Food Miles Stupidity

Via the New York Times:

THE term "food miles" "” how far food has traveled before you buy it "” has entered the enlightened lexicon.

Which should tell you all you need to know about the "enlightened."

There are many good reasons for eating local "” freshness, purity,
taste, community cohesion and preserving open space "” but none of these
benefits compares to the much-touted claim that eating local reduces
fossil fuel consumption. In this respect eating local joins recycling,
biking to work and driving a hybrid as a realistic way that we can, as individuals, shrink our carbon footprint and be good stewards of the environment.

Actually, most recycling, with the exception of aluminum which takes tons of electricity to manufacture in the first place, does nothing to reduce our carbon footprint.  And I must say that I often enjoy buying from farmers markets and such.  But does "food miles" mean anything?  And should we really care?  Well, here is an early hint:  The ultimate reduction in food miles, the big winner on this enlightened metric, is subsistence farming.  Anyone ready to go there yet?  These are the economics Ghandi promoted in India, and it set that country back generations.

Well, lets go back to economics 101.  The reason we do not all grow our own food, make our own clothes, etc. is because the global division of labor allows food and clothing and everything else to be produced more efficiently by people who specialize and invest in those activities than by all of us alone in our homes.  So instead of each of us growing our own corn, in whatever quality soil we happen to have around our house, some guy in Iowa grows it for thousands of us, and because he specialized and grows a lot, he invests in equipment and knowledge to do it better every year.  The cost of fuel to move the corn or corn products to Phoenix from Iowa are trivial compared to the difference in efficiency that guy in Iowa has over me trying to grow corn in my back yard.  Back to the New York Times:

On its face, the connection between lowering food miles and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is a no-brainer.

Sure, if you look at complex systems as single-variable linear equations.  Those of us who don't immediately treated the food mile concept as suspect.  It turns out, for good reason:

It all depends on how you wield the carbon calculator. Instead of
measuring a product's carbon footprint through food miles alone, the
Lincoln University scientists expanded their equations to include other
energy-consuming aspects of production "” what economists call "factor
inputs and externalities" "” like water use, harvesting techniques,
fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of
transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon
dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage
procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.

Incorporating
these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached
surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on
New Zealand's clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat
to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton
while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in
part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In
other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to
buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from
a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy
products and fruit.

All I can say is just how frightening it is that the paper of record could find this result "surprising."  The price mechanism does a pretty good job of sorting this stuff out.  If fuel prices rise a lot, then agriculture might move more local, but probably not by much.  The economies to scale and location just dwarf the price of fuel. 

By the way, one reason this food-mile thing is not going away, no matter how stupid it is, has to do with the history of the global warming movement.  Remember all those anti-globalization folks who rampaged in Seattle?  Where did they all go?  Well, they did not get sensible all of a sudden.  They joined the environmental movement.  One reason a core group of folks in the catastrophic man-made global warming camp react so poorly to any criticism of the science is that they need and want it to be true that man is causing catastrophic warming -- anti-corporate and anti-globalization activists jumped into the global warming environmental movement, seeing in it a vehicle to achieve their aims of rolling back economic growth, global trade, and capitalism in general.  Food miles appeals to their disdain for world trade, and global warming and carbon footprints are just a convenient excuse for trying to sell the concept to other people.

A little while back, I posted a similar finding in regards to packaging, that is worth repeating here for comparison.

Contrary to current wisdom, packaging can reduce total rubbish
produced. The average household in the United States generates one
third
less trash each year than does the average household in Mexico,
partly because packaging reduces breakage and food waste. Turning a
live chicken into a meal creates food waste. When chickens are
processed commercially, the waste goes into marketable products
(such as pet food), instead of into a landfill. Commercial processing
of 1,000 chickens requires about 17 pounds of packaging, but it also
recycles at least 2,000 pounds of by-products.

More victories for the worldwide division of labor.  So has the NY Times seen the light and accepted the benefits of capitalism?  Of course not.  With the New Zealand example in hand, the writer ... suggests we need more state action to compel similar situations.

Given these problems, wouldn't it make more sense to stop obsessing
over food miles and work to strengthen comparative geographical
advantages? And what if we did this while streamlining transportation
services according to fuel-efficient standards? Shouldn't we create
development incentives for regional nodes of food production that can
provide sustainable produce for the less sustainable parts of the
nation and the world as a whole? Might it be more logical to
conceptualize a hub-and-spoke system of food production and
distribution, with the hubs in a food system's naturally fertile hot
spots and the spokes, which travel through the arid zones, connecting
them while using hybrid engines and alternative sources of energy?

