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.
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
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.