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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/8410/the-locavores-dilemma-local-food-continued/

The Locavore’s Dilemma: Local Food, Continued

August 18, 2008 by

There are some good reasons to buy local (quality, information, etc.), but I’m not convinced that buying local meaningfully reduces one’s carbon footprint. It’s true that transporting foods pollutes the air and spills toxins in some places, but a focus on transportation-related pollution only does part of the accounting. If we’re going to grow oranges locally, this will require more tools, labor, and land than it would take to grow the oranges in California and ship them to Memphis. Thus, we’re saving the environmental damage from transportation but we’re making up for it in several ways. First, we’re using more land. FULL ARTICLE

{ 17 comments }

JS August 18, 2008 at 10:13 am

This is not exactly in line with the topic of the article, but it made me think.

“Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”

I think that would only work if such a shift in taste actually led to a shift in production.

My understanding of farm subsidies leads me to believe that this will have zero impact on GHG emissions. If I don’t buy red meat (or cow’s milk, I suppose) then farmers don’t necessarily produce less of it. It just means government buys the meat (or milk) that I did not and destroys it.

I suppose that, given the convoluted world we live in, GHG emissions could be reduced if government would pay the farmer to not produce the red meat that I will not buy.

GVP August 18, 2008 at 10:17 am

The general principle here is that whatever enviromental impact there is from a pure capitalist economy that is the best we can do and no amount of socialist planning will do better. This insight is obvious when you consider that socialism is always less efficient than capitalism and less efficiency means more waste and more waste means more enviromental damage.

The mistake enviromentalists always make is where they start their analysis. For example, if I buy a hybrid vehicle that is 10% more efficient and costs 20% more, to an enviromentalist that is a good deal. However, the fact that the vehicle is more expensive means by definition it used more resources and caused more enviromental harm. Overall, it is not at all clear that someone is protecting the enviroment by buying more expensive hybrid vehicles.

You can apply this insight to every enviromentalist intervention and you will always conclude that the capilalist outcome is always the least harmful to the environment.

Finally, think which nations have the best protected environments, is it the former Soviet bloc countries, the really poor countries or is it the wealthiest most capitalist countries?

I rest my case :-))))

Kevin August 18, 2008 at 11:36 am

Well, this article is a nice second try, so for that I applaud Art for digging deeper into the complex interactions of the food industry.

However, he still doesn’t address the fact that large scale farms can’t function the same as small farms. This has huge bearing on his statement that less land is used to produce more food on a large scale farm. That still might be true…however, while many small farms do function similarly to large farms, there are other examples of farms (http://www.polyfacefarms.com) that use land much more efficiently than large scale farms by being able to produce many different types of food (instead of single monoculture that industrial farming or livestock raising mandates) from the same portion of arable land. While this type of farming is admittedly more time and human work intensive, I’m not sure paying people instead of machines to do work is always a bad thing in a capitalistic society?! Also, the amount of food that is produced still leaves plenty of time for art and other cultural activities in the community as a whole. Come to think of it…food used to be a cultural activity until we turned it into an industry…

All to say, thanks to Art for adding additional aspects to this complex discussion. In general, he is right on that transportation cost isn’t the only variable in the equation. If he looked closely at the loca-vore movement though, he would find that transportation is one of many economic benefits of eating locally. So in general, I think Art is still missing at least a few important variables in his own food economics equation as well.

Bill August 18, 2008 at 12:07 pm

Thanks to Art for a wonderful series of articles. Economists know this stuff (well, some of them), but making the argument to people less versed in economics is always a chore – especially at the local farmer’s market on Saturday.

Kevin brings up some good points, and I have a comment about that too.

The monoculture surrounding agriculture is something that is of concern. I think however, that much of the problem associated with the large factory farms and the monoculture that is typical of the business model is a direct result of the agricultural policies of the US (and the effective lobbying by industry). By continually subsidizing and re-subsidizing various crops, we have created a profit motive to concentrate on one specific crop or product. We are seeing another shift right now with corn based ethanol.

I think if we eliminated the corporatism in agriculture (tariff protections, crop subsidies), we would have a much more balanced approach to crop production and we would see some of the variety in crops that Kevin talks about.

In a free market, farmers would not be able to put all their eggs in one basket (ha ha!). They would need to grow several types of crops to minimize crop specific risks. Through subsidies, the government has removed this risk and allowed the large farmers to focus on only one crop, whether the market demands it or not.