Does anyone even know what this crap means?  You gotta love technocratic statists -- they just never give up.  Every one of them thinks they are smarter than the the sum of billions of individual minds working together of their own free will to create our current world production patterns.

Postscript: There is one thing the government could do tomorrow to promote even more worldwide agricultural efficiency:  Drop subsidies and protections on agriculture.   You would immediately get more of this kind of activity, for example with Latin America and the Caribbean supplying more/all of the US's sugar and other parts of Asia providing more/all of Japan's rice.

  • dearieme

    Quite right. The best quick thing the USA - and the EU and Japan - could do for everyone, including their own populations, is scrap their loathsome agricultural policies.

  • Aschkan

    This is just brilliant:
    "Might it be more logical to conceptualize a hub-and-spoke system of food production and distribution, with the hubs in a food system’s naturally fertile hot spots."

    I love how he airs this out like he came up with the idea. Sorry to burst a balloon, but I think it's already been conceptualised a long time ago, it's the reason no one is growing oranges in damn Alaska. Leave it to techocrats to come up with an idea that emulates precisely what has more or less gone on for the entire history of trade.

  • Ari

    Brilliant. I've just subscribed to this blog, and already it's an instant favorite of mine. Anyway, you write that:

    "Postscript: There is one thing the government could do tomorrow to promote even more worldwide agricultural efficiency: Drop subsidies and protections on agriculture. You would immediately get more of this kind of activity, for example with Latin America and the Caribbean supplying more/all of the US's sugar and other parts of Asia providing more/all of Japan's rice."

    True. Interestingly enough, however, the New York Times (along with Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats) often criticizes farm subsidies, but not for the reasons you might think:

    "Increasingly, people are blaming the farm bill, and the longstanding agriculture policy it embodies, for some of the problems afflicting the country: the growth in obesity, the increase in food poisonings, and the disappearance of the family farm. Payments for farmers were started in the 1930s during the Depression to help save family farms; now the program costs billions and benefits about one-third of the nation's farmers."

    http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=F10B13F93E5A0C778CDDAE0894DF404482

    Not a word from the Times about increased efficiency or lower prices for all, by far the most important reason to lift subsidies. No, we should instead get rid of farm subsidies because there are fewer "family farms."

    Typical.

  • http://politicalcalculations.blogspot.com/ Ironman

    Believe it or not, buying local is far more likely to increase the carbon footprint associated with the distribution of food (see this apparently very timely tool!)

  • Reformed Republican

    On its face, the connection between lowering food miles and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is a no-brainer.

    No-brainer means you have to have no brains to buy into this line of bull.

  • bob

    More from NZ (via Kids Prefer Cheese). Talking about 1984, more or less cold turkey, New Zealand cut its farmers loose. No more subsidies.

    According to the NY Times:

    The farming community was devastated — but not for long. Today, agriculture remains the lifeblood of New Zealand’s economy. There are still more sheep and cows here than people, their meat, milk and wool providing the country with its biggest source of export earnings. Most farms are still owned by families, but their incomes have recovered and output has soared.

    “Farming in New Zealand is now a cold, hard business,” said Mr. Lumsden, who at the time of the farming revolution was president of Federated Farmers in the Waikato region, the heart of New Zealand’s dairy country. “I think we have benefited hugely.”

    one particularly perspicacious Kiwi put it this way:

    “When you’re not going to get paid for what the market doesn’t want, you have to get off your backside and find out what they want,” said Charlie Pedersen, who, when he is not raising sheep and beef cattle on his farm north of the capital, Wellington, is president of Federated Farmers of New Zealand.

    Note : The government is currently worried that the dairy farmers are going to make such huge profits next year(due to the rise in milk products prices) that it's going to overheat the economy.

  • http://www.zianet.com/ehusman/weblog/blogger.html Eric H

    So instead of each of us growing our own corn, in whatever quality soil we happen to have around our house, some guy in Iowa grows it for thousands of us, and because he specialized and grows a lot, he invests in equipment and knowledge to do it better every year.

