Food-Miles: Most Moronic Metric Ever?

For some reason, a group of people on this earth have convinced themselves that food-miles, or the distance food had to travel from the farm to the table, is somehow relevant to the environment.   Food-miles is one of the best examples of the very common environmental practice of looking at a single factor out of context of the entire system. I have written about the food-miles stupidity before.

We actually have a name for the system in which food-miles are reduced to their theoretical minimum:  Subsistence farming.  It used to be that most food was grown just a few feet from the table where it was eventually eaten because nearly everyone was a subsistence farmer (or hunter or gatherer).  We abandoned this system, and thereby increased food miles, for a number of reasons:

  • It is very inefficient, not just from labor inputs but from a land use standpoint as well.  Some places are well suited to potato or rice production and others are less so.  It makes a ton of sense to grow things on soils and in climates where they are well-suited rather than locally everywhere. 
  • It doesn't work very well in a lot of areas.  Subsistence farming here in Arizona is not very practical, and would use a ton of water
  • It leads to starvation.  Even rich countries like France were experiencing periodic famines just 150 years ago or so.

But the main reason food miles and local subsistance farming is stupid is that it has nothing to do with environmental health.  Everyone looks at the energy to transport food, but no one looks at the extra energy cost (not to mention the land use cost) of growing food locally in climates and soils to which the food is not well-suited.  To this point:

European consumers shunning imported food supposedly to limit climate
change should not make African farmers a scapegoat, a Brussels
conference has been told.

In Britain, several supermarkets have
begun labelling products flown into the country with stickers marked
"air-freighted," to reflect concern about the contribution of aviation
to global warming.

But Benito Müller, a director at the Oxford
Institute for Energy Studies, dismissed the concept of food miles as
"an extremely oversimplified indicator" of ecological impact.

Saying
he was "really angry" with the implicit message that agricultural
produce from Africa should be avoided, Müller claimed that less
greenhouse gas emissions are often emitted from the cultivation and
transport of such goods than they would be if grown in Europe.

Strawberries
imported from Kenya during the winter, he maintained, have a lower
"carbon footprint," a measure to ascertain the effect of a method of
production on the environment "” than those grown in a heated British
greenhouse, even when their transport by air from Africa is taken into
account.

  • Frederick Davies

    Sounds to me like another ploy by rich-country farmers to get a subsidy the round-about way; rather like the ethanol fuel BS.

  • Bearster

    Once again, my question is: is the problem with the anti-concept of "food-miles" that it doesn't lead to saving carbon? Or that saving carbon is a non-goal of no value to attain?

  • Ian Lippert

    Read the link to the previous post on food-miles. When taking other factors into account local food production produces more carbon output than food grown overseas.

  • kebko

    It seems to me like this could be a marketing idea for the benefit of the grocers. I've noticed on canned vegetables here, the generic labels have pictures that make the vegetables look stale & of poor quality. I realized that this was causing me to consider more expensive vegetables. Then, I wondered, even if you had stale vegetables, why would you put a picture of stale vegies on the can? It's because they want to have the cheap item there to capture price sensitive customers, but then, at the point of purchase, they really want to convince you to buy the higher priced items.

    This seems like a similar thing. The "air freighted" stickers are on the imported produce precisely because it is cheaper (and likely more carbon friendly), so the sticker is likely intended to guilt customers into buying higher priced alternatives with fatter margins.

  • MJ

    When protectionism meets green...

  • http://highwayx.wordpress.com Highway

    Like protectionism has ever been worried about any negative effects from glomming on to the latest scary thing. Jobs, immigration, crime, now global warming and 'fair trade' are all fair game for the causes of protectionism, rent-seeking, and subsidy groveling to hook their cart to.

  • BobH

    The real environmental benefit appears to be in keeping Africans poor.

  • Lenny

    I wonder if it's even simpler than all the arguments presented here; i.e. the item with the least energy content will have the lowest cost. That is unless the market is artificially manipulated in some way by subsidies, regulation, price floors & ceilings, etc.
    But I suspect that even with the existing manipulations this relationship generally holds true today with certain exceptions (e.g. milk).

  • Marcus

    Personally, I love having available to choose produce from all over the world. Yet, as long as these people aren't advocating legislation then frankly, what they eat is none of my business.