Kevin August 18, 2008 at 1:38 pm

Bill,

I agree 100%…of course, I would go further to say we wouldn’t have the industrial agriculture we have today at all without all of the government intervention. I believe small farms would win the battle because of the nature of agriculture (pun intended) and all the extra resources (that are funded by the government) that it takes to sustain industrial agriculture (namely oil for fertilizer and pesticides as well as transport).

Som August 18, 2008 at 3:27 pm

Good stuff. So, the long and short of it is that there is only one real solution to the issue of locally grown food vs big-carbon-foot-printing-mass agriculture….

Private property, and all its legal ramifications.

Brent August 18, 2008 at 4:25 pm

“Also, the amount of food that is produced still leaves plenty of time for art and other cultural activities in the community as a whole. Come to think of it…food used to be a cultural activity until we turned it into an industry…” – Kevin

Uh huh. I beg to differ. My grandparents and my parents both grew up on small farms, while some of my family still farms today. It is and was anything but a “cultural activity”. If you instead said, “many people who grew food (to sell it, mind you) used to be stuck in poverty and had to always worry about starving”, then you’d be far more correct.

The farm bill is horribly inefficient, of course, and it does actually hurt the small farmer, but there are also laws like those in North Dakota that prohibit corporate farms. Obviously, this causes farms to be inefficiently smaller than they otherwise would be. Other things equal, a relatively larger farm is more efficient than a smaller farm, because the larger farm can afford to invest in superior capital goods.

If you want an example, look at the new GPS-guided farm vehicles that show the moisture level, plant development, etc. for each sq. foot of each acre. This is starting to allow farmers to plant each part of each acre with the type of crop that gives the highest yield and to do other things, such as efficiently fertelize, spray pesticide, and irrigate so as to conserve resources and maximize yields.

Tom N. in KCMO August 18, 2008 at 4:50 pm

Kevin & Bill,

I would say you are pretty well right on the mark. If all who produce foods were to diversify, the resulting products suffer less from changes in environment. For example, an acre dedicated to 4 crops that do reasonably well in all types of weather would not suffer the devastation of standing water or drought the way that an acre of soybeans, wheat or corn might; and, if one of 12 farms, raising the same number and type of cattle, were to be hit by hoof and mouth desease, fewer head would be lost to the outbreak.

Bill, I appreciate your comments on US policies that, among other things has resulted in the Cargills and ADMs of the world. On the point about monocultural farming, let’s face it, one reason we’ve gotten into the current “farming world” is due to the fact that 50 years ago farmers were provided a subsidized way to simplify their production methods and eliminate the complexities they faced in producing multiple crops (who wouldn’t like an easier life).

Dietary shift – Shifting to a diet low in red-meat is smart, period. Shifting to such a diet has the inherent potential to satisfy the locavore menu as well, by encouraging a diverse diet that increases demand for a diverse selection of crops, more likely to be produced by a larger number of farmers. This would increase competition, improving the variety of products available. Therefore, it seems Weber and Matthews actually bolster the argument for local food production. At 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, transportation is a heavy hitter in the cost of a product (considering that transportation probably (sorry for not knowing the details here) consumes less than 1% of the time associated with the supply chain). One of the key reasons for supporting local agriculture and specifically the locavore diet, is that the crops chosen are more adapted to the environment they are being grown in and therefore, require less human intervention to sustain their growing cycle. I am betting there are myriad products that can be grown in most regions of the USA.

The statement that “…the environmental benefits of substituting local vegetables for global vegetables are likely to be negligible” is not backed-up with even basic facts. I agree that everyone should be concerned about the policies of governments around the world. Appropriately weighing the cost/benefit of maintaining land in its highest and best use (e.g. rainforests retained as such to ensure the health of all who live here) would, by “nature,” be the most efficient use of the land (no maintenance costs) and lends support to any incentives to maintain such land use controls.

