Want Eco-Friendly Food? Buy Global

Local Lucy is hard to resist, I know

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

4 Comments

  • Let’s consider the Swift semi-truck stuffed to the rafters with organic strawberries. If that truck begins it’s journey at a gigantic corporate strawberry farm, then depending on just how many miles it travels before it arrives at my local supermarket in January, those strawberries might have a smaller carbon footprint than strawberries locally produced, which must arrive via nasty, plebeian, peasant pickup trucks, it is true.

    If, on the other hand, it begins its journey at some collection point, then the strawberries must have been brought to that collection point a similar distance by similar nasty, plebeian, peasant pickup trucks, and the thousands of miles it travels to my supermarket are carbon gravy.

    So, providing I feel good about nasty peasant farmers with their icky, peasant pickups having been pushed off the land to create the gigantic corporate farm, providing I feel good about miles and miles and miles of strawberry monoculture, providing I feel confident that some equivocal corporate use of “organic” is not being employed—one that somehow allows them to use plutonium—providing I trust corporations whose behavior, in every other sphere, is indistinguishable from a sociopath’s, to be good stewards of the environment, I guess I can feel good about buying corporate strawberries and thereby further enriching and empowering the plutocrats who are systematically and deliberately destroying my country—and who, by the way, are doing everything in their power to spread disinformation about climate change and prevent us from taking real steps to mitigate it.

    Yeah. That’s green.

    • Thank you for your comment. What you’ve provided are scenarios, which is good. You’ve conceded that my basic scenario of a national or global food supply chain may very well be more efficient, carbon emission per unit. This is something that many people I’ve spoken to haven’t even considered. The crux of my thesis is that just because a person is buying local food at, say, a farmer’s market, does not mean they are being green. The local food model is generally inefficient. Are there other factors to consider? Sure. But people buy into a narrative i.e. I’m being green if I do this, without really thinking it through. My article, or anybody else’s, can’t or shouldn’t tell people how to live. But it can encourage people to think, or illuminate previously unconsidered ideas.

      I’m a big believer that the national food supply in the U.S. is generally slow-release poison (hormones, pesticides, chemicals, etc.). As you point out, just because a corporation says a product is “organic”, doesn’t mean it really is. That’s another narrative that people buy into. And as I pointed out, just because Farmer Joe from 30 miles out of town is providing fresh vegetables, also doesn’t guarantee anything. The greenest food supply chain of all would be if every household with a yard had a dense and thriving garden, but that is their choice.

      Really, it’s up to the individual to figure out how a given country, corporation, or local farmer provides and delivers food to them, because all do not have the same practices. But that requires more than just feeling green because an ad campaign says so. Generalities won’t cut it. A person needs specific facts about how food is produced and delivered to their mouth, in their situation.

  • Great post. I’m amazed at how many people whom I know to be smart are convinced by the “buy local” argument. It seems to me to be a textbook example of poor economics at work.

    I think this goes beyond the environmental aspect as well; encouraging higher prices (through the lack of economies of scale you mentioned), a brain drain, and is also obviously unsustainable if applied ubiquitously (since there would be no more need for specialization or comparative advantage between different communities).

    I was about to go on a rant, which I thought would be more polite than a shameless plug, but at the risk of sounding spammy, I wrote about this in a post on our site right here:
    http://dumbagent.com/top-5-reasons-not-to-go-local/

    I just touch on a few faults I find with the “buy local” campaign on top of the environmental ones. As you can see this is an argument I feel somewhat strongly about.

  • Pingback: Environmental Group– Process Notes « Human Rights, Activism and the Arts

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