I am very excited to see that on September 11,2013 the WKU BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism is hosting Pierre Desrochers (also a Mercatus Institute Fellow), co-author of The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet.
Pierre Desrochers discusses his book here at this Cato book forum.
I've written about local food before at my Economics Principles and Applications blog, but I thought I'd re post here. (also see more recent local food and sustainability related posts here.)
”It is a maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt
to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy.” - The Wealth of Nations
This is tied to the concept of comparative advantage and gains from
specialization and trade, which lead to an increase in the size of the
‘economic pie’ which can be used to make everyone better off. Modern
food supply chains, made possible by companies such as Cargill, ADM, and retailers like Wal-Mart, have helped to reduce our impact on the environment.
Below are some excerpts of articles related to local food:
The Inefficiency of Local Food
Forsaking comparative advantage in agriculture by localizing means it
will take more inputs to grow a given quantity of food, including more
land and more chemicals—all of which come at a cost of carbon
emissions.....In order to maintain current output levels for 40 major
field crops and vegetables, a locavore-like production system would
require an additional 60 million acres of cropland, 2.7 million tons
more fertilizer, and 50 million pounds more chemicals. The land-use
changes and increases in demand for carbon-intensive inputs would have
profound impacts on the carbon footprint of our food, destroy habitat
and worsen environmental pollution.
It’s not even clear local production reduces carbon emissions from
transportation. The Harvard economist Ed Glaeser estimates that carbon
emissions from transportation don’t decline in a locavore future because
local farms reduce population density as potential homes are displaced
by community gardens. Less-dense cities mean more driving and more
carbon emissions. Transportation only accounts for 11 percent of the
carbon embodied in food anyway, according to a 2008 study by researchers
at Carnegie Mellon; 83 percent comes from production.
The locavore’s dilemma
Urban farms do more harm than good to the environment
Edward L. Glaeser
Berkeley graduate student Steven Sexton estimates that an
American switch to more local corn production would require 35 percent
more fertilizer and 22.8 percent more energy....But the most important
environmental cost of metropolitan agriculture is that lower density
levels mean more driving. Today, about 250 million Americans live on the
60 million acres of this country that are urban — which is about four
people per acre....If halving densities also doubled distance to the
metropolitan area center, this would add an extra 44 gallons of gas
annually. Together, the increased gas consumption from moving less than a
tenth of agricultural farmland into metropolitan areas would generate
an extra 1.77 tons of carbon dioxide per year, which is 1.77 times the
greenhouse gases produced by all food transportation and almost four and
a half times the carbon emissions associated with food delivery.
From Marginal Revolution: Food Miles
"How far your food travels matters a lot less than what kind of food
it is, or how it was produced. According to a recent study out of
Carnegie Mellon University, the distance traveled by the average
American’s dinner rose about 25 percent from 1997 to 2004, due to
increasing global trade. But carbon emissions from food transport saw
only a 5 percent bump, thanks to the efficiencies of vast cargo
container ships. Should we minimize our “music miles” and boycott bands
Eating Local and Climate Change link
from National Geographic ("Eating Local" Has Little Effect on Warming,
Study Says. Mason Inman National Geographic News April 22, 2008)
"Being a "locavore" and eating foods grown near where you live may
not help the environment as much as you might think, according a new
study.When it comes to global warming, focusing simply on where food
comes from will make only a small difference, the study's authors say."
Cited research: Environ. Sci. Technol. 2008, 42, 3508–3513
"Despite significant recent public concern and media
attention to the environmental impacts of food, few studies in the United
States have systematically compared the life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
associated with food production against long-distance distribution, aka
“food-miles.” We find that although food is transported long distances in
general (1640 km delivery and 6760 km life-cycle supply chain on average) the
GHG emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase, contributing
83% of the average U.S. household’s 8.1 t CO2e/yr footprint for food
consumption. Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG
emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%.
Different food groups exhibit a large range in GHG intensity;on average,redmeat is around 150% more GHG intensive
than chicken or fish. Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective
means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than
Although the authors above seem to suggest dietary shifts away from meat consumption, it is important to not forget the huge strides in sustainability that are occuring in the livestock industry that is largely technology driven and a major reason that conventional modern food supply chains are in fact more sustainable.
See beef and livestock related citations in the post Sustainable Agriculture Bibliography and the accompanying video for more details.
Food miles, Kowalski's and that steak on your plate
"That steak you bought at the farmers' market from the family
operation down the road might have taken more fuel to get to you than
the rib-eye from a steer slaughtered in Kansas."
Read the article here.
The actual research is here.
Comparing the Structure, Size, and Performance of Local and Mainstream Food
"Transportation fuel use is more closely related to supply chain
structure and size than to the distance food products travel. Products
in local supply chains travel fewer miles from farms to consumers, but
fuel use per unit of product in local chains can be greater than in the
corresponding mainstream chains. In these cases, greater fuel efficiency
per unit of product is achieved with larger loads and logistical
efficiencies that outweigh longer distances."
See also this entry from the EconLog blog:
The Locavore's Dilemma: Why Pineapples Shouldn't Be Grown in North Dakota
In this post four arguments related to local food are discussed:
1: Buying Local Foods is Good for the Local Economy
2: Buying Local Foods Is Good for the Environment
3: Local is Fresher and Tastier
4: Local Food is Healthier and Should be Served in School
The authors conclude:
"Economists are a diverse bunch, but we have a few core principles,
two of which are that there is a balance of payments and that there are
gains from trade. These universal principles are as timeless as the law
of gravity. If politicians and activists proposed to suspend belief in
gravity, physicists would not cower. They would resolutely defend
reality. So should we."