On the statement that “we’re using more land” if we contemplate growing oranges in Memphis, I presume this implies that the acreage in CA would continue to be used for orange production? That does not follow a logical thought process. Supply and demand what it is (even in the subsidized USA) says that the demand for CA oranges would drop (though they might seek to develop overseas markets) and the resulting decreased dedication of land to oranges would shift that land to other products (thereby supporting a locavore menu). On the second point that “we might need more equipment” – again, the shift of production from one region to another would result in a relative drop in the use of such equipment in the region previously “dedicated” to the monoculture. This would apply regardless of the product. On the third point that we would “probably have to use more fertilizer,” is again presumed and not well thought-out, just as suggesting that oranges would be grown in TN.

Perhaps oranges were used for conversational purposes but it points-up the fact that a realistic discussion of the locavore phenomena must consider bioregions. Locavores seek produce from their locale as opposed to trying to recreate the crops of another region. There is a growing recognition that we, the Consumer Nation, want all things possible and we want them now (and out of season). The locavores (and I don’t count myself among them yet – hard to give up such tasty things as oranges, coffee, vanilla and chocolate…) of the world also point-out that anyone’s bioregion can produce a plethora of very satisfying products. Check around, find out about the obscure products that are gowing right under your nose (sometimes literally) and you’ll be surprised.

One final note. While Art is obviously not a proponent of the locavore “movement,” he has provided us with some helpful information and opportunities to improve the way we go about being local producers. We can take away from this discussion the understanding that the shift to local production is inherently efficient (the more local the better – can you say “raised bed garden in the backyard!”) and the recognition that giving-up oranges or chocolate shouldn’t have to be, paying an appropriate and free market price for it is where I think we’re all coming from!

Tom N., KC, MO, USA

Tom N in KCMO August 18, 2008 at 5:05 pm

In response to Brent – amen to the comments on starvation and the farm bill (talk about a misnomer!).

The one point I want to make is that it is critical for we “Americans” (read citizens of the United States of American) to recognize that we buy lots of “wants” at the expense of our needs, taking food, education, health, and shelter for granted. If you want free markets to work, show people the true cost of the pasta with tomato sauce they’re eating, the microwave they are cooking it in, the plate they eat it off of, the fork they eat it with, the glass they drink their milk from and the milk they are chugging. Externalities are so key to the equation and yet so ignored. They were briefly mentioned in Art’s piece but in the context of transportation costs and food alone. If people knew what they were paying for a given product and sought to avoid or minimize the costs incurred, there would be a monumental shift in personal spending. That shift would be toward needs, thereby supporting the local production of goods and services. Competition would grow, and we would have quality products as a result as well.

Alex August 18, 2008 at 6:15 pm

“Externalities are so key to the equation and yet so ignored. They were briefly mentioned in Art’s piece but in the context of transportation costs and food alone. If people knew what they were paying for a given product and sought to avoid or minimize the costs incurred, there would be a monumental shift in personal spending.”

Good luck coming up with a reliable dollar figure on these externalities. First question in this regard is: what kind of independent agency is going to come up with these numbers? The Federal Department of Externalities Calculation? For the production/consumption climate harm externality (far from universally accepted in the first place) of some products, some people have advocated “calculating” the appropriate amount of carbon tax and imposing such a tax on domestic production. But, since this would induce a consumption shift to non (or more lightly-carbon-taxed foreign produced goods) the carbon taxers argue for another carbon tax on imports to equalize the effective carbon taxation of domestic and foreign produced goods should be invoked). What sort of trade dissaster would that produce?

Forgotten Man August 18, 2008 at 8:22 pm

Tom N:

I don’t mean to simplify what you have contributed, but your argument for local foods can be taken reductio ad absurdum to abolishing the division of labor! Why go to a furniture store for furniture when have trees in our backyard that can be chopped down? Why buy bottled water when I can dig a well in my front yard? Why go to the Gap when I can hunt squirrels and piece together their pelts for a nifty outfit? There are opportunity costs for obtaining these “free” items, and that’s why it is more efficient for people to buy them from wherever they are cheapest.

