Tribalism and the Local Food Movement

Tribalism and the Local Food Movement
Profile photo of Pierre Desrochers

A few years ago we attended a lecture in which a distinguished academic speaker not only sang the praise of “locavorism” (i.e., the notion that by producing an ever increasing portion of our food supply closer to where we live we would simultaneously heal the planet, create local jobs, increase food security and improve physical, spiritual and societal health), but also insulted the Japanese people by labeling them the most “parasitical” on Earth in light of the large volumes of food they import every year (about 60% of the country’s caloric intake).[1]

We had vaguely heard about the local food fad before, but at this moment the issue became personal as one of us was born and raised in the greater Tokyo region. True, her compatriots and ancestors made their home on a few crowded islands whose limited agricultural potential is periodically subjected to natural disasters. As a result, they have no choice but to rely on foreigners to help them obtain a decent diet. Indeed, were they to revert back to the insular self-sufficiency of their ancestors, present-day Japanese citizens would have to get by with minute quantities of rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, and vegetables.[2] Like the starving World War II villagers who began the practice of killing dolphins denounced in the documentary The Cove, they would have no choice but to exploit ever more intensively their coastal stocks of wild fishes, seafood and marine mammals.[3]Fortunately for them and their surrounding ecosystems, however, in the last century and a half Japanese were given the opportunity to specialize in other types of economic activities and to trade whatever they produced for food grown in better conditions elsewhere. As a result, living standards were raised the world over and the inhabitants of the Nippon archipelago enjoyed a much more abundant, diverse and affordable diet than their periodically starving ancestors.

In time we published a rebuttal to the local food movement that, as far as we know, remains the most wide-ranging to date.[4] (We have since considerably expanded our case against locavorism in a forthcoming book.)[5]The road to agricultural, economic, environmental and food security hell, we concluded, was paved with allegedly fresher and more nutritious local meals. To our delight, the piece received much coverage in the Canadian media. Not surprisingly though, various (and often personal) insults quickly began to fill in our e-mailboxes. Based on the volume of hateful correspondence sent our way, we sometimes felt that questioning the existence of God at a revival meeting would have eluded more measured and polite responses! The late novelist Michael Crichton once described modern environmentalism as the “religion of choice for urban atheists,”[6]but locavorism is now arguably one of its most militant denominations.

Not surprisingly, the most common characteristics of local food activists were their instinctive dislike of big corporations and of the profit motive along with a strong emotional attachment to their neighboring which they viewed as threatened by foreign products and international agribusiness conglomerates. Somewhat puzzled by these visceral reactions, we tried to make sense of the locavores’ anger and misgivings towards trade and the globalized food supply chain. Here are a few things we were reminded of and learned along the way.

Longing for community and equality – and why we shouldn’t[7]

Approximately 90% of modern humans who ever walked on this planet belonged to foraging groups that were not only very territorial, but also frequently in open conflict with each other. This propensity to quarrel apparently remained prevalent among early farming communities. In a world which closely mirrored that of Meerkat Manor,[8] the gain of one tribe or group came at the expense of another, or what social scientists now refer to as a “zero-sum game.” One alleged cultural legacy of this lifestyle is that modern humans still innately favor people who belong to their local community over strangers. Another is that most of us still spontaneously understand the creation and distribution of wealth in terms of a zero-sum game where the rich gets richer at the expense of the poor. A short version of the argument goes something like this. In a hunting and gathering group, interactions are of three types: community sharing where every member is entitled to a share of what is available; authority ranking where people lower in the pecking order have to defer to their higher ups; and equality matching transactions where people operate according to an intuitive sense of balance and fairness (a modern example would be taking turns at a four-way stop). Needless to say, most humans have always disliked authority rankings because there can only be a few individuals at the top of any hierarchy. The natural inclination of the majority is therefore always to favor some form of “fairer” redistribution of scarce resources, a propensity that has long been at the core of countless political, philosophical, religious and communal living projects.

A problem arises, however, when such an outlook misleads people into believing that a more recent form of social interactions, voluntary market transactions, are zero-sum games in which some people accumulate “economic power” and profits by refusing to pay a “just price” for the hard work of others. Whatever benefits economic change may create, critics argue, are always concentrated in a few uncaring hands and inevitably come at the expense of most individuals, minorities of all kinds, communities and the environment.[9] When seen in this light, one indeed feels compelled to replace markets with alternative social arrangements in which available resources are redistributed “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

Of course, several corporations and businesspeople are very skilled at using the political arena to secure for themselves subsidies or protections from more efficient competitors, but a zero-sum outlook on commercial life profoundly misunderstands three unique benefits of voluntary trading. First, two parties trade with each other because, according to their own subjective costs and benefits calculation, both gain from it. If this was not the case, no voluntary transaction would occur. For example, the fact that two individuals once traded some quantity of dried berries and a smoked piece of game meat tells us that each valued the items received in the exchange more than the items they parted with. Voluntary exchanges are therefore always “win-win” or beneficial to both parties, even if they might seem unfair in the eyes of a stranger.

Second, unlike community sharing that seemingly calls upon higher motives, market transactions are squarely based on self-interest. As the eighteenth century Scottish economist Adam Smith famously put it: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” Voluntary exchanges mandate the provision of something deemed valuable by others. In other words, trade motivated by self-interest unavoidably implies mutually beneficial selfishness.

Last, trading behavior must ultimately rest on one’s reasonable belief that he will benefit from the fruits of his labor. Here we would suggest that the lessons of history are clear: there is no substitute to secured property rights and freedom to trade, if one wants to promote high levels of future-oriented thinking and actions (such as entrepreneurship, savings and long-term investments) for which individuals bear risks, earn returns, and sometimes suffer negative consequences. By rewarding individuals who use scarce resources effectively, and punishing those who don’t, market economies promote innovation and economic development.