    On top of that, you seem to be making strawmen of their positions. As I understand it, the food-miles concept is only a part of larger 'sustainability' framework. It seems to be you that is picking concept out of context.

    For example, you bring up the relative cost of growing and shipping strawberries in or to the U.K. out of season. Yet, I doubt if the 'sustainability' movement would advocate eating strawberries out of season.

    There are no doubt many inefficiencies created by such a movement and as someone else pointed out, price is our guide to measuring the energy efficiency assuming the government hasn't distorted the market. So, imo, your arguments would be stronger if you argued against their ACTUAL positions.

  • morganovich

    people like black and white situations.

    they want clear choices free from ambiguity.

    food miles is just another "feel good" gross simplification. and it is a much better claim for local farmers desiring protection from more efficient foreign competition to make than "foreign stuff is too cheap, we need protectionism".

    there is already an excellent mechanism to measure the inputs required and therefore the efficiency of growing food in various places and shipping it to you. it's called PRICE. if they can ship you african strawberries more cheaply that you can grow them at home, that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about whether you ought to be growing them (assuming they are otherwise indistinguishable).

    food miles are just the co2 of farming. a drastic oversimplification with which to justify an unrelated policy choice.

  • morganovich

    there are some good reasons to eat local food.

    food that is shipped long distances tends to be picked before it is ripe and allowed to ripen in transit. this has significant impacts on flavor and nutrient content.

    if you doubt this, try a comparison test between a tomato from a local farm stand and a large supermarket chain this summer. see if you can taste the difference.

    if the local food tastes better/is better for you, eat it.

    but a florida orange is very likely to taste better than a new hampshire orange, so it's silly to become inflexibly wedded to the local food idea.

  • Dan

    All this smug talk about why it's OK to eat an orange picked 10,000 miles away is fine, if you believe that world oil supplies are infinite and will always be as cheap as they are now. But if peak oil theory is correct, you'd better enjoy your Argentine blueberries now, because in a few short years, this won't even be a subject for debate. It will simply be impossible to get food from so far away.

  • Marcus

    Dan, if you understood how prices work then you would understand that 'peak oil' is a red-herring. In a free market there can never be a shortage of anything. There will always be a price at which somebody is willing to sell.

    As to supply, as prices rise, reserves of oil which are currently uneconomical to extract become economical. There is no end to this process.

    As long as prices are free to do the signaling they do without government interference, people will always be using the Earth's resources as efficiently as possible.

  • Dan

    Marcus,

    I've heard that theory and it's definitely true about things like gold and wheat, but I don't think it applies to oil.

    Our entire economy runs on the stuff. Without oil, there's nothing else. And oil production is going down around the world despite new extraction technology and high prices.

    With prices at $100, don't you think a country like Saudi Arabia would be pumping all it can, and using whatever technology they can to get it out to the market? Indeed, they are, but despite that, and despite technical innovations, their production is falling year over year. Around the world, oil discoveries peaked in the 1960s and have never rebounded, despite all the new technology we've thrown at it. U.S. oil productiojn is down 50% from 1970, and not all of that is due to environmental restrictions on drilling. The fields have simply run out.

    I don't believe the "free market" solves all problems, particularly this one. We'd all be wise not to be so sanguine.

  • morganovich

    dan-

    the fields have not run out. trust me. i used to be an analyst at a natural resources based hedge fund. it's under-investment. no exploration was going on for a significant period. fields in russia were (and are) considered "depleted" at 50% depletion by western standards. there is plenty of oil. and investment in exploration and extraction is heading up significantly. but there is a time lag for it to work. you can't just slap together a deep sea drilling rig. but believe me, at $100 a barrel, people are making the investments. you are correct to point out that in the near term oil demand is inelastic. small undersupply results in large price increases. but medium term, demand is VERY elastic. people buy cars with better mileage, plastics with lower petroleum content, electrical gen moves to coal or nuclear, invest in producing more oil, look at technologies like tar sands extraction (canadian tar sands have as much oil as saudi ever did) and coal gassification. all this is driven by price. at $20/bbl no one bothers to look at alternatives. at $100, lots of people do. investment in alternative energy is at an all time high. oil cannot "run out". it can just become less attractive as an option and will be slowly replaced. oil production can peak, but this is not it. this is just a lull while the market catches up that has been exacerbated by reduced production in iraq and can no longer be made up by the saudis running at production rates that allow for now downtime for equipment servicing.

