More Americans than ever before are supporting their local food markets, but it's not just because they believe the food is fresher or tastes better.
Instead, people are shopping at farmers markets and joining food co-ops in record numbers because these so-called "locavores" are driven to eat locally grown produce by desire to feel a part of something greater than themselves; part of a community that shares their passion for a healthy lifestyle and a sustainable environment.
For these self-identifying enthusiasts, supporting the local food movement is a sort of civic duty, an act to preserve their local economy against the threats of globalization and big-box stores. Cost is not an issue, since locavores
are wealthy elites or people whose self-identification trumps thoughts on pricing, and lower cost is the big reason why big box stores do well.
"It's not just about the economical exchange; it's a relational and ideological exchange as well," said sociologist Ion Vasi of the University of Iowa and the lead author of the paper.
Farming is back, long after Jane Pyle, in true Population Bomb thinking of 1971, said farmers markets were "doomed by a changing society" in an editorial for The Geographical Review. At the time, there were about 340 farmers markets left in the United States and many were "populated by resellers, not farmers, and were on the verge of collapse," Pyle wrote.
Yet like Ehrlich's Population Bomb, Pyle could not have been more wrong. Instead of dying, farming itself went into a Golden Age, thanks to science. 97 percent of farms are family own or run and farmer's markers have not died at all, instead better technology has made it possible to sell direct. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), national direct-to-consumer food sales has been growing twice as fast as total agricultural sales. The number of farmers markets listed in the USDA National Farmers Markets increased from 3,706 in 2004 to 8,268 in 2014.
Vasi said the local food market is what sociologists call a "moralized market," a market in which economic activities are relegated behind social values.
"It's about valuing the relationship with the farmers and people who produce the food and believing that how they produce the food aligns with your personal values," said Vasi. In other words, a First World luxury.
Vasi and co-authors looked at the number of farmers markets, food co-ops, community-supported agriculture providers, and local food restaurants in cities across the United States and then did 40 interviews with consumers and producers in different local food markets in Iowa and New York.
Though scientists such as Nobel laureate Dr. Norm Borlaug predicted that is exactly what would happen, to sociologists the recent growth of local food markets is rather surprising. Instead of giving credit to agricultural science they blame big-box stores and globalization. They say that reignited "buy local" campaigns across the country in the 1990s, seemingly denying the reality that people will not willingly overpay based on these values unless the quality is the same - and science made that possible.
"A growing number of communities have attempted to gain control of their own economies by encouraging civic engagement that supports investing in locally owned businesses instead of outside companies," states the study.
But that requires wealthy elites. Local food markets (i.e., farmers markets, food co-ops, etc.) are far more likely to be located in cities and counties with higher income levels.
"Sociologists and political scientists have argued that higher income allows people to make consumption decisions based on values in addition to matters of price," says co-author Sara Rynes, a professor of Management the University of Iowa. "Education is likely to facilitate knowledge about such things as links between the way products are produced and their environmental and health impacts. And universities sometimes get involved in helping local farmers and individuals who are struggling to make a living."
So bring on the genetically modified foods, and then farmers in developing world countries who were not lucky enough to be born in a country that is part of the Agricultural 1% can improve their lifestyles also. They will be happy to still give credit to "values" of western elites, they will happily just take the money.
Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.