    No, the reason some guy in Iowa (Dwayne Andreas?) grows that much corn is because he is paid to do it by us the taxpayers with You-Know-Who as the middleman, no matter how badly he manages his resources. There is actually something for us classical liberals to agree with here: our food supply is grossly governed by the modern state capitalist system. Rules made in Washington dictate the price and production of milk, corn, sugar, meat, poultry, and most everything else you eat, for the benefit of a few large agribusinesses. There is very little free market left -- ever look at how much various governments (federal, state, and city, not to mention foreign governments) invested in and influenced labor practices to make container shipping succeed? Because that's what makes lots of imported food and clothing possible.

    Of course if the government got out, people would not be growing oranges in Alaska, but neither would you be drinking high fructose corn syrup in just about everything, nor would you be eating quasi-fresh fruit and vegetables 12 months out of the year. California farmers might actually have to pay for their water, benefiting the environment, but increasing the cost of your fruits and vegetables to the point that local produce might be competitive (depending on where you are).

  • http://www.stylegourmet.com/wine Elliot Essman

    The more local we get, the more food variety we lose, and the greater the number of miles we travel to assuage the need for variety.

    Take wine, for example. I can purchase a chunk of Bordeaux in a bottle. If I spurge and go for a $500 bottle, it still costs less, and uses fewer miles, than my flying over to France for a wine tour.

    The international market for food is largely efficient, and would be more so without the impact of the government's visible hand.

  • Anon E. Mouse

    Coyote,

    Speaking of how things are wrapped up in price, I've wondered why the "plug-in hybrids" and electric car proponents haven't ever shown us the effective price of kw-hr vs. gallons of gasoline.

    FWIW, 10 cents per kw-hr equates to $3.63/gallon on a BTU basis. (using 3413 BTU/kw-hr and 124,000 BTU/gallon of gasoline).

    I've noticed that the touted rates for electricity (residential) are in the 6 - 8 cents/kw-hr ballpark. I used 10 cents based on my own bill -- there's two charges, one for electrons, the other for "distribution." The electrons are around 7.2 cents/kw-hr, the distribution is around 2.2 cents/kw-hr. That's close enough to 10 for a quick calc. Of course, you don't pay a seperate fee for the gasoline's transportation, it is already in the price.

    According to the API, the national average gasoline tax is $0.458/gallon, so if you're paying $3/gallon where you live, you're really only paying $2.55 for the energy (which is 7 cents/kw-hr).

    Interestingly, the cost for the electricity (not including distribution to my house) is awfully close to the cost for gasoline. Does this makes sense? The coal/oil/NG gets transported to the power plant the same as the gasoline gets transported to the filling station....and the retail mark-up of gasoline is pretty small percentage-wise. hmmmm. I wonder if the rest is almost all losses (I^2*R plus capital costs) for the wires.

    Bottom line:
    If you compare apples to apples (the same damn Prius w/ plug-in vs. w/o plug-in), running on gasoline is better for the environment (specifically, consumes less energy) than running on electricity charged from the grid.

    You are paying less per BTU (and therefore, less per mile traveled) using gasoline only; conversely, it is more efficient to burn the gasoline at your car than it is to burn (coal/oil/NG, etc.) at the power plant, then push the electrons through wires and into your car. By a lot.

  • markm

    Perhaps with "buy locally", the greenies are preparing for the collapse of civilation, which their policies will cause, and the resulting complete disappearance from the urban markets of New Zealand lamb, Argentine beef, Idaho potatoes, etc. What they don't realize is that if they get what they want, they won't be buying food from those "local" farmers, either:

    #1, if the gasoline deliveries stop, 50 miles or so to the farm won't be "local" anymore. That's a couple of days each way by horse-drawn wagon, but since there aren't enough horses anymore, it'll be a whole lot longer for most people.

    #2, the farmers won't have gasoline to plow their fields, run their harvesters, and take their crops to market, either. (I've got some Amish friends that wouldn't be terribly inconvenienced, but the five miles over to their farm would be an all-day trip on foot.)

    #3, Except for the Amish, farmers buy cheap food from around the world rather than trying to make a diet out of the one or two crops most of them specialize in. If they can't do that anymore, they will no longer be interested in trading their crops for pieces of printed paper from suburbanites. (Assuming the suburbanites got those pieces of paper from the ATM while it was still working...) They'll keep their food for their families, and only trade for different varieties of food, seed, and other necessities. A carton of toilet paper will be more valuable than a carton of money.