Another unavoidable feature of market economies is that because of different talents, greater ambitions, stronger work ethics, more lucrative career choices or just plain luck, some individuals will always accumulate significantly more wealth than others, an outcome always unpalatable to people who put a higher premium on equality than wealth creation, and who are not moved by the old saying that a “rising tide lifts all boats.” As Winston Churchill once observed, the “inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”[10]Personally, the fact that the rich might get richer doesn’t bother us, as long as the poor gets richer in absolute terms too and that the economic pie keeps growing. And the available evidence tells us just that. The bottom line is that we live in a world of wealth creation, not of zero-sum transactions, something we often wish local food activists could wrap their heads around…

To trade and be humans

Some evidence suggests that many primates trade services (say, grooming in return from protection by stronger individuals), but humans are the only species that exchange durable goods. Much debate still surrounds the origins of what Adam Smith described as the propensity “to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another,”[11] but in time it not only became something that all of us can acquire at a very young age without conscious effort, it also defined us. As the nineteenth century French writer Jules Renard put it: “I finally know what distinguishes man from the other beasts: financial worries.”[12]There can thus be no “law of the jungle” in the realm of commerce, for mercantile exchange is observed nowhere else in nature.

Whatever single or mutually interacting and reinforcing combination of factors led to the emergence of trade, it has been around for perhaps at least 150 000 years and from an early date took place between and beyond “local communities” that lived in adjacent territories with significant contrasts in flora, fauna and mineral resource endowments. For instance, individuals who eked out a living along coastlines by gathering shellfish and other marine resources always had a strong incentive, even if they did not practice trade within their groups, to vary their diet and supplement their resource base by exchanging some of the fruit of their labor for different ones produced by people who hunted and gathered different things further inland.

Once trade emerged, humans had two basic options to interact with each other. The first was to keep on fighting, within and/or outside their group, to protect or expand their status and territorial possessions. Outright theft of material goods, slavery, tribute or “protection” for a price, political activities and large-scale warfare would thus come to be added to ways of making a living that are best characterized as involving people who dine at the victory feast and others who are on the menu. By contrast, trade made it possible for some individuals to specialize in the production and mutually beneficial exchange of new material wealth, a process which, through repeated iterations, favored the development of mutual trust, i.e., a judgment made by parties to transactions that suggests that it is not unwise to make themselves vulnerable to other parties for the prospect of potential gains. In the words of the eighteenth century French philosopher Montesquieu: “Commerce is a cure for the most destructive prejudices; for it is almost a general rule, that wherever we find agreeable manners, there commerce flourishes; and that wherever there is commerce, there we meet with agreeable manners… Peace is the natural effect of trade.”[13] In the immortal words of another French thinker of the time, Voltaire: “Go into the Exchange in London, that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion, and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt.”[14]

Our capacity to peacefully trade products grown or manufactured in distant lands with complete strangers is arguably our greatest cultural achievement.As a result, we live incomparably longer, healthier, and wealthier lives than our ancestors and, according to the psychologist Steven Pinker, we currently live in the most peaceful time in human history[15]We sincerely wish locavores would learn to be grateful for this fact and for the daily miracles delivered by the globalized food supply chain.

[1]Central Intelligence  Agency, Thee World Fact Book

[2]For readers fluent in Japanese, see theJapanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
discussion of what present day self-sufficiency would entail at

[3]The documentary’s website can be found at

[4]Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu. 2008. Yes, We have no Bananas. A Critique of the ‘Food Mile’ Perspective. Mercatus Policy Series Primer no. 8, Mercatus Center (George Mason University)

[5]Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu.Forthcoming.The Locavore’s Dilemma.In Praise of the 10-000 Mile Diet.Public Affairs

[6] Michael Crichton. 2003. “Remarks to the Commonwealth Club (San Francisco) September 15

[7]Unless otherwise specified, the “cognitive” and “trading/raiding” insights and speculations discussed in the remainder of our text were borrowed from or inspired by, among others, Steven Pinker. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking; Arnold Kling. 2003. “Economic Idiotarianism.” TCS Daily, January 30 <>; Jane Jacobs. 1992. Systems of Survival. A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics. New York: Random House; and David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan. 2010. A Brief History of Liberty. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

[8]The official (UK) website of this TV series is at

[9]As Marx and Engels observed in their Manifesto, capitalism had “agglomerated population, centralised the means of production, and… concentrated property in a few hands.”

[10]Winston Churchill. 1949. The Sinews of Peace. Post-War Speeches. Houghton Mifflin, p. 23.

[11]Adam Smith. 1776. An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Vol. 1, Book I, chapter II: Of the Principle which gives occasion to the Division of Labour. Available at, Ch.2, Of the Principle which gives Occasion to the Division of Labour

[13]Montesquieu. Complete Works, Volume 2, The Spirit of Laws [1748], London: T. Evans, 1777, pp. 1-2 a more detailed discussion of the latest evidence on the topic, see Matt Ridley. 2010. The Rational Optimist. How Prosperity Evolves. HarperCollins Publishers, chapter 3.

[15] Steve Pinker, 2011, The Better Angels of Our Nature; Why Violence has Declined?Viking.

  • truck driver

    Is there a shortage of jobs in the black market? No.

    Help Wanted: must be willing to create wealth, apply to yourself. Keep third parties out of your business.

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Pierre Desrochers is Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Toronto Mississauga. His research and teaching activities focus primarily on economic development, technological innovation, entrepreneurship, and energy and food policy.

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