    another factor you need to realize is a good sized portion of the hike in oil prices (and many commodities) is an artifact of their being dollar denominated. since 2001, the euro has gone from 86 cents to 1.40. that's about a 50% rise. to if oil were $50, it would move to $75 just based on that. but if you were buying it in euros, you would not notice any difference. so keep that in mind as well. this same thing applies to many commodities. many of the "unprecedented" moves in commodities look a lot less massive if you buy them in euros or sterling.

  • Dan

    Morganovich,

    I think you make some good points, especially about the weak dollar making the price rise more dramatic. Definitely true.

    But from all I've read, fields can "run out." Not meaning that they literally have no oil left - just none that is worth recovering because eventually pumping the oil from below takes more energy than the oil will give once it's pumped.

    I hope that the high current prices can drive new technology that enhances the ability to go after that additional oil. But my reading suggests that it takes a lot more energy to harness usable oil from oil sands and shale than it does to get it the traditional way. Not sure mass production of oil from such resources will ever be truly cost effective.

  • dearieme

    It's time to start referring to the Greens as the Moronosphere.

  • morganovich

    dan-

    fields can certainly run out. but they haven't. good 3d seismic and jointed horizontal drill have not even been used in most of the world. there is still plenty of oil. but the infrastructure to get it out of the ground needs to catch up a bit.

    certainly, oil from tar sands is much more difficult. but at a certain price for oil, it makes sense. you are also assuming that there are no new technological innovations making it easier to access the resource. engineered bacteria, nanotech detergents, etc all may be possible. time will tell on that one. but a great deal more headway is being made that was previously because the high price of oil has made it look economically viable to do it.

    energy companies tend to assume price spikes are transitory. it takes a couple of years for them to really get on board and make investments.

    and there has been a nasty supply shock from iraq, horrid mismanagement of russian and former soviet fields, venezuelan underinvestment as chavez tries to milk the local industry to pay for his social schemes etc. and all this is in a time of massive growth in the former second/third world. so it's been a bit of a perfect storm, but oil production has not peaked.

    there is plenty of supply. the new field off south america alone will add reserves approximating saudi. but it's deep sea, so access is going to take a few years. if we open up alaska, there is enormous oil as well. and the opening moves in the weird land claim derby for the arctic floor mineral rights are just taking place.

    claims of "peak oil" are just sensationalists trying to sell books and newspapers.

    and long before we ever run out of oil, the cost of alternative energy will drop to a level where it is competitive with fossil fuels in terms of $/kwh. consider tidal, wave, geotherm, solar, wind, nuclear (already there but simplified reactors like pebble bed are interesting), fusion would obviously be a massive game changer but i am not aware of any near term prospects.

    notions of impending energy scarcity are just not realistic. there is so much energy in our ecosystem that it utterly dwarfs any foreseeable need. it's just a question of getting at it. the incentives are so great, that i would not worry about a way not being found.

  • Dan

    Thanks, again, Morganovich, for the thoughtful post.

    I still think you're overly optimistic about the potential of the alternative energies you mention. From my reading, none of these will ever give us the same level of power that fossil fuels do, simply because fossil fuels are a unique resource - they represent the combined energy of millions of years of sunlight. No alternative like wind or waves has that kind of potency. Seems to me that if those resources were actually worth using, we'd already be incorporating them far more widely instead of spending trillions on defense to protect our oil imports from the Middle East.

    Instead, alternative energy still makes up a trivial amount of our energy use in the U.S., and even the most optimistic prognosticators don't think alternatives can provide much more than 10% of our energy even with a concerted, expensive effort to develop them further (not including nuclear - which is itself quite dependent on fossil fuel input for development and upkeep).

