Is Local Food Liberal?

I read a good article by my friend Larry Yee this weekend about the way that supermarkets are fudging (“abusing” or “exploiting” if you prefer) the term “local” in their produce sections. Much of the online commentary was supportive, but a couple of readers, deducing that an educated Ojai  type is probably a “liberal”, dutifully set about ridiculing his ideas. I don’t think Larry would dispute the liberal label, but there was nothing in his piece demanding socialized healthcare, gay marriage, or whatever other issue is this month’s Grave Threat to America. His basic points: Know the people you do business with, buy hometown products, and if it’s not the truth, don’t use it to sell your product.

Perhaps Larry is a conservative after all.

Americans have gotten pretty comfortable with the easy right/left, liberal/conservative labeling system. Just about any issue can be quickly divided up, and you can predict with great accuracy who will be on either side of a debate. I think the popularity of the “Red State/Blue State” terminology is due to it being simpler just to drop the pretext that our partisan battles are even rooted in a coherent philosophy.

But food issues just don’t work that way. As an independent and natural contrarian I find it funny to watch the inconsistencies. Much of our food industry is kept alive by big government programs and subsidies paid for with our tax dollars. Yet when liberals suggest that a better system might be more innovative, entrepreneurial, and small business friendly, conservatives attack. Really? Shouldn’t true conservatives embrace a roll-back of the government’s intrusion into the marketplace for food? After all, that is what is at the heart of many of the buy-local and slow-food concepts. On the other hand, liberals rarely grasp that many of today’s food system problems derive from deliberate and well meaning policy decisions to have the federal government ensure enough food for a healthy population. Monsanto and other agribusiness giants are as much a result of our cheap-food policies as the cause. This has led me to an observation:

Sometimes no policy is better than bad policy. (Now I sound libertarian…)

My great fear is that we will create a system that enjoys the worst of both worlds. Will we maintain the big government system of subsidies for crops that we now produce out of proportion to our actual need for them, while simultaneously using other tax dollars to restrict and discourage their consumption? Does that sound absurd? We do it already in tobacco. Will we allow small, entrepreneurial food networks to flourish, or will we tax and regulate them to the point that only largest, most sophisticated can survive? In short, rather than creating a new more flexible, more innovative food system, will we simply graft new bad ideas on top of the old?

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