Local Foods — Another Side of the Argument

The Economist has written on problems in a rigid adherence to local foods. Sometimes less energy is required to ship food longer distances. (And presumably GHG emissions are lower.)

In Britain, half of food miles result from the consumer driving to the shop. We may wish to reconsider how we get to the store.

Growing food in Britain can be more energy intensive than growing it elsewhere, eg, British tomatoes grown in greenhouses compared to Spanish tomatoes shipped in. Even New Zealand lamb, apples, and onions are lower energy than British products.

The article attacks some of the premises behind organic and Fairtrade products as well. Major arguments against organic food, according to the article, include a significant increase in land under cultivation, and that some organic techniques are environmentally as bad as other methods of growing food. Major arguments against Fairtrade include how little of the Fairtrade dollar makes it to the producer, the exclusion of large producers, and the market distortion caused by a guaranteed income (fewer coffee producers would increase prices more effectively). They omit an argument I once heard from a food specialist — that for the US to grow all food and fiber organically, we would need to eat 10 times as much meat. (Has anyone seen that statistic?)

One possible conclusion of the Economist article is that we will accomplish more by assuring a rational system (higher prices for energy use and greenhouse gas emissions to better reflect their costs) — for each of us to navigate the complexities of food production is harder and less effective. Another might be that using no-carbon transportation to shop, and buying in-season products, does help. A third might be that we eat products that are always energy intensive — lamb in Britain and fish most places — occasionally.


Farmers Market
Farmers Market

3 Responses to “Local Foods — Another Side of the Argument”

  1. Rachel Findley says:

    Interesting analysis of local foods and environmental concerns.

    I can see several reasons why the Economist is coming up with a different sense about local food buying from the local foods movement:

    1. The Economist appears to think that one must choose between saving transport cost on the food itself and saving transport cost on the shopping trip.

    It’s quite interesting that the two are in the same ball park, and that makes rough sense intuitively: Suppose a shopping trip is ten miles round trip, a car with passengers weighs 3000 pounds, an average shopping trip nets 20 pounds of food, and the average pound of food travels 1500 miles to market, loaded into a container that weighs a negligible amount per pound of food. Then the food travels 30,000 pound-miles to market; the car also carries 30,100 pound-miles from home to market and back. Lugging that big heavy car to carry 20 pounds of groceries begins to look pretty silly, but of course one could both buy locally and walk or ride or take a bus or stop on the way home from work.

    As Karen says, buy locally, and do your marketing in a low carbon manner.

    2. The Economist doesn’t seem to contemplate a change in eating habits to eat foods that are in season locally. Hothouse tomatoes are not the point; tomatoes in the summer, when they ripen naturally in your area, and swiss chard in the winter, are more in the spirit of local foods. If we try to produce foods locally out of season, we’ll undoubtedly run into extral environmental and other costs.

    We in the Bay Area are privileged to have something in season all year ’round. In other parts of the country, local foods would mean a return to earlier patterns: winter keeper apples, squash, sauerkraut, root cellars with carrots and potatoes, fruit preserves. No citrus or lettuces in the cold months–many places, no citrus at all. Just cherries. People used to eat this way, from their own gardens or truck gardens, before internal combustion engines or refrigerated trains appeared on the scene.

    A few places can only produce a very limited range of foods (cod and lamb in Iceland, perhaps wheat in Saskatchewan and Siberia–though I’d guess any place that can grow wheat can also grow vegetables if need be). Some food trade will still be needed.

    Food used to be a net supplier of energy to the human ecosystem. Could we go all the way back 200 years or so to that pattern? Could we get closer? Would we tolerate the seasonal succession of foods, when we’re used to lemons on demand? Would population have to move closer to the highly productive food areas, and would that make local and global environmental sense?

    3. The Economist regards it as bad that Fairtrade certification currently excludes most large producers. Local food advocates would probably see it as a good thing to favor small producers, unless the large producers are truly engaged in fair trade.

    4. The Economist really believes in price signals as the best way to allocate resources. Price signals have their uses. Business and individuals do change their behavior in response to prices, sometimes after a long lag if behavior is strongly dependent on economic geography.

    What prices cannot do:
    a. Call resources to parts of the system that have no money, such as future generations, impoverished people, and nonhuman parts of the ecosystem.

    b. Reflect nonmonetized (often dispersed) costs, such as air, water, and groundwater pollution, CO2 emissions, community degradation, etc.
    Constant tinkering with the price system is required to keep the monetized price system responsive to the impoverished and nonmonetized effects. The tinkering is subject to corruption and miscalculation, just as direct controls are. Entities that just want to make profits are likely to engage in skewing the rules, instead of playing by the rules, paying the taxes, and responding to the net costs.

    5. The Economist assumes the current economic trade system will continue into the indefinite future. The possibility of total breakdown at some point, which is part of the picture painted by many catastrophic global warming predictions, would make it more desirable to supply basic food needs close to home.

    5. I’m completely baffled by the statement that “for the US to grow all food and fiber organically, we would need to eat 10 times as much meat.” Is that a typo? Should it read 1/10 as much meat?

  2. Karen Street says:

    Thanks for your comments, Rachel, and the explanations.

    No, that’s the number I was given by someone in agriculture several years ago. In order to supply enough fertilizer for all organic food and fiber in the US, we would need a much larger source of fertilizer.

    Any fertilizer experts out there?

  3. I appreciate Rachel’s well-thought-out comments! Thank you. I want to emphasize eating seasonally. We can frame all of these arguments in such a way as to discourage eating locally, but if we eat locally and foods that are in season, we do reduce our carbon emissions. I live in Vermont and that means eating root vegetables and those foods I canned or froze in the fall or purchased frozen from local growers and producers. It’s a fine diet. I also supplement that with spices, coffee and tea, oils, occasional greens, etc.

    Also the argument about how far we travel to get our local foods makes no sense. I travel to the grocery store and there I have a choice of purchasing Vermont apples or apples from New Zealand. Now, doesn’t it make sense for me to purchase the Vermont apples, available to me all winter? I’ve already done the travel, so how far does my food need to travel to the store? That seems to me to be the quesiton.