  • morganovich

    dan-

    the issue with alt energy is not that there is not enough of it. there is so much energy in the ecosystem that running out is inconceivable until the sun goes out (then we are in serious trouble). a 300 square mile buoy field can generate enough wave based electrical power to run california. trials are now underway at several elec gen cos in the pac NW and europe (notably iberdrola). is it a decade from being real? yes. but in 20 years, we'll be all over it. same goes for solar. when cells get cheap enough, they will spread all over the place. if we can crack the storage problem, then we are really in business. good reusable batteries or huge magnetic bearing hung flywheels or whatever will make a massive difference. the current problem with electricity is storing large amounts of it is impossible. but there is enough power in a lightning bolt to run new york for weeks. if we could only capture and store it.

    technology in energy production has changed dramatically and will continue to do so. if you had told a frenchman in 1920 that his nation, in 55 years, would get virtually all it's electricity from splitting atoms, he would likely think you were mad. no one predicted that then. there is abundant energy. a way will always be found to get at it.

    the issue is not that non-fossil resources are not worth using. it's that they have been (and mostly are) more expensive than fossil fuels. but their prices per kwh are starting to drop rapidly. once they reach parity or near parity likely (10-20 years) i suspect our middle east policy will change dramatically. THAT is what will cause peak oil. it's not going to peak because of supply. it will peak when cheap alternatives begin to take significant market share, as drilling for oil is difficult, expensive, and uncertain relative to manufacturing photovoltaic thin films.

    alt energy will gain share every year from now on. at some point, there will be a major breakthrough in cost/kwh and adoption will jump as a step function. there is a reason that all the big oil cos are investing heavily in alt techs right now. they see this coming and would like to still be in business in 30 years.

  • kebko

    Hello morganovich,

    How much of the lag in fossil fuel investment do you think is a result of the global warming chatter? There is a lot of talk about windfall taxes on the oil companies, carbon taxes on fossil fuels, etc. I have to think the oil companies are factoring that into their investment costs. Their expected return on investment would need to be higher before they would be willing to drill, and it has the extra problem of being completely unpredictable. I'm not sure how I'd make investment decisions if I was in an industry where the politicians were talking about taking all the upside away from me. In fact, it seems like a great market mechanism, in that oil production would be decreased before a tax was ever implemented, simply due to the speculation about carbon taxes. But, the problem is, with politics there is too much uncertainty, so that the alt. fuel investments that would otherwise come into play are also frozen because oil will be back at $40/barrel if the political winds change, and their fancy alt. fuel that sells at an equivalent of $60 will be worthless if the oil companies manage to fend off the politicians.

    To what extent do you think that kind of issue is at play?

  • Dan

    Morganovich,

    You sound like you've given the subject a lot of thought, and I respect that. But what your arguments really boil down to is this: "Someone smart will think of something." That doesn't comfort me much. Your reading of history, based on the example you provided, is that things always get better - that some invention always occurs to move society forward. But that's really not the case. The dark ages lasted almost 1,000 years after the collapse of Rome, at least in most of Europe - proof that progress isn't always a given. Are you saying we're immune from another such period?

    Most of the alternative forms of energy you mention: wind, nuclear, etc. - take vast amounts of fossil fuels to set up and maintain - and even you admit that fossil fuel supplies aren't unlimited. Society as it is set up now is utterly dependent on a vast chain of pipelines, ships, refineries and power plants devoted solely to the burning of fossil fuels. Do you have any idea how much it would cost to completely change this system to something new so that an alternative energy -whatever it may end up being - becomes our main source of power and heat instead of oil and natural gas?

    I wish I could be as optimistic as you. And I hope you're right and I'm wrong.

  • morganovich

    keb-

    i don't think that global warming has been an issue in exploration. they would just pass a tax on to customers. the issue is that the oilcos were coming out of a period of low profits and wanted to fatten balance sheets. it's a cyclical biz and they are all looking to survive an inevitable future downturn. so first, you replenish the nest egg, then you invest. but then they all invest at once. and there is only so much capacity to build deep sea rigs. there are only so many trained 3d seismic teams. only so many drill rigs etc. and that number dropped as capacity exited during the downturn. it takes some time to adjust. further, political instability has made a number of the easier new developments inaccessible. and finally, oilcos are making large investments in alt energy. this is competing with exploration for resources.

    this leads me into a response to dan.

    dan-

    it's not "someone smart will think of something". it's price curves will cross. THAT is inevitable.