    #4, if those suburbanites get to thinking they might take what they need, who's got the guns?

    So, for their own protection, we've got to stop these "green" soccer moms, etc., from getting the economically disastrous policies they're asking for...

  • http://navitips.blogspot.com Miklos Hollender

    Good point, mate, but I'd put more emphasis in why does it happen this way. The thing is, the economy is composed of processes that have an efficiency less than 100%. It means we put a bunch of energy in but it won't be all used for generating output. That part of it which is not used for generating output is released as heat, light, chemicals etc. Every kind of waste is a sign of the inefficiency of the process. We use part of the input the produce the desired output and part of it to produce the undesired byproducts such as CO2. The input costs money. Therefore every pound of CO2 produced means dollars wasted, because it's inefficient use of the inputs. Not only we don't like the CO2 released into the athmosphere, we are spending good money on producing it. It not just happens to be produced - we could quantify how painfully much dollars worth of fuel we use for nothing useful but producing CO2 every time we drive somewhere. Therefore reducing waste means saving inputs or generating more outputs. Which means the price system usually does a good job of finding the least wasteful means of production.

  • Tore Fossum

    Regarding the equivalency of powering a car from the electric grid versus from gasoline: electric power conversion is about 90% efficient in converting electric energy into motive power. Relatively little is lost as heat. Gasoline piston engines convert about 30 to 35 % of the energy content of gasoline into motive power. The rest is lost as heat. So the electric car wins by a factor of 2 or more.

    However, before the electricists declare victory, w must also calculate the energy resources needed to create the batteries.

  • http://www.worldvacation.org/ Sue

    Thanks for sharing your story of your trip! Love the photos too!

  • ben

    Does anyone even know what this crap means? You gotta love technocratic statists -- they just never give up. Every one of them thinks they are smarter than the the sum of billions of individual minds working together of their own free will to create our current world production patterns.

    Absolutely. So blind to their own arrogance. It blows me away that such utter stupidity can persist.

    Great post.

  • http://thegameiam.livejournal.com David B

    It's unfortunate that the idiotarians have picked up on locality as their current bugaboo. There are some nice advantages to getting more things from local producers - resistance to global disruptions, more sensitivity to local tastes, etc.

    I've noticed that tomatoes grown in Pennsylvania often taste better in DC than the ones grown in parts unknown - perhaps its less refrigeration? I don't know, but there does seem to be a quality difference, and I don't mind paying a little more for higher quality.

    Of course, I think this is the market system at work, and thank God everyone's got choices in the matter...

  • Yeti

    Re Gas VS Electric (or whatever) cars - it's not just the cost of gas vs. the kw-hrs. Consider for example who "owns the well". I suspect it's better to produce electricity or H2 or whatever in the US than to send hundreds of billions of $$$ to people that basically want to kill us.

  • Nate

    As another poster said. Gasoline engines are far less efficient than the steam turbines used at your local power plant. You are essentially comparing prices after those somewhat minor efficiency losses at the plant to prices before those efficiency losses in an ICE(internal combustion engine), further enhancing the disparity, or in this case making it seems as if both systems have a similar cost.

    I would also like to point out that 30% is a generous number for an ICE. It may be 30%-35% efficient when run at a constant rpm, but in the modern car with the revs climbing and dropping continually and the amount of energy wasted in braking, efficiencies are rarely more than 20%.

    An electric car which can easily convert 90% of that energy from the power plant into useful motion, and recapture that energy stored in movement with regenerative braking can attain 200+ mpg when looking at only the btu content of the supply fuel(in many cases coal or natural gas).

  • Patrick

    I have been a submarine electrician and spent HOURS on top of station lead acid batteries. anyone that believes there is a chance of using battery / generators / motor setups on cars with NO COST, needs to buy a bridge. buy your hobby car, if you must, but for the love of god, let the free market dictate efficiencies - along with the LAWS of physics. If you don't understand what an electron is, or use emotion to argue facts, stay home and quiet.

  • http://www.myblogspan.com Emily

    This viewpoint is accurate, but only of the media and corporate reactions to food miles. The debate has always been much more nuanced among the academics who developed the food miles concept initially - linking the distance food has travelled to whether it’s in season, how long it has been stored, and the social conditions of those involved in its production, distribution and retail.