One of the green movement’s mantras is encouraging people to buy food locally. Activistscontend that “food miles” should be at the forefront of the consumer’s mind, and that food produced in, and transported from, distant locations is eco-unfriendly.
The “food mile” rationale goes like this:
Purchasing food from local farms decreases the carbon footprint of the food. That is, the food travels from a farm a few miles out of town to, say, a farmer’s market. It is then purchased by a local patron who may have driven a few miles themselves to arrive at the market.
Conversely, food from the supermarket may have taken a multi-state route, racking up many carbon dioxide-emitting miles. In some cases, food is transported in a semi from coast to coast, or by plane from continent to continent; petroleum inputs are plentiful.
Here’s a fun advertisement perpetuating the “buy local” message:
The appeal to buy local food is easy to see, and to market to the public. Along with the “food mile” case lowering emissions of greenhouse gases, local food is generally perceived to be safer and healthier (organic, pesticide/chemical free, free range, etc.). Plus it is a boon to the local economy and small business owners.
It’s all sound logic, until you actually think.
Why can multi-national big business provide such value (not only lower prices, but improved availability of products, convenience, and, at times, quality)? In large part, it is a phenomenon called economies of scale. As a firm produces more, its fixed costs are spread out across more units. The end result is each individual unit costing less, as the input costs produce greater volume; input costs like gasoline. The local food model does not typically transport its food in semi’s or jetliners. Already, you have less space to store transported food. Put another way, each individual food item bears a greater cost of the fuel. Imagine a 1974 Chevy truck bed compared to a Swift semi-truck stuffed to the rafters. Now imagine organic strawberries in each. Which supply chain model do you think will deliver the lowest carbon emission per strawberry? Not to mention cost per unit. Here is a study debunking the food mile myth, with Kenyan green beans transported to the United Kingdom.
Additionally, some farmers drive their food hundreds of miles to participate in street vendor market’s in larger cities. Combine that with the inefficiency of packing, and a city dweller driving a gas-guzzler to the market for three vegetables, and you can see where problems arise with the local food model.
As it turns out, transportation is not the most energy-intensive segment of the agricultural production chain. Fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, energy required to power machinery (70% of the electricity grid is powered by fossil fuels), etc., all elements of the production stage, are far more responsible for the total carbon footprint of food. (1) (3)
From an efficiency and pollution standpoint, commercial agriculture should not even be practiced in non-ideal climates which rely heavily on greenhouses and cold storage technologies. The energy consumption of production is far greater than the energy requirements of delivery. (1)
And is food really safer because it comes from a local farmer? It might be worth giving the nod to a third-world country whose economy is completely dependent on agricultural practices that deliver safe, quality food.
If you want eco-friendly food, buy global.
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(1) Long haul food can produce lower carbon emissions than local produce – Telegraph.co.uk, retrieved December 27th, 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/agriculture/food/4277371/Long-haul-food-produces-lower-carbon-emissions.html
(2) YES WE HAVE NO BANANAS: A CRITIQUE OF THE ‘FOOD MILES’ PERSPECTIVE – Mercatus.org, retrieved December 27th, 2009, http://mercatus.org/publication/yes-we-have-no-bananas-critique-food-miles-perspective?id=24612
(3) UC Davis, Institute of Transportation Studies – UCDavis.edu, retrieved December 16th, 2009, http://pubs.its.ucdavis.edu/publication_detail.php?id=1290