    oil/coal/ng will go up in price if they are really running out. alt energy keeps getting cheaper. at a certain point, this trend causes the lines to cross and non fossil sources become cheaper than fossil sources. given finite fossil reserves, this is absolutely inevitable. there is plenty of other power to harvest. and we will only get better at it. your parallel in the dark ages would only be relevant if there were a massive breakdown in governance, rule of law, and society around the globe. if that happens, obviously all bets are off. but it's not a scenario that looks likely to me at the moment.

    so we are back to the inevitable crossing of the price curves in other energy and fossil energy. nuclear tech is already there. if oil gets expensive enough, people's resistance to building nuke plants will drop. there's a price that will buy them. there always is. and the newer pebble bed reactors are much safer and more efficient than closed vessel. substitution will occur at a certain price. it is an immutable law of economics. at some price, the NIMBY's cave in. there is plenty of power there in wind and waves and sun. these sources vastly exceed fossil fuels. we just need to harvest them. and at a price, we will. investment in non FF energy sources is skyrocketing. something will come of it, even if it's just incremental improvement. price will drop. supply will rise. could they take over tomorrow? no. but in 30 years? perhaps. they will take over in response to FF price.

    i don't understand your point about such sources needing massive fossil fuel inputs. once a nuke plant is built, there you go. it needs NO more fossil fuel. the expected electrical production of such a facility dwarfs inputs by orders of magnitude. wave, wind, solar, same thing. we simply cannot run out of fossil fuels before these things are built. price moves will prevent it. long before we ran out of FF, price would be high enough to spur massive investment in something else. and once "something else" is cheaper than FF, then who really cares what they do. we won;t be adding any at the margin. why build a coal plant if "something else" is cheaper?

    the cost of a new system will be borne gladly over time. if such investment is profitable, people will clamber to do it. more would be going on right now save for horrid nimbyism preventing new capacity from being added. al electrical problem in the US will come not from resource scarcity but from our beloved government (particularly in california, where i live) making it incredibly difficult to build new power generation facilities. in the near term, THAT is a much more worrying issue.

    you seem to be worries that either oil will suddenly run out and we will be left with no energy for a time or that there is not enough other energy in the ecosystem.

    i don't think either are true.

  • Dan

    Not to keep this going on forever, but just one quick point:

    You say once the plants are built, there's no need for fossil fuel. But take the example of a nuclear plant. It runs on uranium. How do we mine for uranium and transport it to the nuke plant? With copious amounts of fossil fuel. I don't see that going away.

  • Dan

    Also -

    I definitely see the same NIMBY problem - take the example of people in Florida refusing to allow drilling 100 miles off their coast despite the fact that their entire tourism industry is utterly dependent on cheap oil.

    But you're talking about (at least it sounds like) massive construction of nuclear plants. Not to be snide, but I somehow doubt you'd want one going up near your house, nor would I want one near mine. And I assume you wouldn't want the waste from these plants stored in your neighborhood, either.

    The fact that you and I are both chatting on this blog indicates (probably) that neither of us will have to personally worry about a nuke plant going up across the street. But I think you have to take into account all those other people (the ones who are less well off than us) who will.

  • morganovich

    dan-

    take a look at pebble bed reactors. it's a new type of nuclear reactor. it cannot go critical. and it's much cheaper to build. if you actually look at the nuclear safety record, it's pretty damn good. i grew up in connecticut. we used to swim in the connecticut river just down from the millstone plant. we liked it because the water was warmer. i never heard of any ill effects suffered by anyone from living near millstone. it was a good neighborhood. no one worried about the nuke plant. nuclear power has a much worse rep than it deserves. i'd much rather live next to a nuclear plant than a coal one. especially as pebble bed reactor. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pebble_bed_reactor

    they had some early issues, but some real headway is being made in china. they produce very high level nuclear waste, but that's what rail guns are for... :-0 (point at sun and bye-bye)

    and there are lots of other techs as well. and wind, solar, wave, geotherm don't even need inputs to be collected.

    solar and wave will undoubtedly be big contributors in 30 years.

    i see what you are saying about mining uranium, but the energy required to do that is minuscule relative to the power of the fuel. and just because it is mostly done with fossil fuels now does not mean it always need be. compressed air drills can be run electrically. so can heavy equipment. if it's cheaper, people will switch. hell, if they get the switchgrass thing figured out so it's actually a net producer of energy, they could run the mining equipment on ethanol.