UVM hosts forum debate on local vs. global agriculture

The first of the Janus Forums, a new series of debates, opened to a full house in the Davis Center’s Grand Maple Ballroom on Wednesday.It featured Middlebury professor William McKibben and George Mason professor Russell Roberts in a debate over local versus global consumption. Environmentalist Bill McKibben, the scholar-in-residence in environmental studies at Middlebury College and a Harvard graduate, kicked off the debate with an argument in support of local foods. McKibben challenged the idea that globalization is the best policy for the U.S. today, demanding an economy in which there are both environmental durability and cohesive communities. In order for this to be accomplished, McKibben said that the U.S. needs to focus on the lasting effects of where the nation’s food is being produced and sold.Economist Russell Roberts followed McKibben’s 20 minute introduction by stressing that money is not everything. He suggested an alternative definition of economics as being “how to get the most out of life.”Roberts, a professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia, countered McKibben’s pro-local argument by questioning whether or not putting in the time to produce your own food would ultimately be worth the time you could be spending elsewhere, such as with your family.”Time is precious; use it wisely,” Roberts said to the packed Grand Maple Ballroom.Using a much more statistical approach to his case, McKibben listed 15 major aspects of human and environmental life that would benefit from a more locally produced food supply. His topics included reduced soil erosion, reduced vulnerability to terrorism and increased community relations.”We are going to change either because we choose to, or because the world forces us to,” McKibben said. “Once your soil is eroded, once your temperature has dropped, you just can’t keep doing the same things as before.”On the other side of the debate, Roberts stated that a more global economy directly leads to a wealthier, safer and all-around more productive society in general.”Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty,” Roberts said.Evoking Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbs, Roberts said that life is “nasty, brutish and short” in a 100 percent sustainable economy. It is important, he said, not to put all of our eggs into one local basket, so to speak.Additionally, Roberts said that life today is no longer centered on agriculture. During the past 100 years, the percentage of people employed as farmers in the US has dropped from 40 percent to 3 percent.”We’ve inherited a world with less opportunity for farming, but more for just about everything else,” Roberts said.Commenting before the debate, UVM economics professor Marc Law said that many of the popular arguments in favor of local foods do not withstand careful analysis. He said he is not convinced that buying from local suppliers is superior to buying from the global marketplace either economically or environmentally.”Consumers today are undoubtedly enriched by the variety of foods that is made possible by globalization,” Law said.The debate concluded with a lively question and answer session.The whole “Buy Local or Buy Global” debate can be heard on the UVM Web site via podcast.Bill McKibben(Pro-local)When you buy local…-It helps to decrease carbon emissions(food doesn’t travel)- Local farming is less vunerable to pest problems-It increases community spirit – more socialization at farmer’s markets-Local products increases community economy(i.e. no Wal-Mart)Russell Roberts(Pro-global):When you buy global…-Trade lest you cooperate with people-Local food is not as good as food grown in other areas-When not everyone is a farmer, we lead vastly more varied and interesting lives-It gives more time to spend with family (since don’t have to grow own food)