I had a discussion with a locavore-type person in Boulder, Colorado last week at their farmers market. He told me that while his costs to grow his produce were higher than the stuff I might find in Safeway, his products were more sustainable.
I asked him how that could be. I observed that in a well functioning market, the costs of his inputs should reflect their relative scarcity and the scarcity of the resources that went into them. Over time, particularly in a commodity market, prices were a sort of amazing scarcity integral. If his costs were higher, that should mean he is using more or scarcer resources. Isn't that the opposite of sustainability?
In fact, prices are such an amazing, almost magical, gauge of an item's resource intensity that it should tell us something that folks who purport to care about sustainability tend to have a disdain and distrust for markets and prices. Sure, I understand certain externalities (CO2, for example, if you accept it as one) are not necessarily priced in, but the mistrust of prices seems to go beyond this.
In this particular case, his argument was the food was local and so used a lot less resources in transportation, and organic, so used less fertilizer and other chemicals. But this is simply tipping the scales, trying to apply new weights and priorities to certain inputs that simply don't obtain in the real world. The locavore focus on transportation costs is amazing, as it focuses on just one narrow cost and energy input for food, ignoring the energy of production and the energy to deliver other inputs to the local farm. Take our situation in Phoenix -- sure, a local farmer used less energy to truck the finished food to market, but how much energy and other resources were used to move the water to grow it hundreds of miles to our desert here? Or what about land use -- organic local farming may save trucking and chemicals, but what if the yields per acre are a third of what one might get on the best soils in a another part of the country? Prices take into account the scarcity of not just tranportation fuel but land and labor as well. Sustainability advocates often want to put their thumb on the scales and overweight just one resource. That is why, for example, in the name of CO2 reduction we are clearing tons of virgin land, including land in the Amazon, to farm biofuel products.