper a couple of days later and there they were — letters. A whole page of them, in fact, from people who thought the original column was off-base, too. Each of them pointed out various flaws, but all got at the same thing: our economy is a social construct that depends on the environment and our values, not the other way around.
Reading those letters gave me hope. People get it. And more and more of them are getting it every day. Obviously, we still have a long way to go as a society, but simplistic economics that devalue some of the most important things in life are finally going the way of the dinosaur. And that's as it should be, because human life does not begin and end with a dollar sign.