Sorry to be so brief, I have an exam to study for…

Art Carden August 19, 2008 at 9:01 am

Thank you all for your very interesting and thoughtful comments. I encourage everyone interested in the externalities question to take a look at John Nye’s recent article in “Regulation.” I agree that there are important externalities associated with food production and monoculture, but the question is whether there are institutions by which these externalities can be mitigated through side bargains. Several comments correctly point out that the dizzying array of government interventions in agricultural markets complicate things, but the logic remains the same. The answer, I think, is not necessarily locavoreism but to try to eliminate the subsidies. And, for what it’s worth, I completely agree that local produce is usually of much higher quality than conventional produce. We grilled some locally grown tomatoes that we got at Wild Oats a few weeks ago; they were excellent. On the meat question, here’s an interesting and informative comment I got via email:

“It is often stated that it requires about 4 lb of corn to make one lb of beef, 3 lb of corn to make one lb of pork and 2 lb of chicken. However, that only hold true if the animals are fed corn. The basic idea of ruminant husbandry is that they can eat stuff that people cannot. Cows are machines that convert cellulose to beef, just as pigs are machines that convert garbage to lard. When raised in the traditional way, animals do not consume grain, rather they suppliment (sic) the supply of grain for human consumption.”

Art Carden August 19, 2008 at 9:02 am

Thank you all for your very interesting and thoughtful comments. I encourage everyone interested in the externalities question to take a look at John Nye’s recent article in “Regulation.” I agree that there are important externalities associated with food production and monoculture, but the question is whether there are institutions by which these externalities can be mitigated through side bargains. Several comments correctly point out that the dizzying array of government interventions in agricultural markets complicate things, but the logic remains the same. The answer, I think, is not necessarily locavoreism but to try to eliminate the subsidies. And, for what it’s worth, I completely agree that local produce is usually of much higher quality than conventional produce. We grilled some locally grown tomatoes that we got at Wild Oats a few weeks ago; they were excellent. On the meat question, here’s an interesting and informative comment I got via email:

“It is often stated that it requires about 4 lb of corn to make one lb of beef, 3 lb of corn to make one lb of pork and 2 lb of chicken. However, that only hold true if the animals are fed corn. The basic idea of ruminant husbandry is that they can eat stuff that people cannot. Cows are machines that convert cellulose to beef, just as pigs are machines that convert garbage to lard. When raised in the traditional way, animals do not consume grain, rather they suppliment (sic) the supply of grain for human consumption.”

Byzantine August 19, 2008 at 10:38 am

The “organic” and “local” food movements are nothing less than SWPL (StuffWhitePeopleLike.com) status games. Hobbled as it is by bureaucracy and regulation, the food industry has nonetheless made tuna filets and Romaine lettuce actually affordable for the hoi polloi, to the horror of the SWPL crowd. Thus, they head in a panic to the nearest Whole Foods, cloth shopping bags in hand, secure in the knowledge they will not be seen in the same checkout line with a working class mom and her three kids.

Of course, most of them will drop this “locavore” nonsense when they realize it means eating cabbage and corned beef in winter. Only Other White People do that.

Ellen August 25, 2008 at 2:32 am

Lower quality supermarket produce vs. local produce -is- sometimes caused by the free market, but it’s not a bad thing.

Some fruits ripen at a certain rate “off the vine” (peaches come to mind) and can therefore be picked earlier and shipped to supermarkets, arriving there still not quite ripe and ready for purchase. These fruits don’t always taste as good if they’ve been through all that, but they’re cheap and available more often. In addition, customers are not encouraged to sample the fruits to determine their quality and fruits from multiple growers are either not offered or all mixed together (not working in a supermarket, I can’t say which it is.)

Contrast this with the farmer’s market, which is all locally-grown stuff. Fruits can be picked the day before the market and arrive there ripe due to the shorter transit distance and the known sell date. Vendors put out samples of their best fruits, as most competition is based on quality. Customers can know that the nectarines are really tasty but the oranges are not, and thus select for themselves the better-quality fruits. Finally, there will be multiple vendors selling the same fruits, and a buyer can return to the one they know is the best. I haven’t compared prices, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the farmer’s market produce is a bit more expensive. It’s certainly less convenient – only open Saturday mornings and fruit is only sold when it’s in season.

Elliot Simon August 29, 2008 at 6:27 pm

In case you may not be aware – the movement toward locally produced is a complicated issue. You may or may not be aware that the government has started granting patents on living things – including plants and seeds. These are the so-called genetically modified organisms or GMOs. Talk about the government being the “root of the problem”… In order to avoid eating these things that government has wrought people are looking to their local farmer.

Regards,

Elliot M. Simon

Peter May 28, 2009 at 9:17 pm

There’s an article on this subject posted today at http://skepticblog.org/2009/05/28/the-fallacy-of-locally-grown-produce pointing out how inefficient local production is.

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